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Italy quake prediction makes waves in California seismology circles

April 6, 2009 |  3:29 pm

A little over a week ago, a scientist little known in earthquake circles made a bold prediction of a destructive earthquake around the small town of Sulmona, Italy, based on readings of radon gas. Giampaolo Giuliani went so far as to tell the mayor of Sulmona that it would strike within the next 24 hours. The deadline passed, and nothing happened.

Then, early Tuesday, a magnitude 6.3 earthquake struck about 35 miles away, near the town of L’aquila, sparking a controversy in Italy and around the world about whether Guiliani actually predicted the temblor. That prediction is the latest twist in the maddening scientific quest to predict earthquakes.

The history of earthquake prediction is littered with a lot of discarded ideas, including, many scientists say, the radon theory. Guiliani said he was collecting samples of radon gases escaping from the earth’s crust in the area around the quake. He detected unusual readings and concluded that a big quake was imminent.

Using radon gas to predict quakes was popular in California in the late 1970s. Researchers at USC, Cal Tech and elsewhere believed changes in the gas levels were a precursor of quakes. In 1979, researchers found gas irregularities before two significant quakes, in Malibu and Big Bear. But the radon method began to lose steam because it could not reliably predict quakes.

Susan Hough, scientist in charge at the U.S. Geological Survey in Pasadena, who is finishing a book on earthquake prediction, said she hadn’t heard of Guiliani, but she wasn’t surprised that someone was claiming to have predicted the L’aquila quake.

“If you want predictions, they’re out there all the time,” Hough said. “It amazes me all the time that earthquakes happen that aren’t predicted because scientists and amateurs, everybody’s playing the game.”

-- Jia-Rui Chong

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