5.7.6: A Strange Experience in Greece
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On a pleasant Saturday morning in May 1995, the townspeople of Kozáni and Grevena in northwestern Greece were rattled by a series of small earthquakes that caused people to rush out of their houses. While everyone was outside enjoying the spring weather, an earthquake of M 6.6 struck, causing more than $500 million in damage but no one was killed. Just as at Haicheng, the foreshocks alarmed people and they went outside. The saving of lives was not due to any official warning; the people simply did what they thought would save their lives.
No official warning? Into the breach stepped Panayiotis Varotsos, a solid-state physicist from the University of Athens. For more than fifteen years, Varotsos and his colleagues Kessar Alexopoulos and Konstantine Nomicos have been making earthquake predictions based on electrical signals they have measured in the Earth using a technique called VAN, after the first initials of the last names of its three originators. Varotsos claimed that his group had predicted an earthquake in this part of Greece some days or weeks before the Kozáni-Grevena Earthquake, and after the earthquake he took credit for a successful prediction. Varotsos had sent faxes a month earlier to scientific institutes abroad pointing out signals indicating that an earthquake would occur in this area. But the actual epicenter was well to the north of either of two predicted locations, and the predicted magnitude was much lower than the actual earthquake, off by a factor of 1,000 in energy release.
The VAN prediction methodology has changed over the past two decades. The proponents say they can predict earthquakes of magnitude greater than M 5 one or two months in advance, including a devastating earthquake near Athens in 1999. As a result, Varotsos’ group at Athens received for a time about 40 percent of Greece’s earthquake-related research funds, all without review by his scientific colleagues. His method has been widely publicized in Japan, where the press implied that if the VAN method had been used, the Kobe Earthquake would have been predicted. Although several leading scientists believe that the VAN method is measuring something significant, the predictions are not specific as to time, location, and magnitude. However, VAN has received a lot of publicity in newspapers and magazines, on television, and even in Japanese comic books.
This section on prediction concludes with two quotations from eminent seismologists separated by more than fifty years.
In 1946, the Jesuit seismologist, Father James Macelwane, wrote in the Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America : “The problem of earthquake forecasting [he used the word forecasting as we now use prediction] has been under intensive investigation in California and elsewhere for some forty years, and we seem to be no nearer a solution of the problem than we were in the beginning. In fact, the outlook is much less hopeful.”
In 1997 Robert Geller of Tokyo University wrote in Astronomy & Geophysics, the Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society: “The idea that the Earth telegraphs its punches, i.e., that large earthquakes are preceded by observable and identifiable precursors—isn’t backed up by the facts.”