By Benjamin Spillman
The Desert Sun
April 14th, 2004


It's tough to fault seismologists for earthquakes that rocked the Los Angeles basin in 1994 and the Bay Area in 1989.

But the group of researchers who in both years held conferences near those memorable temblors are now in Palm Springs -- and some are predicting a major quake along the desert's slice of the San Andreas.

The expectation that the southern portion of the famous fault is likely to rupture is based on more than a scheduling quirk or the fact that this is Earthquake Preparedness Month.

But the annual conference of the Seismological Society of America comes at a time when earthquake prediction is a hot topic in the field.

The conference, described by an organizer as an event "for the real purists" of seismology, includes a highly anticipated forum with one forecaster who is predicting a 6.4 magnitude or greater quake in the desert by Sept. 5.

Another researcher will present data he says indicates the San Andreas fault is set to enter a period of especially frequent and more intense shaking.

"It seems perfect," said University of Oregon professor Ray Weldon of the conference location. "That is going to be about the center of the rupture if we are all right."

Weldon will speak today at the event about data he and student researchers have spent 18 years gathering from the San Andreas fault near Wrightwood.

They say data from the site shows the fault has had varying levels of stress in the past 1,500 years. Today, the fault shows high levels of stress, suggesting a period of strain release, via earthquakes, is near, he said.

The research generally applies along the fault from about Palmdale to the Salton Sea.

Although Weldon doesn't offer a quake prediction per se, he said the work complements a prediction by Russian scientist Vladimir Keilis-Borok, the UCLA researcher forecasting the 6.4 magnitude or greater quake in the desert.

"You could consider that support," Weldon said. "But I don't lend any insight or support to a window of time."

The Keilis-Borok earthquake prediction window has been a major topic of conversation among seismologists this year.

Keilis-Borok and his team used a mathematical formula based on past seismic activity to predict a temblor somewhere in an approximately 12,000 square-mile swath of desert that includes the Coachella Valley.

"Even two years back it was practically a dirty word to say earthquake prediction," said Nancy Sauer, a conference organizer.

The buzz around predictions this year is reminiscent of earlier enthusiasm for earthquake forecasting in the late 1970s and early 1980s, said John McRaney, associate director of the Southern California Earthquake Center.

But for the most part those efforts fizzled, McRaney said.

"It was so unsuccessful Š people sort of shied away for about 20 years," he said.

Rich Eisner, manager of earthquake programs for the California Office of Emergency Services, recalls trekking to the tiny California town of Parkfield around 1988 in response to a high-profile earthquake prediction.

Parkfield, population 37, was then known for its proximity to the site of the car accident that killed actor James Dean, Eisner said.

However, when researchers predicted a major temblor would occur in the area within a three-day window, scientists and media flocked to the area, he said.

"It became an opportunity to catch the earthquake," Eisner said. "Most of the time earthquakes occur and the instruments are in the wrong location."

The quake never materialized, but Parkfield emerged with the self-proclaimed title "earthquake capital of the world" and the Office of Emergency Services still has an earthquake response plan it formed around the time of the old prediction.

"From our standpoint, it was a productive and successful exercise," Eisner said.

Now, with Keilis-Borok scheduled to speak Thursday afternoon, the one-time dirty word could be the highlight of the society's conference, an event they've held almost every year since 1907.

"There is something going on," Sauer said. "People are at least willing to entertain the idea. It is not seen so much as junk science."

Keilis-Borok isn't talking about his work right now because he wants it to appear in a journal that discourages researchers from speaking to the press before publication of a scientific article.

The conference, which was scheduled more than a year before the desert quake prediction, represents a confluence of an opportunity to listen directly to Keilis-Borok at a location well within his prediction zone.

"Everyone is talking about it," said Lisa Grant, a University of California, Irvine geologist who will attend the conference. "Earthquake prediction is the holy grail of earthquake science."

Informant: NHNE


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