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Why Can't We Predict Earthquakes?

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The ruins of San Francisco's City Hall after the 1906 earthquake and fire. Image Courtesy of the Library Of Congress.

In late October, Italian courts convicted six scientists and a government official—all members of the National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks—of manslaughter for giving "incomplete, imprecise and contradictory" information in the days leading up to an earthquake that struck L'Aquila on April 6, 2009. Tens of thousands of buildings were destroyed, 1000 people were injured, and 308 people died, and the courts believe it was because scientists didn't do enough to warn civilians of the risk of a devastating quake.

Thousands of tiny earthquakes occur every day; some, like the ones that recently hit off the coast of Guatemala, become bigger than others. And no matter what the Italian courts might say, they can’t be predicted. But why?

Earthquakes: How They Work

For centuries, people wondered what caused the Earth to shake. In the 1960s, scientists finally settled on the theory of plate tectonics (more on the origins of the theory can be found here), which posits that the Earth’s surface is built of plates—solid slabs of rock—that move relative to each other on top the hotter, molten material of the outer core. As these plates move around, they slide past and bump into each other; on the boundaries of these plates are faults, which have rough edges and stick together while the rest of the plate keeps moving. When this occurs, the energy that would normally cause the plates to move past one another is stored up, until eventually, the force of the moving plates overcomes the friction on the jagged edges of the fault. The fault unsticks and releases that energy, which radiates outward through the ground in waves, causing an earthquake when the waves reach the surface.

To locate a quake's epicenter—the place on the Earth's surface, directly above the hypocenter, where the quake starts—scientists need to look at the waves produced by the quake. P waves travel faster, and shake the ground first; S waves come next. The closer you are to the epicenter of an earthquake, the closer together those two waves will hit. By measuring the time between waves on three seismographs, scientists can triangulate the location of the quake’s epicenter.

The Challenges of Prediction

Though scientists do create sophisticated models of earthquakes and study the history of quakes along fault lines, no one has enough of an understanding about the conditions—the rock materials, minerals, fluids, temperatures, and pressures—at the depths where quakes start and grow to be able to predict them. “We can create earthquakes under controlled conditions in a laboratory, or observe them close-up in a deep mine, but those are special situations that may not look very much like the complicated faults that exist at depth in the crust where large earthquakes occur,” says Michael Blanpied, associate coordinator of the USGS Earthquake Hazards Program. “Our observations of earthquakes are always at a distance, viewed indirectly through the lens of seismic waves, surface faulting and ground deformation. To predict earthquakes, we would need to have a good understanding of how they occur, what happens just before and during the start of an earthquake, and whether there is something we can observe that tells us than an earthquake is imminent. So far, none of those things are known.”

According to Blanpied, the current understanding is that quakes start—or nucleate—small, on an isolated section of the fault, and then grow quickly. “That nucleation can occur anywhere, and even when we have examples of repeated earthquakes, they may nucleate in different places,” he says. “If there is a process that occurs in the seconds—[or] minutes, hours, months?—before an earthquake, that process may be very subtle and hard to observe through miles of solid rock, especially when we don’t even know where to look.”

Another challenge: Big and small quakes might not start differently. “If all earthquakes start small, and some just happen to grow big, then prediction may be a lost cause, because we’re not at all interested in predicting the thousands of tiny earthquakes that happen every day.”

Prediction vs. Forecasting

Though pinpointing the exact time and size of an earthquake is currently impossible, scientists can estimate the probability of an earthquake occurring in a region or on a fault over a span of decades. “To do that, we need information about how fast the fault is sliding over the long term—typically a few millimeters to centimeters of slip per year—and how big the earthquakes are likely to be,” Blanpied says. “We calculate how much slip is used up in each earthquake, and thus how often earthquakes must occur, on average, to keep up with the long-term slip rate.”

Knowing the date of the last earthquake helps improve forecasting, because scientists can estimate whether they’re early or late based on the repeat time of earthquakes on that particular fault. At the Hayward fault, east of San Francisco Bay, for example, large quakes happen every 140 to 150 years. The last quake on the fault was in 1868, so scientists think that fault could produce another earthquake at any time. “Note, however," Blanpied says, "that ‘any time’ could mean tomorrow or 20 years from now.”

Scientists learned this the hard way. In the 1980s, the USGS predicted that, within 5 years, there would be a magnitude 6 earthquake on the San Andreas fault near the town of Parkfield. “Many types of instruments were deployed in the area to observe the earthquake and also to try to predict it based on various types of precursory signals,” Blanpied says. “As it turns out, the earthquake didn't happen until 2001, which put cold water on the idea of using the timing of past earthquakes to precisely predict future ones. Also, there were no observed precursors, which dimmed the hope that it would be possible to predict earthquakes from observing the ground.”

For now, forecasting is the best we’ve got, and although it’s imprecise, determining the probability of a quake does help developers make good decisions about where to build and what types of forces those buildings should be constructed to withstand. “If our buildings are strong,” Blanpied says, “then it doesn’t matter so much [if we can predict large earthquakes] because we’ll be safe no matter when the ground happens to shake.”

