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Earthquake triggering, and why we don’t know where the next big one will strike

Cross posted from Scientific American’s blog. By Christie Rowe

As I came through airport security in Connecticut, upon presentation of my California driver’s license, the TSA officer asked me, “Aren’t you folks worried about how that big Japan quake is going to hit you next?” I was glad to be able to tell him that we’re not any more worried than we were before, and that a writer had just made that up. I didn’t ask him where he got that idea, but on my mind already was Simon Winchester’s column in Newsweek magazine on March 13. The article was wrong, and that fact has gotten a lot of traction in the blogosphere—and in real newspapers, if a distinction still exists.


The Newsweek article argues that the relatively small but very damaging Christchurch, New Zealand earthquake of February 22, 2011, the very large Chilean earthquake of Feburary 27, 2010 and the recent great earthquake in Japan constitute “triggering events” around the Pacific Plate, stating, “That leaves just one corner unaffected—the northeast. And the fault line in the northeast of the Pacific Plate is the San Andreas Fault, underpinning the city of San Francisco.” After this geographical error, Mr. Winchester states that the stresses around the San Andreas have built to “barely tolerable levels” and that a triggering event is required to set off a great quake.

Mr. Winchester, a well-known author of several popular science books on geological topics, is much better versed in the history of geological events, and much of the science around them, than most people. However, his piece in Newsweek contains wrong information, baseless predictions and an ominous tone that is more fear-mongering than warning. We had a bit of correspondence about my objections, which wonks can read on my Facebook page. In that correspondence and a follow-up column in the Daily Beast, Mr. Winchester defends his earthquake prediction and implies that earthquake scientists are either hiding something or just plain stupid for not sharing his views.

I’m not saying Mr. Winchester is wrong about the great risk to San Francisco from the San Andreas Fault, on the contrary; I fully agree. And I appreciate the intention to grab the moment after the tragedy in Japan to point out the risks while public and media are showing so much interest in earthquakes. However, some of Mr. Winchester’s “facts” are wrong, and logic is deeply flawed.

Read the rest of this entry at Scientific American.

Figure courtesy of Chuck Ammon.


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