'We are not in the business of warning people. We are just scientists'

January 7, 2005

Computational physicist John Rundle helped produce a map of likely earthquake hotspots

It would be easy for John Rundle to say that he forecast the Boxing Day earthquake off the coast of Sumatra that caused the deadly Indian Ocean tsunamis.

After all, as a computational physicist at the University of California, Davis, Professor Rundle has helped to produce a map forecasting likely earthquake hotspots between 2000 and 2010.

On the map, at the northwestern tip of the Indonesian archipelago sits Sumatra, ominously covered by a reddish orange blob that indicates the likelihood of a major earthquake.

Strings of earthquake hotspots criss-cross the world, and scientists are developing processes that, within a decade, could allow earthquake forecasting to become as accurate as weather forecasting.

This involves not only eliminating false alarms, but also narrowing the time frames within which quakes are likely to occur. And this is fiendishly complicated.

"The history of earthquake forecasting is chequered. What we are trying to do is refine this process," Professor Rundle said.

He has found a way to model changes in the frequency with which small earthquakes occur that indicate that larger quakes are on their way.

There was a change in frequency in the years leading up to the massive December 26 earthquake, which prompts the question: should he or could he have issued a warning?

"You can always say 'what if' and 'if only'," Professor Rundle said. "But at this stage, we are not in the business of warning people. We are just scientists doing papers, not public-policy experts."

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