Why are earthquakes so hard to predict?

The causes of major earthquakes like the 7.8 magnitude quake that struck Turkey and Syria on Monday are well understood. That doesn’t make them any easier to predict.

Despite advances in science and technology, it remains virtually impossible to know precisely when and where earthquakes will occur.

“Earthquake prediction has always been kind of the holy grail,” said Wendy Bohon, an earthquake geologist who works as a communications strategist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. “If we could tell people exactly when an earthquake was going to happen, we could take action to mitigate it. But the Earth is a very complicated system.

Part of the challenge is that the very nature of earthquakes makes them unpredictable events. When there is one, it happens quickly.

“An earthquake is not like a slow train that eventually speeds up. It’s a sudden, accelerated event,” said Ben van der Pluijm, professor of geology at the University of Michigan.

Earthquakes also tend to strike with little or no warning. Although scientists have investigated potential precursor events – ranging from changes in underground sounds to potential increases in a region’s seismic activity to changes in animal behavior – they have so far not been able to identify consistent signals that tremors are imminent.

The lack of a clear model makes it difficult to create reliable forecasts similar to weather reports.

Moreover, the processes underlying earthquakes – the crushing and collision of tectonic plates and the energy that builds up as a result – tend to take place over long periods of time. Scientists can, for example, estimate that an earthquake is likely to hit an area within the next 200 years, which can be specific on geologic time scales. On human timescales? Not really.

“We have an incredibly good idea of ​​where we expect earthquakes, and even how big we can expect large earthquakes in those areas, but that doesn’t help us narrow that down to a human timescale,” van der Pluijm said.

The US Geological Survey is even more direct on the subject. “Neither the USGS nor any other scientist has ever predicted a major earthquake. We don’t know how, and we don’t expect to know at any time for the foreseeable future,” the agency said on its website.

Still, there are ways to prepare. The USGS has developed an early warning system called ShakeAlert that detects when a large earthquake has occurred in California, Oregon, and Washington, then issues radio, television, and cellphone alerts that a strong shaking is imminent. In most cases, alerts only offer a few seconds of warning, but that time can be extremely valuable, van der Pluijm said.

“Twenty seconds seems very short, but it’s enough time for you to find a place under a desk to take cover,” he says. “It’s not a prediction, but ShakeAlert is a huge step forward because it can minimize the inevitable impact.”

One of the most important ways to prepare for an earthquake is to be aware of the risks, Bohon said. For policymakers, this means ensuring that critical infrastructure is protected in earthquake-prone areas.

“What we need to do is make sure we understand what can happen and build to resist it,” she said. “We have to make sure people know what to do. We need to ensure that our cities are able to be resilient to these hazards so that we don’t just survive the earthquake, we can survive the aftermath.

This article originally appeared on NBCNews.com

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