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Up to now, there was no way of predicting whether a powerful earthquake was likely to be followed by one of even greater magnitude. But the results of a study recently published in Nature by Laura Gulia and Stefan Wiemer from the Swiss Seismological Service (SED) at ETH Zurich awaken hopes that we will soon be able to do just that, in real time.
In seismically active regions, the b-value is usually close to one, meaning that there are about 10 times as many magnitude three earthquakes than quakes with a magnitude of four or higher.
When the b-value drops by 10 percent or more, the traffic light turns red, suggesting acute danger of an even more powerful quake. In most cases, though, the b-value rises by 10 percent or more and the traffic light turns green, giving the all-clear by predicting a typical sequence that will gradually fade away. This happened in 80 percent of the sequences captured in datasets examined by the researchers. The traffic light shows amber when the b-value rises or falls by less than 10 percent, meaning it is unclear what will happen next.
The traffic-light system devised by the researchers turned out to be accurate in 95 percent of the cases they examined.
The system's successful deployment would also require a dense seismic network and corresponding data processing capacity. By no means all regions that could benefit from such a traffic-light system currently have such resources.