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2018 could be an extra-active year for earthquakes, study says

An Iranian boy rides a bicycle through the rubble caused by a 7.3-magnitude earthquake that left hundreds killed in November. Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty

While earthquakes are difficult to predict, a new study suggests that next year the world may see more of the natural disasters.

Research done by U.S. geologists, which was presented to the Geological Society of America’s annual meeting, explains that the Earth’s rotation has slowed very minimally. And that could mean 2018 will see more earthquakes than usual.

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University of Colorado’s Roger Bilham and University of Montana’s Rebecca Bendick evaluated data from the past 117 years, indicating that there is a “strong” correlation between Earth’s rotational speed and earthquakes. The Earth’s speed slows down for five or six years every few decades, as part of its natural cycle.

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The scientists explained that most years there are about 15 major earthquakes. But since 1900, there have been five periods when there was increased seismic activity. Those extra-active periods coincided with the Earth’s rotation slowing by about one millisecond a day.

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“On five occasions in the past century a 25-30 per cent increase in annual numbers of earthquakes [of 7.0 magnitude or more] has coincided with a slowing in the mean rotation velocity of the Earth, with a corresponding decrease at times when the length-of-day is short,” the study reads.

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Bilham said in an interview with The Observer that 2017 has been “easy” in terms of the number of major earthquakes.

“Next year we should see a significant increase in numbers of severe earthquakes,” he explained. “We have had it easy this year. So far we have only had about six severe earthquakes. We could easily have 20 a year starting in 2018.”

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While the researchers aren’t able to predict specific earthquakes, they do have some insight on which areas are most likely to be affected.

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“The observed relationship is unable to indicate precisely when and where these future earthquakes will occur, although we note that most of the additional earthquakes have historically occurred near the equator in the West and East Indies,” the study explains.

It adds that 80 per cent of Caribbean quakes since 1900 have occurred following a deceleration in the Earth’s rotation, including the 2010 Haiti earthquake which left thousands dead.

Take study with a grain of salt: researcher

An article in the Washington Post warns that this study has yet to be backed up by additional research.

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Bendick, one of the study’s researchers, told the newspaper that the findings were “statistically significant,” but they’re not as clearcut as they may seem.

“We’re scientists, not magicians,” she said, explaining that the study does not intend to predict definitively that there will be more earthquakes next year — but that they are more likely.

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