Kurt Bayer is a Herald reporter based in Christchurch

Quake prediction system won't be rolled out in NZ

File photo / NZ Herald
File photo / NZ Herald

An earthquake prediction system installed on some of the world's largest fault lines is unproven and won't be rolled out in New Zealand, government scientists say.

US researchers believe they've cracked a way of predicting quakes days before they strike, with the potential to save thousands of lives.

The QuakeFinder, developed by a Silicon Valley firm, uses a series of sensors to measure changes in underground static electricity.

As a shake starts building, the ground releases intense electrical currents "almost like lightening, underground," says QuakeFinder's founder, Tom Bleier.

But the system won't be tested here until its science is proven, says GNS.

"This theory has been around for quite some time and ... realistically it has a low probability of success," said GNS seismologist Dr Bill Fry.

Civilisation has, for centuries, tried various methods of predicting when a deadly quake will strike - by reading bizarre animal behaviour, shifting weather patterns, and seismographic data.

Nothing has worked, and modern day scientists admit they are at the earth's mercy, and instead can only give odds on a future jolt's likelihood.

The Canterbury earthquake sequence shocked the scientific community almost as much as the local population when the first magnitude-7.1 tremor came in the early hours of September 4, 2010.

But now Mr Bleier, a satellite engineer, believes he has the answer.

At a meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco last month (December), he told of how an impending earthquake produces large electrical currents.

"These currents are huge. It's almost like lightning, underground," the 67-year-old was reported as saying in National Geographic News.

"In a typical day along the San Andreas fault ... [it] is always moving, grinding, snapping, and crackling."

Mr Bleier claims to have seen sharp rises in static-electricity discharges ahead of half a dozen magnitude 5 and 6 earthquakes in the US and Peru.

The surges come about two weeks before the quake hits, before dropping off shortly before the energy is released.

"That's the pattern we're looking for," Mr Bleier said, but admitted his team hasn't yet monitored enough large earthquakes to be certain that what he has found is valid for all quakes.

But it hasn't stopped QuakeFinder, a project funded by Mr Bleier's parent company, Stellar Solutions, launching a forecasting system this month.

"Instead of looking backwards in time, we're going to start looking forwards," he said.

The firm has spent millions of dollars putting specialist measuring equipment along fault lines in California, Peru, Taiwan, and Greece.

But Dr Fry didn't see any merit in getting sensors put along New Zealand faults.

"That would not be a good use of available funds until something were a little more definitive."

Dr Fry was at the San Francisco conference last month but missed Mr Bleier's talk.

And while he was sceptical of the science, he did not rule it out in future.

"It's certainly not closed, and I welcome any research globally. But in my personal opinion it's certainly nowhere near the point that it could be used as a good predictor," Dr Fry said.

Science is heading towards "a hybrid approach", he added, between purely statistical analysis and increased use of physics.

Christchurch resident Paul Nicholls, who developed the innovative Quake Map website after the September 2010 shake, was as sceptical of the system as GNS.

"It doesn't sound entirely convincing to me," Mr Nicholls said.

"But if there is some solid evidence supplied, then I'd certainly be willing to consider it.

"It needs to be a sure thing, otherwise it can cause mass panic unnecessarily."

Stefano Pampanin, associate professor at the University of Canterbury's engineering college, refused to comment on QuakeFinder, saying quake predictions were a "very delicate area" outside his area of expertise.

Christchurch mayor Bob Parker welcomed the system and hoped that it could be trialled in New Zealand.


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