EDITORIAL: Shaken: Earthquake predictions based on flimsy science

Web editor's note: If you look at the quake danger to just the state of Kentucky, you notice that the serious chances are confined to a bit of the western edge of the state, which is sitting on relatively high and solid ground compared to the Missouri Bootheel just across the river. Earthquake-resistant construction is expensive.

USGS data gives Paducah a greater risk than California. Is that fair? Yet this editorial compares earthquake-resistant construction requirements to the global warming hubbub. Is it a fair comparison?

Paducah Sun: Apr. 20, 2008 --No one predicted the 5.2 earthquake that struck early Friday morning, the biggest to hit the region in 40 years.

Earthquakes can't be predicted, you say? It's true that seismologists, realizing what an inexact science it is, largely avoid making predictions. But the United States Geologic Survey has officially set the probability of a magnitude 6.0 or higher earthquake along the New Madrid Fault at 25-40 percent in the next 50 years, and the probability at 7-10 percent of a magnitude 7.5 or higher in the next 50 years.

In other words, they have no clue. Reverse the numbers and the probability is 90-93 percent that there will NOT be a 7.5 magnitude or higher, 60-75 percent that there will NOT be a 6.0 or greater. That's not even an educated guess. Just a guess.

And Friday's quake occurred not on the New Madrid but on the smaller Wabash Valley Seismic Zone, where two other 5.0 or higher quakes have occurred since 1968.

The USGS considers Paducah, which sits between the New Madrid and Wabash, at high risk. The Kentucky Geologic Survey, however, considers the risk exaggerated. But Paducah and McCracken County are bound by the USGS risk assessment.

The codes are costly for businesses and homeowners -- construction codes cover even non-living spaces such as garages -- but the real cost to the community is in lost industry. USEC spent tens of millions upgrading Paducah's uranium enrichment plant to earthquake codes. And earthquake predictions, however flimsy, along with the higher construction costs of meeting earthquake codes, was a major factor in USEC's decision to build its new centrifuge plant in Ohio instead of Paducah.

Ironically, Friday's quake shook large areas of Ohio where the earthquake risk assessment is lower.

No major quake has occurred along the New Madrid since 1895. But it was the site of the three largest quakes in American history during the winter of 1811-1812. Thus the predictions.

Science huckster Iben Browning issued a 50/50 prediction that a major quake would rock the New Madrid zone within two days of Dec. 3, 1990, based on peak gravitational pull from the moon and other planets. National media flocked to New Madrid. Schools closed in four states, including Kentucky.

Of course, nothing happened. Those who believed his predictions suffered embarrassment. But the greater cost of the thin science of earthquake prediction is that it prompts governments to impose expensive protective measures. Just as they do with climate change.

Seismologist Charles Richter, creator of the Richter Scale, wrote in 1977: "Since my first attachment to seismology, I have had a horror of predictions and of predictors. Journalists and the general public rush to any suggestion of earthquake prediction like hogs toward a full trough." Unfortunately, so do governments.