December 28, 2004
Would Intentional Triggering Of Earthquakes Be Beneficial?

Science writer James Oberg reviews the cases where humans have inadvertently caused earthquakes (yes, ways to trigger earthquakes have been discovered accidentally!) and examines the question of whether the damage from large earthquakes could be avoided by causing larger numbers of smaller earthquakes as a way to release tension in faults.

This theory "comes up every few years [but] ... is unfortunately fatally flawed in several ways," according to William Ellsworth, chief scientist of the U.S. Geological Survey's earthquake hazard team.

"First," he said in an e-mail, "it takes 1,000 earthquakes of [magnitude] 6 to release the tectonic forces that go into a [magnitude] 8.” But since those smaller quakes are still serious, it would be better to restrict the force of induced quakes to a magnitude 4 -- which would mean inducing a million smaller earthquakes in order to avoid suffering one giant one.

“Multiply that number by any reasonable estimate of what it would cost to induce one of them, and you are looking at costs far in excess of the expected losses” of the big quake, Ellsworth said.

An additional problem with trying to initiate a small earthquake is that it might trigger an even larger quake.

Even if we accept Ellsworth's arguments there may still be some benefit (leaving aside the military angle) to be had from the ability to trigger earthquakes. How? Trigger the really big earthquakes as a way to make the timing of the most dangerous earthquakes more predictable.

Think about earthquakes from the standpoint of both human lives lost and economic disruption. If earthquake prediction methods could advance to the point where, say, an 8+ Richter scale earthquake could be known to be coming to Los Angeles in 5 years there would be considerable value in being able to make that earthquake happen on a particular weekend. People could stay out of the weakest buildings, away from the bridges most likely to collapse, and otherwise away from anything that might kill them. Also equipment and goods could be protected from construction. Supermarkets alone could save a great deal of money just by taking glass containers off of shelves and putting cardboard around the bottles before a scheduled quake.

Rescue and repair workers could be on duty with vacations cancelled and extra workers brought in from other areas. Workers could be geared up with lots of extra equipment ordered in advance to fix electric power lines and other key structures that would fail in an earthquake. Freeways could be empty. No dangerous chemical rail cargoes would be passing through populated areas when a big quake hit. No jumbo jet would set down on a pitching tarmac and suffer a landing gear collapse. Weak water reservoirs could have their water levels lowered in advance. People could have extra bottled water and flashlights with fresh batteries and sleep outside in tents or cars. Tourists could stay away. Though perhaps thrill-seekers would show up to experience a quake that tourism would surge.

The ability to schedule earthquakes would allow them to be scheduled for the most convenient time of year. My guess is that the ideal time for an earthquake would be in the early summer (say mid June in the Northern Hemisphere) before temperatures get too hot. Then the days would be long and electricity (which may be knocked out in many areas) would be less needed for lighting and it would be easier to spend extended periods of time outdoors. In Southern California mid June would also be well away from the rainy season. So extra time spent outside would be easier to manage. In many different ways civilization could be braced for a really big quake scheduled to occur at some point over a fairly short range of time.

To make the scheduled triggering of large quakes a net benefit requires the ability to narrow the range of time expectations for the next earthquake down to a period of time close enough in the future that people would be willing to accept the inevitability of the quake. There is no point in inflicting an earthquake on ourselves now if the quake otherwise wasn't going to happen in 20 years. 20 years from now many buildings that would be wrecked by an earthquake today will either be reinforced or torn down. We will have better roads, better emergency response capabilities, and the like. Costs delayed will be costs avoided altogether in many cases.

In order to make earthquake triggering worthwhile another crucial capability needed would be the ability to trigger a quake to occur over a fairly short period of time. No one wants to be told that some time in the next 6 months an 8.0 quake is coming. Disrupting our lives for 6 months would be far too costly.

Note that precise prediction of the time of natural earthquakes would provide the same benefits as precise prediction of the time of human-triggered earthquakes but without the political and legal problems that come from human-triggered earthquakes. I have no idea whether geological scientists will ever achieve the ability to predict fairly exact times of natural earthquakes or of human-triggered earthquakes. My guess is that any such precision of prediction or of control lies decades into the future.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2004 December 28 02:14 AM  Dangers Natural General


Comments
Tman said at December 28, 2004 12:07 PM:

On my return flight from Boston back to Nashville on Sunday, I read all of Michael Chrichtons new novel, State of Fear . This won't spoil it, but there is a part in the movie where eco-terrorists (yes, I know) attempt to start a tsunami of disasterous proportions by setting off charges at a fault line in the Pacific, as well as using cavitation trucks to assist in creating a shock wave that would cause the earthquake responsible for the tsunami. It was strange for me to read this story in the novel, and then when I got home to turn on the news and see an actual tsunami's devastation.

I vote we don't screw around with causing earthquakes until we know EXACTLY the consequence thereof.

SpakKadi said at December 28, 2004 5:11 PM:

Aside from not knowing the exact natural consequences of starting an earthquake, it may be very difficult to convince people that it is necessary in the first place. If you tell someone an earthquake may hit in the next 5 years (or six months), so we're going to go ahead and make it happen next weekend to get it out of the way, the public may say "no thanks, we'll take our chances".

