AI helps seismologists predict earthquakes


EXCERPT: . . . the geophysicist Paul ... Johnson’s team is among a handful of groups that are using machine learning to try to demystify earthquake physics and tease out the warning signs of impending quakes. Two years ago, using pattern-finding algorithms similar to those behind recent advances in image and speech recognition and other forms of artificial intelligence, he and his collaborators successfully predicted temblors in a model laboratory system—a feat that has since been duplicated by researchers in Europe.

Now, in a paper posted this week on the scientific preprint site, Johnson and his team report that they’ve tested their algorithm on slow slip quakes in the Pacific Northwest. The paper has yet to undergo peer review, but outside experts say the results are tantalizing. According to Johnson, they indicate that the algorithm can predict the start of a slow slip earthquake to “within a few days—and possibly better.”

“This is an exciting development,” said Maarten de Hoop, a seismologist at Rice University who was not involved with the work. “For the first time, I think there’s a moment where we’re really making progress” toward earthquake prediction.

... The goal of earthquake forecasting has never been to predict slow slips. Rather, it’s to predict sudden, catastrophic quakes that pose danger to life and limb. For the machine learning approach, this presents a seeming paradox: The biggest earthquakes, the ones that seismologists would most like to be able to foretell, are also the rarest. How will a machine learning algorithm ever get enough training data to predict them with confidence?

The Los Alamos group is betting that their algorithms won’t actually need to train on catastrophic earthquakes to predict them. Recent studies suggest that the seismic patterns before small earthquakes are statistically similar to those of their larger counterparts, and on any given day, dozens of small earthquakes may occur on a single fault. A computer trained on thousands of those small temblors might be versatile enough to predict the big ones. Machine learning algorithms might also be able to train on computer simulations of fast earthquakes that could one day serve as proxies for real data.

But even so, scientists will confront this sobering truth: Although the physical processes that drive a fault to the brink of an earthquake may be predictable, the actual triggering of a quake—the growth of a small seismic disturbance into full-blown fault rupture—is believed by most scientists to contain at least an element of randomness. Assuming that’s so, no matter how well machines are trained, they may never be able to predict earthquakes as well as scientists predict other natural disasters.

... Such forecasts probably couldn’t be used, say, to coordinate a mass evacuation on the eve of a temblor. But they could increase public preparedness, help public officials target their efforts to retrofit unsafe buildings, and otherwise mitigate hazards of catastrophic earthquakes. Johnson sees that as a goal worth striving for. Ever the realist, however, he knows it will take time. “I’m not saying we’re going to predict earthquakes in my lifetime,” he said, “but … we’re going to make a hell of a lot of progress.” (MORE - details)

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