Search JTA's historical archive dating back to 1923

Quake Scientist Hopes Israel Will Make Others Shake with Accurate Predictions

June 22, 2004
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

The man hailed by many of his fellow scientists as the world’s leading earthquake predictor wants to help Israel become the forecasting center for the Middle East. Vladimir Keilis-Borok, 82, has become a modest media celebrity in California through his accurate predictions of two major earthquakes in 2003. His peers and quake-conscious citizens around the Pacific Rim are watching anxiously to see whether his third prediction will hit the mark.

Keilis-Borok is now working at the University of California at Los Angeles after a brilliant career in Russia. There, his scientific skills were so valued that he reached and retained high posts, despite being a Jew in the former Soviet Union, where state-sponsored anti-Semitism hindered Jewish advancement.

The Soviets granted him the privilege of traveling to Israel in the 1960s, where he organized two conferences, as well as to the United States.

Keilis-Borok is convinced that Is! raeli seismologists, geophysicists and mathematicians have the ability to build on his method and warn their country and the surrounding Arab nations of impending major earthquakes.

Seismologists consider the art of earthquake prediction as the holy grail of their craft, Keilis-Borok says. Many have claimed to have found the grail only to be proven wrong, and now more than a few skeptical scientists believe the task may be impossible.

Not so, says Keilis-Borok, a mathematical geophysicist and now professor in residence at the UCLA Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics.

“We have made a major breakthrough, discovering the possibility of making predictions months ahead of time, instead of years as in previously known methods,” said Keilis-Borok, who continues to lead a research group in his field at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow. “This discovery culminates 20 years of multinational and interdisciplinary collaboration by a team of scientists from! Russia, America, Western Europe, Japan and Canada.”

Keilis-Borok is the first to admit that his predictions cannot pinpoint the exact day and place of a big earthquake, but he has come a lot closer than anyone else.

His team’s first success came when it predicted in June 2003 that an earthquake of magnitude 6.4 or higher on the Richter scale would strike within nine months in a 310-mile region of Central California. In December, a 6.5 earthquake hit the southern part of the region.

In July 2003, the team predicted a magnitude 7 earthquake or higher in Japan’s northern island region. An 8.1 earthquake hit off Hokkaido island on Sept. 25.

At the beginning of this year, Keilis-Borok forecast a 6.4 or higher earthquake in a broad swath of the Southern California desert by Sept. 5. If the UCLA scientist hits the mark this time, even skeptical colleagues may have to acknowledge that more than coincidence is at play.

His fellow earthquake scientist at UCLA, professor Leon Knopoff, described Keilis-Borok as “an extraordinarily cre! ative and imaginative thinker, who works in unconventional areas passed up by others.”

Keilis-Borok and his team have evolved their method over the last two years and dub it the “tail wags the dog” approach, meaning that in a given region, small earthquakes eventually “wag” a major earthquake.

Stations around the globe constantly record background seismic activity in the Earth’s crust. Keilis-Borok’s team monitors the data, looking for four symptoms that might point to an eventual large earthquake.

These symptoms are small earthquakes in an area becoming more frequent; earthquakes becoming more clustered in time and space; earthquakes occurring almost simultaneously over large distances within a seismic region, and an increase in the ratio of medium-sized quakes to smaller quakes.

If the symptoms fall in line, Keilis-Borok signals a nine-month alarm. He currently is not sounding any alarms for Israel, but he notes that large temblors have occurred in that are! a and along the Mediterranean coastline since biblical times.

Goin g back into recent history, he has paid particular attention to the magnitude 7.3 Aqaba earthquake in 1995 and the 6.9 earthquake in Cyprus in 1996.

In both instances, all the prior symptoms pointed to major earthquakes, and Keilis-Borok believes that if his method had been developed in the early 1990s, he could have predicted both quakes a few months in advance.

He argues that better short-term earthquake forecasting is vitally important to Israel.

“Just as in war, Israel must be prepared because it has many unsafe buildings and because her enemies might take advantage of a devastating quake,” he said.

Increased government support for scientists would help Israel become a center for earthquake forecasting — and press the Arab world to cooperate, he added.

Recommended from JTA