This leaves improving prediction. I think it may eventually be possible to predict an earthquake several hours (or perhaps days) in advance. However, earthquake prediction will probably run into problems similar to other natural disaster prediction systems such as those for hurricanes. Predicting an earthquake only a few hours in advance would mean it would be necessary to start a "controlled panic" in which citizens are alerted to a potential problem and everyone rushes to take the necessary precautions. This, I suppose, would be similar to tornardo warnings. With a day or so notice, you would see scenarios like you do with snow storms and hurricanes where people rush the grocery store and buy supplies necessary for surviving at home for a couple of days. And like these prediction systems, if you throw out too many false alarms, people stop listening until something big actually hits.

But there's also a difference between earthquake and storm prediction. I can access weather radar at home and I can understand it enough to see the snow/hurricane/perfect storm is headed my way. I don't just have to take the media's word for it. Even if local seismographs were available on the web for me to look at, I wouldn't know what I was seeing. The public becomes much more dependent on experts to tell them what's happening, so losing faith in those experts after failed predictions becomes a much more critical problem. I think some earthquake predictions are occasionally made and released to the public, but not nearly with the fanfare or certainty that weather predictions are. This may be best until the prediction techniques get much, much better. Until then, plan for the worst, hope the best.

Invisible Scientist said at December 29, 2004 10:25 AM:

Currently, the most popular method (not implemented yet) for starting earthquakes,
happens to be the utilization of nuclear bombs buried underground, near the critical regions
where there is pressure underground. But using many bombs underground, is risky, since there is
always some danger that the ground water will be contaminated and travel far enough to cause cancers.
The only underground nuclear explosions are for testing the weapons, in desert areas that are far
enough from civilization. But would the residents of Los Angeles approve the idea of earthquake
prevention by detonating nuclear bombs under Wilshire Boulevard?

But on the other hand, in some novels, it is written that one secret weapon that can be used in the
next world war, would be intentionally triggered earthquakes, by using the method of
underground nuclear explosions.

Joe T said at December 29, 2004 4:03 PM:

December 29, 2004
Did human activity cause the earthquakes and deadly tsunamis?

Can a gunshot trigger an avalanche? Can undersea "sound bombing" trigger earthquakes and tsunamis? Should the Australian government continue to give huge tax incentives (1) that fund the bombing of the ocean floor with 200db sound blasts, every few seconds, 24 hours a day? (for comparison, a jet engine is 120db and a gunshot, 140db) Is there any possibility that this activity may have triggered "pebbles that started an avalanche on the mountain of the world"?

Hundreds of marine mammals have been found beached near Tasmania in the past 35 days. Bob Brown, a senator in the Australian parliament, expressed concern last month that those strandings might have been linked to "sound bombing" of the ocean floor used in seismic tests for oil and gas. (2)

Consider; sound bombing has been taking place in the area of Tasmania recently. Extremely unusual mass strandings of marine mammals have taken place in the area over the past 35 days. (3) On December 24, an earthquake registering 8.1 hit off the coast of Tasmania. On December 26, an earthquake registering over 9.0 hit, on the opposite end of the same tectonic plate. Earthquakes certainly happen naturally quite often. But is it actually possible for human activity to trigger an earthquake? (well after reading this page, i now have an answer!)

Whether the deadly tsunamis were caused by human activity, I don't think that anyone can say conclusively one way or another at this time. In light of the enormous human tragedy the world has just witnessed, I think that the Australian government should call for a moratorium on sound bombing until these issues can be investigated fully.

[my opinion - Joe T]
thanks to Independent Media TV.
See http://www.independent-media.tv/item.cfm?fmedia_id=10211&fcategory_desc=Under%20Reported

references:
(1) http://www.appea.com.au/Download.asp?Filename=Budget+Press+Release%2Epdf&ID=456
(2) http://news.yahoo.com/news?tmpl=story&u=/nm/20041228/sc_nm/environment_australia_whales_dc
(3) http://www.independent-media.tv/item.cfm?fmedia_id=10209&fcategory_desc=Under%20Reported

Ferdi Günes said at February 6, 2005 3:19 AM:

yesterday I watched a turkish tv programm, which discussed the question, wheather the usa or other nations are able to couse earthquakes
or not and if they can, have they caused the big earhtquake in istanbul in 1999 and in indonesia and even the big one in kobe.
some people viewed very good evidences. and my question is, are humans realy able to cause and control earthquakes and if were they not able to forecast those if they even cause and control earthquakes.
thanks

Ferdi Günes said at June 14, 2005 8:16 AM:

5 months ago i wrote about or asked, if humans are able to couse earthqaukes.
my answer to my self is yes. since five months i search the internet, several books and tv programs in different languages and as a result i can tell you, that humans are really able to control earthquakes.
i saw various weapons, which couse earthquakes in different ways. some scientists already have shown prototypes of them and explained how they function. some people claim, that those weapons are stored in area 51.
if somebody can help me to find more evidences, please send those to me. thanks
Ferdi

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