The final reason it is often difficult to implement earthquake engineering in the developing world is geologic, not human. The devastating earthquakes in China and India that I cited earlier were "intraplate" events -- that is, they occurred far from the boundaries of the great tectonic plates where earthquakes are more common, such as the San Andreas fault system in California. In many cases, intraplate earthquakes are not associated with previously known faults and the geological reasons for their occurrence are not well understood (such as three severe earthquakes that struck New Madrid, Mo., in the winter of 1811-1812 and the one that struck Charleston, S.C., in 1886).
As efforts to implement earthquake engineering and preparedness move forward in the developing world, what else might be done to limit the devastating consequences of such events? The answer may be the holy grail of seismology, earthquake prediction. Earthquake prediction would not prevent much of the physical damage that has accompanied earthquakes in the developing world, but it would be enormously effective in reducing the death tolls. The successful prediction of the 1975 Haicheng earthquake in China undoubtedly saved thousands, if not tens of thousands, of lives.
At one level it is difficult to argue with this logic. From a scientific perspective, not only do we not know how to predict earthquakes, we do not even know if, in general, earthquakes are predictable. We do know prediction is not easy. It has been difficult to "catch" an earthquake early with detailed monitoring systems. For example, despite the high probability of earthquakes on various sections of the San Andreas fault system, none of the significant earthquakes that have struck California in the past 15 years (Loma Prieta, Landers, Northridge, Hector Mine or the recent San Simeon event) actually occurred on the San Andreas. Given the paucity of direct observations of earthquake processes at depth, it has also been impossible to test many of the theories about such processes that have been proposed over the past several decades. Today, we still do not know if all, most, some or any damaging earthquakes will ever be predictable in a way that would benefit people.
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