The snake-oil salesmen of “earthquake prediction”

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Earthquake weather

Earthquake predictions are going viral online — and spreading dangerous conspiracies along the way.

For Inverse:

In 1990, an eccentric Texan named Iben Browning appeared on the national stage with a dramatic prediction: On December 2 or 3 of that year, a major earthquake would hit the New Madrid fault in southwestern Missouri.

Professional earthquake scientists mostly declined to even give the prediction any attention, and — to their total lack of surprise — Dec. 3, 1990 came and went without a tremor. Nevertheless, Browning’s prediction sent a number of people into a panic, who built “Browning bunkers” and brought news crews to the small town of New Madrid (pronounced in a typically American fashion as “MAD-rid”). The non-event even inspired a 1993 song from the southern Illinois alternative country band Uncle Tupelo.

On its face, predicting an earthquake in New Madrid doesn’t seem too far-fetched. On Dec. 16, 1811, a tremor struck the town large enough to change the course of the Mississippi River and create the illusion of making the water flow backward. The young city of St. Louis was heavily damaged, and New Madrid itself was essentially destroyed. The New Madrid region even experienced a magnitude 4.7 quake in September 1990, which lent a little credibility to Browning’s claim in the public eye. The area has around 200 low-magnitude quakes annually, and disaster-preparedness experts are concerned that infrastructure is not robust enough to handle larger events.

But knowing earthquakes have happened at a particular site and are likely to happen again in the future is not the same thing as being able to predict them. Browning based his “forecast” on weather patterns and other phenomena, but never fully revealed his methodology for others to evaluate. (His primary motivation may in fact have been selling videocassettes explaining his theories to a panicked population.)

[Read the rest at Inverse]

Measuring the gravity of climate change

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Don’t be turned off by the name of the publication! This article for SPIE Photonics is meant for anyone, and describes a very sophisticated experiment that connects my area of expertise (gravitational physics) to the most pressing issue of our time: climate change.

The GRACE to tackle climate change

A pair of orbiting spacecraft use laser technology developed for detecting gravitational waves to measure melting ice in Greenland

For SPIE Photonics:

Climate change is the largest existential threat facing humanity. Melting ice in polar regions and in mountains contributes to rising ocean levels worldwide; warming air disrupts jet streams and precipitation patterns, making severe storms more likely. Tracking these disruptions is essential for understanding how rapidly climate change is happening. However, Earth is big and many of the important fluctuations can be hard to measure without intensive local observations year-round.

But Earth-observation satellites present another extremely effective way to track climate change. Since 2018, a pair of spacecraft has been recording data that allow scientists to measure the melting of polar ice and the depletion of water tables during droughts. The satellites, together known as the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment Follow-On (GRACE-FO), track small fluctuations in Earth’s gravity as water moves from place to place. As its name suggests, the joint project between the US and Germany succeeds the original 2002-2017 GRACE mission. Both have proven so successful that researchers are now planning a third mission.

[Read the rest at SPIE Photonics]