International Committee on issues of Global Changes of the Geological Environment, “GEOCHANGE”

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Strong earthquake on December 20, 2010 in Iran was predicted three days before the shock

This has been communicated by the press service of the Global Network for the Forecasting of Earthquakes (GNFE) headquartered in London, UK. Professor Elchin Khalilov, GNFE President, has commented on the forecast of the strong earthquake in Iran.

Dear Professor Khalilov, could you please comment on the forecast of the strong earthquake which occurred December 20 in southern Iran?

As you know, a strong magnitude 6.3 earthquake occurred in southern Iran on December 20, 2010. The epicenter was located 214 km south-east of the city of Zahedan. The first and strongest shock hit the Kerman province. As many as three remote mountain villages in the country’s southeast were turned into ruins. About ten people have been reported killed and hundreds more injured.

On December 17, 2010, the Global Network for the Forecasting of Earthquakes (GNFE) placed on its website a forecast for the Iran earthquake in the forecast map. The forecast for a strong earthquake in Iran with magnitude over 5 and 90% probability was given for the period between 17 and 27 December 2010. Short-term forecasts are made for the entire territory of the Eastern Hemisphere; therefore, the forecast covered the bulk of the Iranian territory. This is due to the fact that today the Global Network has only four ATROPATENA earthquake forecast stations – in Azerbaijan, Pakistan, Indonesia and Turkey. To accurately identify the location of an earthquake epicenter in Iran, at least four stations across the country are needed.

Meanwhile, the forecast for the Iranian territory was not the only one to confirm. Within the same period of time, GNFE provided forecasts for the territory of Indonesia and Central Asia which proved to be completely accurate. By now, another short-term strong earthquake forecast we made for the Japan region has been confirmed.

As is known, a strong magnitude 7,4 earthquake occurred on 21 December 2010 at 17:19 GMT off the coast of Japan, in the Bonin Islands area. A possible tsunami alert has been issued in Japan.

Here is given a section of GNFE forecast map where green circles designate strong earthquakes with magnitude over 5 the forecasts for which have been confirmed (within a week following the official announcement).

Could you tell us how exactly earthquakes are forecast?

Special ATROPATENA earthquake forecast stations whose physical principle I patented with PCT, Geneva in 2005 have been set up in Baku (Azerbaijan), Islamabad (Pakistan), Yogyakarta (Indonesia) and Istanbul (Turkey).

These stations record three-dimensional gravitational field anomalies occurring usually 3-6 days before a strong earthquake at a great distance (up to ten thousand kilometers) from the epicenter of the expected earthquake. These anomalies are caused by tectonic waves, or stress waves generated by the focuses of future earthquakes prior to the shock. Our stations register those waves and track their movement. The stations’ records are used for identifying the direction towards the focus of a future earthquake, and the intersection point of the straight guide lines indicates the earthquake’s epicenter. There are parameters that allow us to estimate the magnitude of a future earthquake and the number of expected shocks. For example, anomalies during largest earthquakes can be detected much earlier and observed for a long time, as it was during a series of strong earthquakes in Italy from April 06 to April 09, 2009. The anomaly before the Italian earthquakes lasted for more than 20 days prior to the shocks and two days after it had disappeared, the first of four catastrophic earthquakes occurred on 6 April 2009 claiming hundreds of lives. That anomaly was registered by the Network’s both stations available at the time, located in Baku and Islamabad.

The Iran earthquake was preceded by a gravity anomaly which lasted for 13 days before the shock. All four ATROPATENA stations recorded this pre-earthquake anomaly. As an example, I would like to demonstrate the anomaly before the Iran earthquake, which was registered by the Baku ATROPATENA-AZ station, together with a standard forecast map showing the Iranian strong earthquake forecast.

All ATROPATENA stations continuously transmit all recorded data to the central database located in Frankfurt am Main, Germany and accessible to research groups from GNFE member countries.

An Outline of the Global Network for the Forecasting of Earthquakes

The ATROPATENA station set includes standard seismic stations that record all seismic events at the station’s location to eliminate the influence of seismic vibrations on the readings of gravitational laser sensors. The ATROPATENA station’s entire sensing system operates inside insulated tanks with permanently sustained deep vacuum. The data is collected using laser-optical systems. The personnel do not enter the rooms where the stations are installed since the stations are fully automated and controlled from a single center, and all data are received from the central database.

Who was informed of the GNFE forecast for Iran?

According to GNFE Charter, information related to short-term earthquake forecasts is strictly confidential; they are distributed among the countries-members of the Global Network only. Among those informed of the Iranian and other forecasts were the Pakistan Center for Earthquake Studies, the earthquake forecast research group at the Government of the Indonesian Province of Yogyakarta, GNFE Scientific Center for Earthquake Prediction in Istanbul, as well as GNFE secretariat in London and GNFE European Representative in Germany.

