Looking for the Holy Grail in earthquake prediction

ABC7 News takes a look at the latest in a project to detect and understand tremors that could someday lead to a warning system.
March 24, 2014 9:21:25 PM PDT
If there is a Holy Grail in geology, it would be to find the key that allows us to predict when, where, and how strongly earthquakes will occur. Researchers are not there yet, but they may be getting close. ABC7 News takes a look at the latest on a project to detect and understand tremors that could someday lead to a warning system.

It is one of the stranger juxtapositions in science ? at Cass Winery in Paso Robles, they're pulling more than wine from the soil. High up on a hill, there's a deeper quest going on.

"At other sites we hit granite, we hit limestone..."

You'll find many materials in California's unpredictable San Andreas Fault, which has a history of striking without warning, but maybe not in the future if U.C. Berkeley seismologist Peggy Hellweg, Ph.D. finds what she's looking for -- a relatively new discovery -- tremor waves.

"Well it turns out tremors happen at the edge of places where earthquakes happen. And if we find out more about them, we might find out more about how and when big earthquakes happen," said Hellweg.

Compared with large earthquakes, tremor waves are delicate and faint, about as strong as the impact of a drop of water on land. To hear them, these scientists have dug 1,000 feet down to a quiet level, where ultra-sensitive microphones can listen without interference.

"It would sound like noise. It would sound like rumble, rumble, rumble, or whisper, whisper, whisper. It could be like the wind in the trees, but it's the ground wiggling in the earth," said Hellweg.

Learn to understand those wiggles and how they might turn into squiggles; and maybe we could Predict earthquakes with the same certainty as weather.

Earthquake predictions matter to everyone, but especially in the East Bay, along the Hayward Fault which is overdue. It's locked and loaded to deliver a 7.0 or higher quake, sometime in the next 50 years. But when? Exactly? And imagine the damage it will cause.

"The East Bay will be terribly shaken. There'll be a lot of houses probably off their foundations and damaged. The infrastructure will have serious problems. The water mains, water towers, sewer systems, electricity," said Hellweg. When asked if this is an "if" or a "when," she replied, "This is a when."

That's all the more reason to keep listening for that tell-all pattern.

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