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Wednesday, Dec. 28, 2011

The future of earthquake prediction?

Skeptics abound but professor claims breakthrough in research


By ROB GILHOOLY
Special to The Japan Times
Second of two parts

Six days before the March 11 disasters, Masashi Hayakawa knew that a major earthquake was imminent.

News photo
Telling the future?: Masashi Hayakawa, a professor emeritus at the University of Electro-Communications, stands on the roof of his research center in Chofu, Tokyo, on Dec. 15. ROB GILHOOLY

Using data gathered at the Seismo-electromagnetics Research Station at the University of Electro-Communications in Chofu, Tokyo, Hayakawa says he found "conspicuous anomalies" that clearly indicated a major event was just days away.

"I saw the precursor to the quake," says the professor emeritus of the UEC's Advanced Wireless Communications Research Center. "It still makes me uncomfortable knowing that I was the only person in the world to see it."

The key to his prediction can be found on the roof of the research facility, on which dozens of antennas, satellite dishes and other gadgets have been installed.

Only one, however, is of interest to Hayakawa. Strapped to the metal fence that runs around the rooftop, it looks something akin to a plastic laundry pole.

"It's nothing flashy, but that's the Chofu receiver that picked up the signal," he says.

The receiver is part of a very low frequency and low frequency (VLF/LF) network of observation stations where signals from transmitters in Japan and overseas can be monitored simultaneously to study perturbations in the ionosphere — the uppermost layer of the atmosphere.

On March 5 and 6, Hayakawa noticed ominous signs in data being transmitted along a particular path between a U.S. Navy transmitter and the Chofu receiver.

The path of the two stations, Hayakawa says, passes over what was to be the epicenter of the magnitude 9 quake that hit off the coast of Miyagi Prefecture, triggering a series of large tsunami that eventually caused around 20,000 fatalities.

"We have looked at and predicted hundreds of land-based quakes, but this was different in that it occurred under the ocean," Hayakawa says. "The characteristics were different and at the time difficult for us to recognize."

He admits also to believing wrongly that the anomalies he had noticed in the data had been revealed on March 9, when a magnitude 7.3 quake struck near the east coast of Honshu.

"Earthquakes are natural phenomena and like the weather forecast it's unreasonable to expect to get it right 100 percent of the time," he says. "But our success rate last year was between 80 and 90 percent, which indicates we are able to map earthquake precursors accurately enough for practical purposes."

The precursor in Hayakawa's VLF/LF method of quake prediction is not the mythical "namazu," a giant subterranean catfish that traditionally was thought to cause quakes in Japan, but the slight falling of the ionosphere directly above the eventual epicenter of the quake.

The cause of this estimated 3-km fall is uncertain, though Hayakawa and other scientists believe it may be traced to a massive release of radon by rocks that fracture at the eventual epicenter several days before the actual quake occurs. Radon is a naturally occurring radioactive gas released by rocks in the Earth's crust.

"The intensification of tectonic stresses deep in the Earth causes rocks to microfracture before a quake, generating electricity, electromagnetic effects and also emanating radon," says Hayakawa, frantically sketching diagrams on a whiteboard to elucidate his theory. "The near-surface changes caused by preseismic effects stimulate atmospheric waves to propagate upward and the ionosphere directly above the quake epicenter falls."

It is this reduced distance between Earth and the ionosphere, "recorded in great detail" by the VLF/LF system of transmitters and receivers, which triggers the alarm bells, showing up on Hayakawa's computers like a false answer on a polygraph. It was this same, slightly manic-looking, zigzagging line that showed up on his charts three days before the Great Hanshin Earthquake in 1995, eight days before the magnitude 6.8 quake in the Pacific off Shizuoka Prefecture on Aug. 19, 2011, and hundreds more in between and since, says Hayakawa.

Yet, the prediction method has yet to gain wide recognition. Seismologists and other experts not only have cast doubts on the accuracy of the predictions and therefore their usefulness, but they also question the explanations put forward by Hayakawa and other proponents of the theory around the globe.

Some argue that as the March 11 quake had its epicenter some 8 km beneath the Pacific Ocean, it is difficult to conceive how radon gas would find its way into the atmosphere, never mind the ionosphere.

Others, meanwhile, have more basic questions about exactly how radon in the atmosphere would cause such dramatic changes. It has also been suggested that the volume of radon required to alter normal atmospheric conditions would be so great as to be a greater health risk than that brought about by the multiple meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power station.

Hayakawa, however, prefers to focus on other factors preventing official acceptance of this method.

Since the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, he said, research in Japan has centered on an academic understanding of quake mechanisms, not more practical applications such as prediction.

Even since the early 1970s, when ¥10 trillion a year was set aside specifically for prediction research, many scientists in the field received funding in the name of such purposes even though they have no intention of studying prediction, Hayakawa says.

"After the March disasters, the press called quake prediction scientists con artists and impostors, and I agree, that's exactly what they are," he says. "These people have deceived the public into thinking they are researching ways to predict quakes, but they only use it for the study of quake mechanisms. Not one yen has actually ever been used (by them) for quake prediction."

Hayakawa says he has received virtually no funding for his research, having been repeatedly turned away by the relevant government bodies. On one occasion he even tried to attract the interest of Tokyo Electric Power Co. to another prediction method that utilizes underground sensors.

"They said, 'We don't need them. Our (nuclear power) plants are strong enough.' "

Seismologists and others involved in the study of earthquakes also hold a dim view of quake prediction scientists.

"They say things like, 'How can Hayakawa possibly predict earthquakes when we can't? He's not even a seismologist.' And therein lies the problem: They are unable to see that there are different, new ways of looking at the subject. Keeping an open mind and exploring avenues that haven't been explored before — isn't that what science is all about?" he says.

Hayakawa is unmoved in his beliefs. Last week saw the release of his latest book, "Earthquakes Can be Predicted," while in January cellphone users will be able to subscribe to a service that relays data on predicted quakes directly from the UEC's research center.

Funds accrued from the service will be used to support his recently established enterprise, Earthquake Analysis Laboratory, a privately funded company that he runs with two others inside his research center.

"I have no intention of arguing with any doubters. Prediction is possible, we have proven that, and until I can convince the government that this kind of research is essential for public safety I will have to find ways of funding it myself."


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