Seismologist communicating with colleague.
Photo by NOAA on Unsplash

Earthquake prediction, as an autonomous research field, emerged in the mid-1960s. The mid-1970s is considered to be the “golden age” of this field, but already in the late 1970s the enthusiasm for the feasibility of reliable earthquake prediction was waning rapidly. By the early 1980s predicting earthquakes had come to be considered a very difficult if not totally utopian goal. After that point, earthquake prediction has become the topic of an ongoing controversy. The disagreements on this topic among scientists cover a whole spectrum of ontological, epistemological and methodological issues.

An extremely contentious issue concerns the fundamentals of earthquake prediction and involves the very definition of earthquake prediction: there are intense battles over what it means to have an earthquake prediction as such. A further major issue is the predictability of the earthquake phenomenon. The scientists who favor-short term earthquake prediction (i.e., from a few weeks to a few days before an earthquake occurs) claim that only this kind of prediction qualifies as earthquake prediction and argue that medium-term prediction (i.e., a few years before an earthquake occurs) is just a statistical estimate of the probability of the occurrence of an earthquake. The proponents of medium-term prediction, on the other hand, believe that earthquakes are predictable in the medium-term, but non-predictable or even unpredictable in the short-term. To make things more complicated, there are scientists who consider the earthquake phenomenon as totally unpredictable.

Another important question is: “When is an earthquake prediction considered successful?” This question has not received a definite answer. In the course of evaluating the earthquake prediction methods that have been proposed at various times, the scientific community has confronted the fact that the available conceptual, methodological, and technical tools do not suffice for the evaluation of these methods. The creation and acceptance of such tools has proved to be a highly controversial process.