Workers inspect the Washington Monument for damage and install scaffolding to repair damage caused by a 5.8 magnitude earthquake in August, 2011.

An 5.8 magnitude earthquake struck Washington, DC in 2011. The Washington Monument required inspection and extensive repairs. Photo left: Lance Cheung, Flicker CC. | Photo right: Tim Evanson, Flicker CC.

Seismic data collected over the last few years has been integrated into recent updates of the United Sates Geological Survey (USGS) earthquake maps, used to identify high-risk seismic zones across the country.

Earthquakes kill over 13,000 people and affect nearly 5 million others around the world each year. Economic losses on a global scale average about $12 billion. Regions most prone to risk are the West Coast, the Intermountain West, and some areas in the central and eastern United States.

The maps aren’t intended for earthquake predictions. It’s not possible to predict those seismic events. Planners and engineers use these maps to assist in their design of buildings better able to resist earthquakes and refer to the maps if there is a need to update local building codes.

Better Earthquake Mapping Increases Understanding, Decreases Risk

The USGS report published with the maps says that 42 states should expect some earthquake damage in next 50 years. Relatively high likelihood of damage from shaking can be expected in 16 of those states: Alaska, Arkansas, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, South Carolina, Tennessee, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming.

Millions of Virginia residents experienced a magnitude 5.8 earthquake in 2011. It damaged a variety of structures, including several historical monuments in Washington, DC. The map indicates heightened risk for earthquakes in the New Madrid Seismic Zone, which stretches from southwestern Missouri into Illinois, Indian, Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Arkansas.

Attempts to Predict Earthquakes Regularly Fail

Foreshocks, changes in water table, and even unusual behavior in animals have long been considered warning signs of an impending earthquake. A failed attempt by the USGS to predict an earthquake in 1983 was based on historical records of earthquakes occurring near Parkland, CA every 22 years. The prediction was cancelled when the quake failed to happen by 1993.

Though predictions so far have proven untrustworthy the search for a dependable forecasting tool persists. Advances in big data analysis are offering some interesting results. These systems have be in testing since 2004 and use data from US, European, and Asian satellites as well as ground based instruments to atmospheric abnormalities caused by the release of energy and gases before a quake begins.