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Can we be better prepared for earthquakes?

A boy carries a hard won bucket of water away from a broken water pipe in the commune of Cite Soleil in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

Handout/Logan Abassi/MINUSTAH via Getty Images

Mathematician Florin Diacu is the author of Megadisasters: The Science of Predicting the Next Catastrophe. Born in Romania, Prof. Diacu "lived through several earthquakes" there, and now teaches at the University of Victoria: "I moved from one earthquake zone to another."

What are some of the limits of prediction? You suggest that earthquakes are much harder to predict than most other types of disasters.

With hurricanes, we are doing quite well these days. But with earthquakes or tsunami, most of which are generated by earthquakes, we are not doing as well. The main reason for that is that we don't really know the exact position of the tectonic plates. The global positioning system allows us to do better measurements. However, we are still far from understanding how the plates work.

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The experts are divided about whether we'll be able to predict earthquakes soon. Some think that we won't ever be able to make precise predictions. Others think that the time may come.

Of course, what people want would be to know very clearly on that day at that time in that region when an earthquake of that magnitude will take place. Well, something like that we obviously cannot do and probably will never be able to do. But we can tell that during certain periods of time earthquakes will be more likely in certain regions.

Discussing the famous tsunami of 2004, you say: "The saddest part of the story is that most of the lives could have been saved." How could people prepare for something so sudden?

There is story in the book about a 10-year-old English girl who recognized the signs of an incoming tsunami and alerted her parents. The parents talked to a lifeguard, who evacuated the beach. About 100 people were saved just because a little girl recognized the signs and did the right thing. You see, tsunamis don't come all of the sudden. We have some warnings. Sometimes the warning is only a few minutes, sometimes half an hour. For instance, the water recedes or becomes bubbly and frothy, like on top of a beer. There are other signs: if the water stings the skin or the sea smells of rotten eggs or oil, or a boom is followed by a whistle or a jet-plane or helicopter-like noise. Once you have seen a documentary showing these signs, you recognize them.

But society can also prepare. In North America, we have a very well-established warning system. If a big earthquake that can generate a tsunami takes place near Japan, we would know on the West Coast right away. The same should have happened in the Indian Ocean in 2004. An earthquake took place off the coast of Indonesia, and people should have been warned. And that's why I said most of those lives could have been saved.

Do you think the real message of the book is that prevention is the best medicine, not only for health but also for disasters?

Definitely. Earthquakes don't kill people. The houses that collapse on people kill them. The first thing is to impose building codes in areas prone to earthquakes so that the risk is minimal. No place on Earth is safe from earthquakes; still, there are zones where they are more likely.

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It's not just about earthquakes. One example I wrote about regards collisions with asteroids or comets. Until now, we could not have defended ourselves from such a cosmic impact. What we can do these days is, when we find out an asteroid is likely to hit us one or two years from now, either destroy it with atomic weapons or use some other method to try to deviate [it] Because, if you nudge it just a little bit now, a couple of years from now, it will move a lot on a different orbit and away from us.

All I'm saying is that we really need to look around, invest the money in the right science [and]make this a safer world.

Isn't there a tendency in humanity to pooh-pooh danger?

Many more people die in car accidents every year than people die in tsunamis or in earthquakes. However, when such things happen, then you are sorry that you didn't do anything to prevent it. So, of course, we can lie to ourselves and say we shouldn't worry about these things. But I don't think that's the right approach. Even though these events are rare, when they come, they make a lot of damage and suffering. A lot of people die.

Isn't there a danger in raising too much of an alarm too often, as in the boy who cried wolf?

Definitely. This is not a scientific problem. This is a media problem. With H1N1, the coverage of this issue was way out of proportion. But the vaccine had an impact in not allowing the disease to spread. We don't know how things would have been, had we not been vaccinated.

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So you're advocating preparation and education.

It's not difficult to get prepared. It's not difficult to be aware. The 10-year-old English girl was a child and she was able to recognize something nobody else recognized. If we just present children with all the possible dangers and what to do about them, it is much better than if you don't know anything about these things. It's not difficult.

Jeet Heer is a freelance journalist in Toronto.

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