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Government insists quakes can't be forecast, despite claims

Wednesday, February 26, 2003

ST. LOUIS -- A California company says it was "relatively successful" in its forecast of a small earthquake near the Bootheel town of New Madrid, Mo. But scientists and government officials on Tuesday remained firm in their belief that earthquakes can't be forecast.

"We don't forecast or predict earthquakes. We don't know of any technology that can forecast them," said Carolyn Bell, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Geological Survey, the government agency that monitors earthquakes and works to minimize losses from natural disasters.

California-based geoForecaster launched a Web site Feb. 18 in which subscribers can see the company's earthquake forecasts as well as link to quake information for fees starting at $9.95 a week. They said their site is based on years of science and research.

Each week, the company intends to make three sample forecasts available for free. Among them last week was word that a magnitude 2.0 to 3.5 earthquake would occur Friday, plus or minus two days, within 50 miles of New Madrid.

The New Madrid Fault zone -- running across parts of Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, Illinois and Arkansas -- experiences more than 200 small earthquakes annually.

By Sunday night, the end of the publicized forecast period, the earthquake had not occurred.

But the company said that Monday morning, a 2.3 quake registered near Gosnell, Ark., about 45 miles south and 20 miles west of what geoForecaster called its forecast epicenter.

"I think that's a pretty good forecast," said company co-founder Michael Kozuch.

Scientists not impressed

Scientists who study earthquakes in the region weren't impressed.

"They (earthquakes) happen all the time, so claiming a success is a little spurious," said Eugene Schweig, the geologist who coordinates the USGS hazard program for the central and eastern United States.

"They give themselves such a large time window and a such a small magnitude that the chances of success are relatively high."

The company said it also forecast higher magnitude quakes. It said it publicized the New Madrid forecast because it felt the forecast quake would be stronger than usual for the area.

Kozuch said the site doesn't aim to predict earthquakes, rather he said it's supposed to forecast them. He made an analogy to a weather report tracking a hurricane, saying the company uses pattern recognition software and data from nearby and distant earthquakes to help calculate the forecasts.

"If you have good results, people will know there's good science behind it," Kozuch said.

He said the company charges fees and does not make its methodologies known because it's a private business venture.

"I think it's impossible to evaluate the science, if they're not making their methodology known," said Schweig. He said earthquakes are a public safety issue, and questioned if a pure business model was appropriate. And, he wondered, "What on earth are you supposed to do with this information?"

"I'm not enamored with this at all," said Robert Herrmann, professor of earth and atmospheric sciences at Saint Louis University. "It's just not defensible."

The New Madrid Fault gained international attention in 1990 when climatologist Iben Browning predicted a devastating earthquake would occur on Dec. 3 of that year. That big quake never happened.

In the winter of 1811-1812, the New Madrid Fault caused some of the strongest earthquakes ever recorded. The shocks rang church bells in Boston, formed new lakes, and caused the Mississippi River to change its course, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.


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