What if an earthquake’s time, location, and magnitude could be known days before it struck? That’s the promise of precursor SPC, a Washington-based company which, according to its chief executive officer, Clive Cook, is “on-track to deploy earthquake forecasting technology both in California and internationally” and is “in the process of closing multiple initiatives.”
According to Dr. Friedemann Freund, co-founder, shareholder, and precursor SPC’s former chief scientist, precursors – advance warning signs of quakes – can be revealed by changes in the electrical charge of the ground and air around the area a seismic event will strike. Freund claims that these electromagnetic precursory signals, if accurately measured with ground-based and orbiting satellite sensors, and discriminated from background noise, can indicate that an earthquake is imminent, days before it occurs.
In a December 12, 2016 TEDx YouTube video, “Using Semiconductor Physics to Forecast Earthquakes,” Freund describes the process of measuring precursory signals to forecast earthquakes. According to Freund, who has worked with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, SETI Institute, and San Jose State University, applying pressure to one end of a granite block will generate a positively-charged electric field on the other end. Freund asserts that such lab-based experiments mimic what occurs along fault lines, where grinding tectonic plates buildup pressure before rupturing. Under compression, the earth behaves like a semiconductor, transmitting electrical charge. Detect the anomalies in these charges, as well as other precursory signals, including ultra-low frequency emissions and soil conductivity changes, crunch the numbers through powerful computers using algorithms, and earthquakes can be forecast.
“We now know that when rocks are being stressed…electricity is produced, and we are relying on detecting the consequences of this electric generation process,” Freund states in “Geocosmo Global Earthquake Forecasting System,” an August 10, 2016 YouTube video. “This electricity is propagating through the earth’s crust [such] that when the electronic charges arrive at the surface of the Earth they produce a number of processes, secondary processes…in bodies of water, in the lower atmosphere, in the upper atmosphere, even up in the ionosphere 100 miles above us. All these different signals can be recognized and measured. What was lacking until now was a comprehensive understanding of how these different precursory signals belong to each other and how they are linked to each other.”
“From my perspective, from a physics perspective, I find it incomprehensible that a process that releases so much energy in the moment of rupture will not express itself in some recognizable way before the rupture occurs,” Freund states, referencing the 9.0 magnitude 2011 Fukushima Earthquake and tsunami in Japan.
The United States Geological Survey (USGS) does not endorse methods to forecast earthquakes. “Neither the USGS nor any other scientists have ever predicted a major earthquake. We do not know how, and we do not expect to know how any time in the foreseeable future,” states the USGS website.
USGS and most seismologists rely on probabilistic determinations of an earthquake occurring in a given region over a certain time period. They cannot say with precision when a temblor may strike, only that a quake of a given magnitude is likely within a certain time period – 30 years, 100 years – based upon analysis of tectonic plate movement, past quakes, and geological studies. These earthquake probability models determine insurance rates, building codes, and a host of emergency response plans.
Earthquake forecasting is particularly controversial given its historical association with astrology and numerous failed prognostications. But emergent technologies may make foretelling earthquakes as routine as predicting the weather. Precursor SPC believes that seismic risk assessments based on contemporary electromagnetic precursors will ultimately replace the historical seismicity probability analysis used by the insurance industry.
“Precursor is a social purpose commercial company that provides data services –earthquake forecasting services – designed to safeguard…prosperity by forecasting earthquakes days before they occur to ensure that governments and businesses are prepared,” said Malcolm MacGregor. “Unlike current systems that monitor and measure the movement of rock very well, precursor monitors and measures the energy that always builds up days prior to an earthquake.”
“With the introduction of any new capability there is a need to communicate to all stakeholders,” said precursor SPC’s Pierre Rolin. “Earthquake forecasting needs to be thoughtfully communicated to stakeholders to establish preparedness. In the future, perhaps there could be a regular earthquake forecasting report on the news, similar to the weather report on the daily news. At that point, people will be well attuned to earthquake forecasting and be prepared.’
In a blow to quake forecasting, earlier this year, QuakeFinder, developed by aerospace company Stellar Solutions, was suspended after 20 years, $30 million, and hundreds of sensors installed throughout California. According to the Los Angeles Times, the project was unable to accurately discern electromagnetic precursors from background noise.
According to Stellar Solutions website: “Stellar Solutions spent big to see if there are electromagnetic precursors to large earthquakes. And yes, they do exist! Our research attempted to prove that electromagnetic signals…exist in the days prior to earthquakes larger than M4.0 [magnitude 4]. The research efforts involved developing algorithms that could find these small signals from 70 Terabytes of data collected from our national network of sensors from 2005 to 2018. The results published late last year in a peer-reviewed journal…found that for earthquakes larger than M4.0 and within about 40 kilometers of a magnetometer instrument, a measurable increase in magnetic fluctuations occurred in the window four to 12 days prior to the earthquakes. Now the challenge is to refine the algorithms to discriminate the unusual activity from the large amount of background noise… To do this, we need funding and partners.”
Another company involved in earthquake forecasting, Israel-based Ionoterra, claims it can provide an eight-hour early warning by measuring disturbances in Earth’s ionosphere using space-based sensors.
“There is a revolution going on in sensors,” Volcanologist Rick Wundermann said. “Californian and Italian Seismologists as well as structural engineers have led the path in finding new ways to monitor buildings, bridges, and even the environment using cellphones. Cellphones have in them small sensors including accelerometers.”
Reported animal behavior prior to seismic activity, such as shrieking birds, snakes freezing in mid-slither and rats running from their burrows can be explained by animals’ heightened sensitivity to primary waves, which travel faster than more destructive secondary waves. While humans cannot usually sense these waves, seismographs can. With inplace technology a warning of several seconds is possible, which might provide a moment to take cover under a desk or wedge oneself in a doorframe before the violent arrival of S-waves.
Japanese company Challenge offers a shoebox-size product that it claims can detect P waves and automatically shut down factory lines and warn people, provided it has an internet connection. However, attempts to locate the product for sale on the internet failed.
Whether or not the promise of advance earthquake warnings is realized, progress has been made in predicting aftershocks. According to Texas Advanced Computing Center’s website, USGS and Southern California Earthquake Center researchers used supercomputers to simulate California earthquakes and found “in the week following a magnitude 7.0 earthquake, the likelihood of another magnitude 7.0 quake would be up to 300 times greater than the week beforehand. This scenario of ‘cascading’ ruptures was demonstrated in the 2002 magnitude 7.9 Denali, Alaska, and the 2016 magnitude 7.8 Kaikoura, New Zealand earthquakes.”