In Menlo Park Thursday night, a renowned seismologist based in Southern California gave a lecture about earthquake predictions fact and fiction.
When Susan Hough steps up to a podium to talk about earthquakes, seismologists listen. She has dedicated more than two decades of her life to figuring out what makes the earth move. Even her cat Charlie is named after Charles Richter. In her opinion, predicting earthquakes is science fiction.
"If people were really making headway with earthquake predictions, we would have predictions by now, before the earthquake happens, not after the earthquake happens," she says.
Huff says none of the plausible theories from "fault strain" to "moon tides" have produced a reliable precursor and the devastation in Japan is the most recent example that no one knows when and where disaster will strike.
"Japan was waiting for an earthquake they'd already named in advance, close to Tokyo, and wham they get blindsided by a fault that they didn't think was as dangerous," she says.
The best Hough and her USGS colleagues can offer is a 30-year forecast. There is a 99 percent chance a magnitude 6.7 quake will strike California in 30 years and a four percent chance of an 8.0 quake. The Hayward fault is a prime candidate.
"In the northern part of the Bay Area, a lot of houses are built right on the Hayward fault, so they will be cut in half," says USGS Earthquake Science Center Director Tom Brocher.
It comes back to being prepared for when the big one hits, not if. Hough says no one should wait on a prediction.
"Right this second, I don't see any method that's even promising, like if we keep working on this for another 50 years, then we're going to have reliable predictions," she says.
Hough reminds us that in geophysics, an earthquake tomorrow or in 50 years is right on schedule.