Can earthquakes be predicted? UAE-based expert seismologist weighs in

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The unpredictable, and often chaotic, nature of earthquakes makes it challenging to develop a reliable earthquake early warning system.

Expecting and preparing for an earthquake can be tricky due to the unpredictable and complex nature of the phenomenon. Currently, there is no available technology that can accurately and consistently predict exactly when and where an earthquake will strike.

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Planet Earth’s crust is composed of many interconnected tectonic plates that are constantly moving and interacting with each other, causing earthquakes.

Although scientists have been able to identify certain patterns and behaviors over the years that may indicate an impending quake, such as changes in seismic activity, the underground movement of magma, and the buildup of stress in the Earth’s crust, none of these factors provide a clear and reliable prediction.

The models developed by scientists to understand the behavior of earthquakes are limited by the quality and quantity of data available, as well as the complexity of the Earth’s systems.

Mitigation strategies such as the seismic building code, awareness and the earthquake early warning system would have a significant impact on society because it would give people and communities sufficient time to evacuate and prepare, reducing the number of casualties and minimizing damage to property and critical infrastructure.

However, the world is not there yet, and we have seen the direct devastation that the lack of such crucial information can cause after the 7.4-magnitude earthquake struck Turkey and Syria on Monday, reverberating across the Mediterranean region, with shocks being felt in Lebanon, Israel, Egypt, Jordan and Cyprus.

In Turkey alone, according to the latest estimates, at least 1,014 people have died and hundreds others injured.

A building collapsed in a neighborhood in Syria’s northern city of Aleppo early Sunday, killing at least 10 people, including one child. (Twitter)
A building collapsed in a neighborhood in Syria’s northern city of Aleppo early Sunday, killing at least 10 people, including one child. (Twitter)

What happened in Turkey “is not uncommon,” according to Khalifa al-Abri, Director of the Department of Seismology at the UAE’s National Center of Meteorology.

“Since 1970, there were three earthquakes with a magnitude greater than 6.0 in the region, with the largest being 6.7. Now we see [today’s quake] at 7.4 magnitude. So you can expect a larger magnitude or it might not happen at all because usually this energy is released already during the time [of the earthquake] so it’s difficult to predict when the earthquake may happen,” he told Al Arabiya English in an interview on Monday.

Al-Abri stated that while there may be individuals who claim to predict earthquakes, there is currently no scientific basis for such predictions. The UAE-based seismologist mentioned that they have seen instances where someone proclaimed to predict an earthquake, but it did not occur within the timeframe specified, adding that as of now, there are no reliable tools that can accurately predict earthquakes.

A Dutch researcher predicted the earthquake would happen three days before. In a tweet on Monday, the Netherlands-based researcher at the Solar System Geometry Survey (SSGEOS) Frank Hoogerbeets stated: “Sooner or later there will be a ~M 7.5 #earthquake in this region (South-Central Turkey, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon).”

Although he predicted it would happen, he did not specify the exact date or time it would take place.

How to stay safe during an earthquake

While earthquake prediction remains a thing of the future, al-Abri said that being aware of the necessary precautions that should be taken in the event that such a natural disaster should strike was the first step to guaranteeing safety.

“We should be prepared... We need to prioritize our home, identify the safest and high-risk areas in the house, and keep hazardous materials away from children by placing them away, but not on top of a shelf so that it does not fall down if an earthquake happens,” al-Abri explained.

“Also, make sure that children are aware of the required emergency response so that if they feel the earthquake coming or after the event happens in the area, they know that they need to drop, cover and hold. This could be done under a heavy table or sofa or they can sit in the corner of the room on their own.”

Drop, cover and hold are the main precautions which have been communicated to people over the years. The reason being is that people should drop down onto their hands and knees before the earthquake knocks them down, cover their head and neck or entire body if possible underneath a sturdy table or desk and hold on to their shelter or to their head and neck until the shaking stops, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states.

“People should be aware of these precautions whether they’re staying at home or are at work, they need to know the exit and assembly points for emergencies,” he added.

Earthquake high-risk areas

The Ring of Fire is a significant geological feature that encompasses the Pacific Ocean basin. It is characterized by a series of volcanic and seismic hotspots that run along the rim of the ocean, which includes island nations such as Japan, Indonesia and the Americas.

This area is of great significance as it experiences a majority of the earthquakes that occur globally, with an estimated 90 percent taking place within its boundaries.

Additionally, the Ring of Fire is home to a large number of active volcanoes, with approximately 75 percent of the world's active volcanic sites located along its path. The Ring of Fire is an important area of study for geologists and seismologists due to its high levels of tectonic and volcanic activity.

Also along the Ring of Fire is the Alpide belt which extends from the Mediterranean region, eastward through Turkey, Iran, and northern India, al-Abri explained.

Read more:

Another 7.5-magnitude earthquake hits southeast Turkey, felt in Lebanon

Major earthquake in Turkey kills at least 1,014, over 5,000 injured

Top 5 most devastating earthquakes: From Sichuan to Haiti, latest in Turkey and Syria

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