Earthquake Studies: Predicting the Unpredictable

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Images of the devastation caused by major earthquakes such as those that struck Japan, Haiti and New Zealand in 2010 and 2011 lead to a somber conclusion: No matter what humankind can build or create, it is no match for the massive destructive power of an earthquake.

In addition to their terrifying power, earthquakes engender primal fear because there is no way to predict exactly when and where one will occur. Mythology once provided explanations for these seemingly random acts of nature: The giants, animals or gods holding up the Earth moved and made the ground shake. Even today, there are popular myths concerning earthquakes. Californians talk about "earthquake weather," and nearly everyone has heard that cats and dogs predict earthquakes by acting strangely when they "sense" an impending quake. Neither assertion is true. However, some animals may be more sensitive than humans to the first vibrations of a tremor and react seconds sooner. Some of these beliefs are harmless, but others could cause people living in earthquake-prone areas to disregard preparedness efforts that could minimize loss of lives and property.

Seismology: If earthquakes defy prediction, why study them?

Seismology--(from the Greek word for earthquakes, seismos)--is a branch of geophysics that studies the seismic waves created by movements in the Earth's crust that manifest as earthquakes. Through observing and analyzing seismic events, seismologists seek ways to lessen the effects of earthquakes. Geophysics and seismology, like environmental science, deal ultimately with the interconnectedness of humans and the natural world. Since its inception in the mid-1800s, seismology has used increasingly advanced instrumentation and methods of analysis to measure the magnitude of seismic waves. Seismologists have learned where earthquakes are likely to occur and how to engineer earthquake-resistant structures.

But they still cannot predict precisely when and where the next earthquake may strike. Many seismologists agree that it may not be possible. While they have studied areas on and near known faults and can calculate the probability of future earthquakes, they cannot pinpoint exactly when--other than to warn, according to a pattern of past occurrences, that an area is due for another. Some seismologists are confident that one day more precise predictions could be possible, but that day will not come soon. In the meantime, their job remains observation, analysis and mitigation of the destructive force of earthquakes. With advances in technology, they are able to gather and analyze more information than ever before.

Education you'll need to become a quake expert

For students interested in the earth, environmental science, math and computer science, the field of seismology offers fascinating career opportunities. After all, earthquakes are occurring almost constantly around the globe. There are always tremors to monitor and the challenge of learning something that could help prevent damage to property, contamination to the environment (such as the threat of radiation from damaged nuclear plants in Japan), loss of life, human suffering and disruption of commerce.

Beginning with a bachelor's degree in math or physical science, students who want to pursue a career as a seismologist should go on to get a master's degree in geophysics, and for those who want to do research or teach college, a Ph.D.

Bachelor's and master's degree programs in the geosciences generally include a variety of geology coursework including structural geology, mineralogy, paleontology, petrology and stratigraphy. Recommended and highly relevant skills to acquire include computer modeling, Geographic Information Systems (GIS), remote sensing, digital mapping and data analysis and integration, as well as use of the Global Positioning System (GPS). Internships are available that can add practical experience in these skill sets.

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and the Incorporated Research Institutes for Seismology (IRIS) are just two of the organizations that post opportunities for student internships, workshops and fieldwork. One such program for sophomores, juniors and seniors, offered by the Southern California Earthquake Center (SCEC), focuses on using teamwork and research in computer science to improve the study of earthquakes. SCEC works to promote understanding of the fault system in Southern California and to create a model capable of predicting future earthquakes in that area.

Other surprising career paths for seismologists

While the earth's random shaking may be a shot of adrenalin for some intrepid seismologists, others may prefer a career with more predictable results. Studying geophysics can provide entrance into careers that intersect with environmental science or directly affect the environment. Hydrologists, for example, study the disposition of water in the environment and may be employed by engineering or architecture firms, as well as the federal government.

Perhaps the most lucrative career path for seismologists is with petroleum and mining companies, mapping structures below the Earth's surface in limited geographic areas. A relatively newer field for seismologists--environmental geophysics--uses the same equipment and methods as those used in the petroleum and mining industries. However, environmental geophysicists map and attempt to predict movement of surface water to identify safe areas for disposal of underground waste. They may even be asked to assist at archaeological sites or with criminal investigations by locating burial sites.

Realizing they probably cannot control the vagaries of Earth's tectonic plates, some seismologists use their experience to prevent the dangerous unpredictability of human behavior from causing even worse mass destruction. By monitoring underground explosions the way they measure natural seismic events, seismologists are able keep the world alerted to incidents of nuclear testing in hopes of curtailing nuclear weapons proliferation. For a small branch of science, that's a pretty big mission.