Let us say for the sake of argument that nearly perfect earthquake prediction were developed. The date, time, location, and magnitude could be determined up to 6 months in advance.

Now what? What do we do now?

Many have argued that if we had reliable earthquake prediction many lives could be saved. Sure, if we could predict quakes with sufficient warning we could easily move people out of harms way and the only casualties we’d have would be from the evacuation process itself. Certainly those few casualties would be worth the effort as potentially so many more lives could be saved.  But, is it *really* worth it? At what magnitude do we start evacuating? If we know a magnitude 9 quake was headed our way surely evacuation is warranted. Even an 8. A 7? Of course. What about a 6? Very likely. A 5? In some areas it would be worth it as the building codes aren’t so good. A 4.5? A 4?

Next, who decides when to evacuate and when not to? Do we vest that authority with government? To what level? Is it absolute? Do we leave it to scientists and engineers? Some other authority? Or do we leave it up to the individual?

Then, how do we decide at what point the inconvenience, the collateral damages and casualties, the lost income from work, the lost revenue from businesses shutting down, the expense paid by governments to organize, the risks made by those who must implement the plan… At what point is evacuating better than doing nothing?

But even if we eliminated the people problem, what about the infrastructure? What good does knowing a damaging quake is coming if the buildings and bridges are still going to collapse? What good is it if the tsunami is still going to take out whole seaside towns and cities? What about the damage to sea and airports? What about the nuke plants? Even if we know the BIG ONE is coming, it’s still going to happen. There will still be damage and devastation. There will still be a mess to clean up, and it’s going to come with a whopping big bill. Someone will still have to pay.

And who pays? The government? Insurance companies? This is a serious question. If we knew a quake was coming, who in their right mind would insure against the event? Surely many would be upset at their tax monies going to pay for damage that was predicted. What do individuals do when suddenly their insurance premiums spike 500% when a warning is given? After all, if we knew it was coming, why wasn’t anything done about it? Why didn’t anyone prepare? This question is further complicated by the previous question regarding ‘who decides’. If you were told to leave and you didn’t, who pays? If you were told to prepare and you didn’t, should others be responsible for taking care of you? Do you want to pay for other’s who don’t take responsibility and prepare or leave?

The fact is, we already know what the results will be when a big quake strikes. Further, we have a pretty darned good idea where quakes occur and how big they could be. Yes, it’s not perfect, as the recent 9.0(+?) quake in Japan attests. Sure they were prepared, but not for something this big. It was unexpected. But even so, the preparations that were there surely saved many tens if not hundreds of thousands of lives (compare to Sumatra 2004), and much of the infrastructure survived largely intact.

So although we do not know when the Big One is coming, we can still prepare. I wonder if not knowing when a disaster will strike makes the problem much more manageable. Many of the above questions only arise if we know of the event in advance. Take away the predictability and we are left with only one worry, and that is how much we should prepare. Preparedness works, period.

Yes, it will still cost money to enforce stricter building codes and disaster plans, but since we’d have to spend it anyway – either in preparing for a known coming disaster, or cleaning up after it – we really don’t have much room to argue. After all, even with six months warning of an 8.2 affecting Los Angeles, is there realistically much we can do? It would take years if not decades to retrofit buildings to withstand the shaking. Can buildings even be made ‘earthquake proof’? Is it worth the expense?

There is no simple answer. Yet, the disaster in Japan surely should be a motivator. We all must prepare. No corner of the world is safe from disaster be it earthquake, volcano, tornado, hurricane, tsunami, mudslide, flood, or any other calamity. It is up to individuals to prepare for themselves and to insist that their governments, the people whom they entrust to serve their greater needs, to make better efforts to prepare. Yes, preparedness will cost so we all might as well pony up and pitch in. After all, it could be YOUR life that is saved because a stricter building code required the office you work in to be retrofitted, or the bridge you got stuck under to be reinforced.

I do not mean to imply that efforts to develop earthquake prediction are in error or should be stopped. Rather, I mean to point out that there may be unforeseen consequences of such a development. I wonder if any of those who insist prediction is possible have realized any of these questions. Surely there are many more unasked than I have addressed here. As has happened many times in human history, technological developments outpaced mankind’s maturity and responsibility for their use. Is earthquake prediction any different? Does it have to be? Perhaps right along side our efforts to predict mother nature, we should also make an effort to deal with the obvious social and economic changes that would occur from such a paradigm shifting development.

Are we prepared to know the future?