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Warning From Space?

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

A Russian scientist says he has come up with a way to predict earthquakes from outer space that could provide a warning as much as three hours in advance of major quakes.

The method of forecasting proposed by physics professor Arkady Galper is based on the discovery that electromagnetic waves emanating from Earth just before a big temblor appear to change the behavior of particles in the radiation belt that rings the planet.

Galper, director of the Institute of Space Physics at the Moscow Engineering and Physics Institute, said three groups of Russian scientists have corroborated his results. But no major scientific papers have been published on his earthquake forecasting idea and it has not been subjected to the scrutiny of peer review that is standard in the United States.

Indeed, several U.S. earthquake experts queried about Galper’s work were deeply skeptical, saying that there was little evidence to support it or any other prediction theory.

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Although many researchers over the years have proposed various techniques to predict earthquakes, none have worked in practice. In 1988, U.S. experts predicted a major quake in Parkfield on the San Andreas fault, based on the best available geophysical and seismic data.

Seismologists recently celebrated the 10th anniversary of that prediction, with still no sign of the temblor they had forecast.

“Most scientists would say that earthquake prediction is a very long way off, if not impossible,” said Thomas Henyey, director of the Southern California Earthquake Center.

Henyey called the Russian prediction theory “implausible.”

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To take it seriously, Henyey said, “I would have to see a very, very careful discussion of the physics of the entire process. You have to be skeptical as to whether some theoretical physicist is stringing together phenomena that may seem plausible but that are extremely unlikely to ever happen in nature.

“You would also want to see that there have been multiple successes, and one would have to look at that very carefully, too.”

Galper acknowledged that, so far, his method of prediction is largely theoretical and would require the launch of at least three satellites and the creation of a ground-based network that could rapidly process data from space.

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“We have an opportunity to record the precursor of an earthquake and find its coordinates,” said Galper in Moscow. “Today, we can ascertain the coordinates of a future earthquake within 100 kilometers [60 miles], and we can do it three to four hours before the event.”

Galper said he and his colleagues happened on the possibility of forecasting earthquakes while studying the 600-mile-high radiation belt that encircles the planet’s tropical region like a giant doughnut.

The scientists’ conclusions come from more than a decade of research using Russian space stations and satellites to study the radiation belt and the electrons and protons that move within it in complex patterns.

Galper said that in about 80 out of 100 cases analyzed, his research team has found a correlation between the unusual behavior of the space particles and the electromagnetic radiation transmitted before major earthquakes.

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Because of a time lag of several days in retrieving the data from space, the scientists have never predicted a quake. “Our system is not designed for rapid feeding of information,” Galper said.

To study how the microscopic particles in the radiation belt behave, the Russian researchers used magnetic spectrometers placed aboard the Salyut 7 and Mir space stations. Early on, they observed an occasional, unexpected “bulge” in the belt as particles dipped down--or “fell out"--in the direction of Earth for periods of 10 to 15 minutes.

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Although sampling of the radiation belt was normally limited to two hours a week, they happened one day to record a large amount of “falling out” activity. The same period, they noticed, had been one of high seismic activity on Earth and they speculated that there could be a connection.

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“We were lucky in 1985 when we first stumbled across these things,” Galper said.

In 1989, a seismic measuring station in the San Francisco Bay Area near the site of the Loma Prieta earthquake found that electromagnetic waves emanated from the epicenter three hours before the temblor struck.

Theorizing that such radiation could affect particle movement in near space, they analyzed the timing of the bulges they had discovered.

“We detected about 100 instances of falling out,” Galper said. “About 80% were followed by an earthquake [of magnitude 4.0 or more] three or four hours later.”

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Further seismic data also showed that there were some large quakes that were not preceded by changes in the radiation belt.

Galper said the research showed it would be possible to determine the general location of a coming earthquake within minutes of a change in the radiation belt’s shape. Part of the job is made easy, he said, because the “falling out” occurs directly over the epicenter of the impending quake.

“The bulge is at exactly the same latitude as the epicenter of the earthquake,” he said. “If you can detect the bulge, you can say an earthquake is about to happen on that latitude.”

Because of the earth’s rotation, determining the longitude of the epicenter is more complicated, but it is possible to calculate where the bulge began and, therefore, the longitude of the epicenter.

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To establish an earthquake warning system for the entire planet would require a large network of satellites. But Galper said it would be possible to cover the region where 90% of quakes occur--and where most of the world’s population lives--with three satellites.

When a satellite detected a bulge in the belt, the information would immediately be routed to a geostationary communications satellite that would feed the information to stations on the ground. There, the data would be rapidly processed to estimate the location of the epicenter within an area of 60 square miles. The affected region would be notified and the public would have as much as three hours to prepare for the quake.

Galper is not the only scientist intrigued by the earthquake prediction possibilities posed by low-frequency electrical signals that may precede a temblor.

Solid-state physicist Panayiotis Varotsos at the University of Athens in Greece has been trying for a decade to predict quakes by detecting small electrical signals from stressed rocks.

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In California, geophysicist Stephen K. Park at UC Riverside also has been monitoring what may prove to be electrical precursors to earthquakes.

Neither scientist so far has been able to persuade other researchers that the technique can predict earthquakes.

Galper said his idea of a space-based earthquake prediction center has not gone anywhere in part because Russia has no money for such projects. Building and launching three satellites could easily eat up much of Russia’s paltry budget for its space program.

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But findings such as Galper’s conceivably could help boost support in the United States for the huge investment required to launch and operate space stations.

Galper’s team is designing a more sophisticated magnetic spectrometer that he hopes will be placed aboard the 15-nation International Space Station that will be launched in segments beginning this year.


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