When the next big earthquake strikes somewhere around the world, it will come unexpectedly, destroying infrastructure and putting lives at risk.
However, in the days leading up to the event, titanic geological forces will already be at work, cleverly bending the crust in ways that could in theory predict a catastrophic event.
One possible signal may involve vibrations in the magnetic field, ebbing and flowing around our planet. For decades, researchers have debated the merits of hunting magnetic signatures for imminent tremors, due to a lack of evidence.
A new study conducted by QuakeFinder, a humanitarian investigation within the operating systems of the company Stellar Solutions, in collaboration with the Google Accelerated Science team, concludes that there is just cause to continue the investigation.
Applying machine learning to measurements based on local measurements of magnetic lead changes to several significant earthquakes across California between 2005 and 2019, the researchers found signs of a pattern that warrants further study.
This is not to say that the effect they observed could necessarily have predicted earthquakes, but it is nevertheless an interesting lead for future study.
“We are not claiming that this signal existed before any movement,” QuakeFinder director Dan Schneider told Joshua Rapp Learn at Eos.
However, the findings might be enough to keep the controversial topic of electronic earthquake predictions alive a little longer.
The premises behind the molecular fluctuations in the magnetic field of previous motions sound quite reasonable. Some argue that the amount of pressure exerted on the crust prior to fabrication could, in theory, change the properties of the rock layers enough to influence their conductivity.
Other studies suggest that trapped gas builds up before being released, creating the necessary electrical currents to affect magnetic activity.
The resulting ultra-low frequency spotting of changes in the magnetic field is warning the authorities that something big is about to happen, giving them time to prepare in the same way communities do for growing storms.
Unfortunately, what sounds like a promising idea runs into many obstacles in its application.
For one thing, plenty of things can create low-frequency wobbles in areas of the magnetic field. Also, increases in nearby traffic or small variations in solar activity can induce hums that can be mistaken for geological disturbances.
Weaving a certain signal from this sound requires having accurate measurements of the equipment in places close to the noticeable tremors. Even where this occurs, enough changes in size should be recorded for the statistical sample.
With research sites around faults located throughout the state of California, Quakefinder is in a solid position to overcome these obstacles.
Magnetometers buried in different research sites have provided researchers with the amount of data on a moving scale greater than 4.5.
After selecting earthquakes for which measurements were made from two nearby locations, and excluding pairs of sites without matching records, the researchers were left with measurements on 19 earthquakes.
This sample was then divided into two groups, which served as the basis of a machine learning study that attempted to tease out potential patterns from known influences, with the other group serving as a test for any possible findings.
The signal-to-noise ratio, which was noted in the process and confirmed in the course of the experiment, was not exactly valid. As the researchers admit in a public report, the electromagnetic anomalies were evident before the motion “observed, documented, and much earlier” in previous research.
But they hint at something hidden in the electromagnetic glass, like a suspicious noise in the cloud that can be present up to three days before an earthquake hits. Using a more precise method, researchers could use a larger sample to find out what is going on.
If future studies were to fix a certain imminent event in the magnetic field of one area of the earth, it would still not be a universal song, even requiring further experiments in multiple locations around the globe.
For now, the idea of using small changes in the planet’s magnetic field to predict earthquakes remains controversial. But given such results, further investigation may eventually reveal the hidden whispers of guilt at the breaking point.
This research was published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Solid Earth.
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