Calif. Residents Can Better Know When the Shakes are Coming with New USGS Web Pages

May 18, 2005

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) announced on Wednesday the release of new public web pages that show the probability of earthquake shaking in the next 24 hours in California. These maps graphically illustrate the change in earthquake probability during aftershock and possible foreshock sequences.

The maps are not intended to be used to predict an upcoming earthquake; however, based on previous earthquake sequences, an increase in probability will be seen before about half of California’s larger earthquakes. The maps are updated at least once an hour and are available to the public at

“The new maps represent a synthesis of our knowledge about earthquakes in California,” said Dr Lucy Jones, Scientist-in-charge of the USGS Earthquake Hazards Program in Southern California. “They factor in our knowledge of faults, underlying geology and expected rates of earthquake aftershocks.”

The new maps and the way they were developed are discussed in an article in the current issue of the journal Nature. The methodology was developed by a team from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich, Switzerland, and the U. S. Geological Survey in California, with funding from the Southern California Earthquake Center, ETH and the USGS.

In almost all cases, said Jones, the probabilities on this map will be very low. The background probability for strong to moderate earthquake shaking in most of California is between 1-in-10,000 and 1-in-100,000. By comparison, the average American’s risk of being in a car accident in any 24-hour period is 1-in-2,500.

“The only time that probabilities become large enough to cause concern is after a significant earthquake that may have already caused damage,” explained USGS seismologist Dr Matt Gerstenberger. “Aftershocks are likely in this situation, and the new maps show where those aftershocks are most likely to be felt and how the hazard changes with time.”

In the system used to create the maps, the probability of strong earthquake shaking (with a Modified Mercalli Intensity of VI or greater) in the next 24 hours is calculated, based upon the known behavior of aftershocks and the possible shaking pattern predicted from historical patterns on the fault or in the area.

The system considers all earthquakes, large and small, that are recorded by the California Integrated Seismic Network (CISN), the California element of the Advanced National Seismic System ( These probabilities apply both to aftershocks smaller than the first event and to the possibility that the “aftershock” will, in fact, be larger than the first event – in which case it becomes a “foreshock.”

Seismologists have known for decades that the occurrence of one earthquake makes another event more likely. The probability of one earthquake triggering another has been quantified and depends on magnitude, distance and time from the triggering event. These relationships have been used to issue statements about possible aftershocks after significant earthquakes in California for the last 15 years.The innovations in the map include information about the spatial distribution of aftershocks, how the shaking varies by location and how the probability of earthquakes varies with time.

The results of these calculations have been statistically verified against the catalog of Californian earthquakes from 1988 to 2002, according to Jones. The testing reportedly showed that these maps do a significantly better job statistically of predicting the occurrence of earthquakes in California than long-term hazard maps alone or long-term hazard maps with generic aftershock probabilities. Because this has been statistically verified, the new maps can also now function as a “null hypothesis” for other claims of earthquake prediction.

This product has been reviewed by the California Earthquake Prediction Evaluation Council, which reportedly determined that this methodology represents the state of the art in evaluation and illustration of aftershock probabilities.

Implementation of these maps for other areas outside California depends upon both a robust real-time seismic network and the research to establish the average rate of aftershocks for that area, according to Jones.

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