Given that the problem of earthquake forecasting affects the strategic interests of any country involved in a forecast, GNFE has no legal right to provide forecasts for countries which are not members of the Global Network and have not signed with it an international agreement about clear distribution of rights and duties between the parties. Nor are we legally entitled to disclose forecast-related information to third parties and the mass media. After an earthquake has occurred, the information may be made public by GNFE administration’s decision.

Mr. Khalilov, why are the restrictions on releasing forecast-related information so tough? Isn’t it humane to inform everyone of the expected earthquake so that people could be saved?

Earthquake prediction is a very serious business which requires professionalism and strict regulation of how the operational forecasts are delivered. Otherwise, uncontrolled information may lead to panic and chaos causing irreparable damage to the country and people. There have been numerous instances when some scientists or institutions would come up with a short-term forecast of a strong earthquake, which brought about mass panic in those cities virtually paralyzing the activity of government agencies: law enforcers, emergency medical services, firefighters, rescue workers who should be the first to react in case of an earthquake.

Imagine that the population of a city with one million residents (i.e. not a very large one) is informed via the media that a strong earthquake is expected for a certain time. What will happen? Almost everyone will try to evacuate for that period their families, friends and relatives as far away from the area of the expected earthquake as possible. Do not forget that it concerns everybody including doctors, police officers, rescue workers, military personnel, government employees, i.e. those who must be at their post on full alert at the moment. General chaos, traffic jams, attempts to save the most valuable items from apartments, followed by looting and inability to control the situation if a strong earthquake does occur. What could be worse? And when it comes to larger cities, megalopolises with a population of more than 10 million people such as Istanbul, Mexico City, San Francisco, Tokyo, what can one expect?

That is why each Global Network member country appoints its government’s representative to deliver the forecasts first-hand, and assigns a research structure to be directly involved in studying and forecasting earthquakes within GNFE system.

What happens after a forecast is officially given to a GNFE member country?

Following that, the only functions of GNFE are to further monitor the situation and provide relevant information on further developments. Some corrections can be made to forecasts delivered, e.g. about higher or lower number of expected shocks, their intensity and more precise location of the epicenter.

As to making concrete decisions about evacuation or other measures, it is the exclusive prerogative of the country’s government and GNFE is not allowed to interfere in this process. However, following the government’s request, GNFE can provide its recommendations for optimal decision making. Besides, GNFE has drawn up standard instructions on how government agencies should possibly respond to receipt of strong earthquake forecasts depending on the forecast’s category (reliability degree).

Usually, when discussing the problem of earthquake prediction, it is always said that there is only one officially confirmed forecast for China in 1975, which helped save the residents of a small town with a population of slightly over 100 thousand people. Is that really so?

The phrase itself is classical and historic. In the late 70’s, this fact was mentioned in many seismology textbooks and various other publications. Even in my monograph co-authored by Academician Sh. Mehdiyev and published in 1988, this phrase was cited. But it has been more than 35 years since the Chinese forecast and during all that time, a lot of officially confirmed short-term forecasts have been made by Japanese, Russian, Chinese, Italian and other world scientists including GNFE. They just have not enjoyed the same wide publicity since the Chinese forecast was the first confirmed earthquake prediction in the history of science, but far from being the last.

From August 1, 2009 when GNFE using three ATROPATENA stations in Baku, Islamabad and Yogyakarta started its full-scale operation to December 21, 2010, we have officially issued 133 earthquake forecasts, 92% of which have been confirmed. Below are given some diagrams showing the general statistics of GNFE forecasts and forecast dynamics since they started to be officially delivered.

GNFE forecast dynamics

General statistics of GNFE forecasts

Is GNFE planning to set up new stations in other countries?

It certainly is. For example, Ukraine represented by the Institute of Geophysics of the National Academy of Sciences has been recently included in the Global Network for the Forecasting of Earthquakes. In the first half of 2011, the latest ATROPATENA CRYSTAL modification of the ATROPATENA earthquake forecast station will be set in operation in the Ukrainian Institute of Geophysics; this modification is now being successfully tested at GNFE Research and Production Center in Istanbul. A number of other countries wanting to join the Network have expressed their desire to have ATROPATENA stations installed in 2011 as well.

Can we consider the problem of earthquake prediction solved?

Of course not. The problem of short-term earthquake prediction is just beginning to find its solution and we still have much to do. In particular, we are developing a new software program that will automatically identify the coordinates of a future earthquake’s epicenter and routinely produce raw forecasts to be further refined by scientists. We recently completed forecast management software which automates the process of making and analyzing forecasts by different national research groups involved in GNFE. Development of so huge an infrastructure as GNFE is impossible without using up-to-date software applications and information technologies.

Ideally, the problem of short-term earthquake prediction can be considered solved after the entire globe is covered with a dense network of ATROPATENA stations. Forecasting earthquakes will be as easy as identifying parameters of the earthquakes that have already occurred by now using a dense network of seismic stations.

We thank you for the comprehensive and interesting information and wish you further development of the Global Network for the Forecasting of Earthquakes in the name of security and for saving lives of many people on our planet.

Interviewed by
WOSCO Information Agency
21.12.2010  21:00