The main thrust of MSNBC.com’s article is actually whether or not earthquakes happen in clusters, given the recent temblors in Japan, New Zealand, and Chile. A number of experts weigh in on the matter. The article jumps off from a column in Newsweek by Simon Winchester, the author of Krakatoa and books about geologic history, who argues that there is “little doubt” that earthquakes happen in clusters (the outlet also interviewed Winchester). Then it paraphrases Rundle, the earthquake expert from UC Davis, saying that while scientists have tended to view major earthquakes as impendent, and clustering as random, the recent string of forceful temblors worldwide has some asking about correlation. Then it quotes a geophysicist with the USGS saying, “There is no evidence of global large-earthquake clustering beyond localized aftershock sequences.”
The yes-maybe-definitely-not quotation strategy might leave the impression of he-said-she-said reporting, but the takeaway message from MSNBC.com’s work is that there is, in fact, plenty of doubt surrounding Winchester’s theory that earthquakes cluster. An article in The Boston Globe also does a good job explaining that while they “might seem like a powerful trend geophysicists do not know whether the clustering of large earthquakes represents anything more than chance.”
Most of the articles cited above also mentioned that it is still impossible to predict earthquakes. What none of them provided, however, was a clear description of the research geologists and seismologists are are doing to improve their knowledge. A piece from Popular Mechanics stood apart in this regard, explaining that:
Despite decades of research, seismologists are still unable to predict these catastrophic events. Some experts fear they may be chaotic phenomena and hence fundamentally unpredictable. Instead, scientists focus on more attainable goals, deploying sensor arrays, satellite instrumentation and computer simulations to develop a clearer picture of how earthquakes happen, where they are likely to strike and how much damage they can do.
The article then goes on to describe a project called the San Andreas Fault Observatory at Depth, a sister program called the Plate Boundary Observatory, and finally, the Large High Performance Outdoor Shake Table at the University of California at San Diego, each of which is providing new information about earthquake dynamics. In a similar fashion, Nature News distanced itself from the pack with an article explaining why “few experts thought the seismic zone off Sendai, Japan, was capable of such violence.” The piece focuses on what the event is teaching scientists about the relative earthquake potential related to subduction of old, versus new, oceanic crust.
These detailed accounts of ongoing earthquake research should guide more reporters. Articles about the statistical likelihood of earthquakes in California and how those quakes might compare to the one in Japan are fine, but readers would surely benefit from more specifics about how scientists know what they know and about how the Golden State is using that knowledge (or not) to safeguard the public.