Chinese move ahead on earthquake prediction

by Oyang Teng

One of the revelations of last week's American Geophysical Union Conference in San Francisco, was the urgency with which China has moved to expand its capabilities in the field of earthquake forecasting, through a network of ground- and space-based sensors for the detection of precursor signals emanating from fault zones.

Some scientists have been studying how measurable precursory signals, including electromagnetic perturbations in the atmosphere and ionosphere, can be used to develop short-term estimates of both the magnitude and location of impending quakes, contrary to the prevailing dogma of traditional seismology. While in San Francisco for the conference, I had the chance to talk to a number of these scientists, almost all of whom are working with little or no support from their respective governments.

China has had an active program for monitoring earthquake precursors for at least two decades, but little was known about such research outside of the country. That's beginning to change, as exchanges between Chinese and international scientists have intensified in recent years.

During a December 6 panel at the AGU conference on “Monitoring of Mega Earthquake Disasters by Integrating Multi-Parameter and Multi-Sensory Observation from Ground and Space,” Xuemin Zhang of the Beijing-based Institute of Earthquake Science reported on China's planned expansion of earthquake precursor monitoring in the years ahead.

While an integrated monitoring system for data from ground-based instruments and foreign satellites was put into operation following the devastating 2008 Wenchuan earthquake, the country's first dedicated earthquake-monitoring satellite, Zhangheng-1, is slated for launch in 2014. Named after the ancient Chinese scientist who invented the world's first seismograph, its main focus will be measuring various physical parameters of the ionosphere, which is known to be sensitive to the processes underlying earthquake preparation. This will be complemented by dozens of new ground-based ionosounding stations to be built over the next five years, and the launch of two more satellites in 2017.

Dimitar Ouzounov, a U.S.-based geophysicist and one of the leaders in earthquake precursor research, says that China's program may be one of the only games in town for the next five years. With the expiration of France's DEMETER (Detection of Electro-Magnetic Emissions Transmitted from Earthquake Regions) in March, and the difficulties in obtaining funding in Europe, Japan and the United Statess—not to mention the outright sabotage of new satellite programs under the Obama Administration—scientists in the field are hoping for close collaboration with their Chinese counterparts.

“They're doing this because they realize that the technology today is affordable, and the science is ready, and needs to be applied,” says Ouzounov, who chaired the AGU session on mega-quake monitoring. “Why China? Because they have the economic potential to put about $100 million into this project. But also because they're not afraid to test new ideas, new methodologies.”

When did we become afraid of new ideas in the U.S.?

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