Prediction Research

Quakes pose a threat to 75 million Americans in 39 states, so despite the challenges, scientists at the USGS are working diligently to figure out how to better predict these events. They create quakes in the lab, have drilled boreholes in the San Andreas Fault Zone to get a look at the conditions at depth, and study ground deformation using GPS sensors to understand how stresses build up on faults. At the very least, this research will help create an early warning system similar to Japan’s, which would give people away from the quake's epicenter some time—a few seconds to a minute, maybe—to get to a safe place, slow or halt public transportation, clear traffic off of bridges, and more. But there’s no promise that a solid earthquake prediction method will ever be discovered. “What we need is a prediction method that works better than random educated guessing, and despite decades of work on this problem, so far nobody has demonstrated that such a method exists and works,” Blanpied says. “I am dubious that we will ever be able to predict the time of large earthquakes in a useful way. However, we can predict a lot of things about earthquakes that are useful, other than the time of their occurrence, and we can use that knowledge to make ourselves and our communities resilient.”

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Big Questions
Where Is the Hottest Place on Earth?
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The summer of 2017 will go down as an endurance test of sorts for the people of Phoenix, Arizona. The National Weather Service issued an extreme heat warning, and planes were grounded as a result of temperatures exceeding 120 degrees. (Heat affects air density, which in turn affects a plane’s lift.)

Despite those dire measures, Phoenix is not the hottest place on Earth. And it’s not even close.

That dubious honor was bestowed on the Lut Desert in Iran in 2005, when land temperatures were recorded at a staggering 159.3 degrees Fahrenheit. The remote area was off the grid—literally—for many years until satellites began to measure temperatures in areas that were either not well trafficked on foot or not measured with the proper instruments. Lut also measured record temperatures in 2004, 2006, 2007, and 2009.

Before satellites registered Lut as a contender, one of the hottest areas on Earth was thought to be El Azizia, Libya, where a 1922 measurement of 136 degrees stood as a record for decades. (Winds blowing from the nearby Sahara Desert contributed to the oppressive heat.)

While the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) acknowledged this reading as the hottest on record for years, they later declared that instrumentation problems and other concerns led to new doubts about the accuracy.

Naturally, declaring the hottest place on Earth might be about more than just a single isolated reading. If it’s consistency we’re after, then the appropriately-named Death Valley in California, where temperatures are consistently 90 degrees or above for roughly half the year and at least 100 degrees for 140 days annually, has to be a contender. A blistering temperature of 134 degrees was recorded there in 1913.

Both Death Valley and Libya were measured using air temperature readings, while Lut was taken from a land reading, making all three pretty valid contenders. These are not urban areas, and paving the hottest place on Earth with sidewalks would be a very, very bad idea. Temperatures as low as 95 degrees can cause blacktop and pavement to reach skin-scorching temperatures of 141 degrees.

There are always additional factors to consider beyond a temperature number, however. In 2015, Bandar Mahshahr in Iran recorded temperatures of 115 degrees but a heat index—what it feels like outside when accounting for significant humidity—of an astounding 163 degrees. That thought might be one of the few things able to cool Phoenix residents off.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
How Does Autopilot Work on an Airplane?
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How does autopilot work on an airplane?

Joe Shelton:

David Micklewhyte’s answer is a good one. There are essentially a few types of features that different autopilots have. Some autopilots only have some of these features, while the more powerful autopilots do it all.

  • Heading Hold: There’s a small indicator that the pilot can set on the desired heading and the airplane will fly that heading. This feature doesn’t take the need for wind correction to desired routing into account; that’s left to the pilot.
  • Heading and Navigation: In addition to holding a heading, this version will take an electronic navigation input (e.g. GPS or VOR) and will follow (fly) that navigation reference. It’s sort of like an automated car in that it follows the navigator’s input and the pilot monitors.
  • Altitude Hold: Again, in addition to the above, a desired altitude can be set and the aircraft will fly at that altitude. Some autopilots have the capability for the pilot to select a desired altitude and a climb or descent rate and the aircraft will automatically climb or descend to that altitude and then hold the altitude.
  • Instrument Approaches: Autopilots with this capability will fly preprogrammed instrument approaches to the point where the pilot either takes control and lands or has the autopilot execute a missed approach.

The autopilot is a powerful computer that takes input from either the pilot or a navigation device and essentially does what it is told to do. GPS navigators, for example, can have a full flight plan entered from departure to destination, and the autopilot will follow the navigator’s guidance.

These are the majority of the controls on the autopilot installed in my airplane:

HDG Knob = Heading knob (Used to set the desired heading)

AP = Autopilot (Pressing this turns the autopilot on)

FD = Flight Director (A form of navigational display that the pilot uses)

HDG = Heading (Tells the autopilot to fly the heading set by the Heading Knob)

NAV = Tells the autopilot to follow the input from the selected navigator

APR = Tells the autopilot to fly the chosen approach

ALT = Tells the autopilot to manage the altitude, controlled by the following:

VS = Vertical Speed (Tells the autopilot to climb or descend at the chosen rate)

Nose UP / Nose DN = Sets the climb/descent rate in feet per minute

FLC = Flight Level Change (An easy manual way to set the autopilot)

ALT Knob = Used to enter the desired altitude

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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