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Expert Wants Israel Quake Forecast Role

by Tom Tugend

July 1, 2004 | 8:00 pm

The man hailed by many of his fellow scientists as the world's leading earthquake predictor has proven his mettle in California and Japan and now wants to help Israel become the forecasting center for the Middle East.

Professor Vladimir "Volodia" Keilis-Borok at 82 has become a modest media celebrity in California through his accurate predictions of two major temblors in 2003. His peers and quake-conscious citizens around the Pacific Rim are watching anxiously whether his third prediction will hit the mark.

He is now working at UCLA, after a brilliant career in his native Russia, where his scientific skills were so valued that he reached and retained high posts -- despite being a Jew -- even under the communist regime. The Soviets granted him the privilege of traveling to Israel in the 1960s, where he organized two symposia, as well as to the United States.

Keilis-Borok is convinced that Israeli seismologists, geophysicists and mathematicians have the Yiddishe kop (Jewish brains) to build on his method and warn their country and the surrounding Arab nations of impending major quakes. He urges his Israeli colleagues to shrei gevalt (scream for help) to persuade their government to fund their work.

Seismologists consider the art of earthquake prediction as the holy grail of their craft, Keilis-Borok said. Many have claimed to have found it, only to be proven wrong, to the point that more than a few skeptical scientists believe the task may be impossible.

Not so, demurred Keilis-Borok, a mathematical geophysicist and now professor in residence at the UCLA Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics, while continuing to lead a research group in his field at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow.

"We have made a major breakthrough, discovering the possibility of making predictions months ahead of time, instead of years as in previously known methods," he said. "This discovery culminates 20 years of multinational and interdisciplinary collaboration by a team of scientists from Russia, America, Western Europe, Japan and Canada."

Keilis-Borok is the first to warn that his predictions cannot pinpoint the exact day and place of a big quake, but he has come a lot closer than anyone else.

His team's first success came when it predicted in June 2003 that an earthquake of magnitude 6.4 or higher would strike within nine months in a 310-mile region of Central California. In December, a 6.5 quake hit the southern part of the region.

In July 2003, the team predicted a magnitude 7 quake or higher in Japan's northern island region. An 8.1 quake hit off Hokkaido island on Sept. 25.

At the beginning of this year, Keilis-Borok forecast a 6.4 or higher quake in a broad swath of the Southern California desert by Sept. 5. If the UCLA scientist hits the mark this time, even skeptical colleagues will have to acknowledge that more than coincidence is at play.

His fellow earthquake scientist at UCLA, professor Leon Knopoff, described Keilis-Borok as "an extraordinarily creative and imaginative thinker, who works in unconventional areas passed up by others."

Keilis-Borok and his team have evolved their method over the last two years and dub it the "tail-wags-the-dog" approach, meaning that in a given region, small earthquakes eventually "wag" a major quake.

Stations around the globe constantly record background seismic activity in the earth's crust. Keilis-Borok's team monitors the data, looking for four symptoms that might point to an eventual large quake.

These symptoms are small quakes in an area becoming more frequent, becoming more clustered in time and space, occurring almost simultaneously over large distances within a seismic region and the ratio of medium-sized quakes to smaller quakes increasing. If the symptoms fall in line, Keilis-Borok signals a nine-month alarm. If they don't, he keeps quiet.

He is currently not sounding any alarms for Israel, but he notes that large temblors have occurred in this area and along the Mediterranean coastline since biblical times.

Going back into recent history, he has paid particular attention to the magnitude 7.3 Aquaba quake in 1995 and the 6.9 quake in Cyprus in 1996. In both instances, all the prior symptoms pointed to major quakes, and Keilis-Borok believes that if his method had been developed in the early 1990s, he could have predicted both quakes a few months in advance.

He argues that better short-term quake forecasting is vitally important to Israel.

"Just as in war, Israel must be prepared, because it has many unsafe buildings and because her enemies might take advantage of a devastating quake," he said.

"There are excellent scientists in this field, especially at Ben-Gurion University, but also at the Weizmann Institute, Technion and Hebrew University, but what they need now is government support," the scientist added.

With such backing, he believes Israel would become the forecasting center for the Middle East. "The whole Arab world would either have to join Israel in this effort, or become dependent on Israel's preeminence," he said.

Keilis-Borok was born in 1921 and raised in "a little Jewish section" of Moscow near the Bolshoi Theater. His parents spoke Yiddish, but "my Jewishness came from the intellectual atmosphere and the hunger for excellence," he said.

By the early 1960s, his reputation was such that during the nuclear test ban negotiations in Geneva, both the Soviet Union and the United States relied on his expertise to help set the standards for distinguishing seismic signals emitted by an underground nuclear explosion from those triggered by an earthquake.

His service in Geneva and later his directorship of a Russian scientific institute allowed him to travel widely, although he had to leave his family in Moscow.

Being Jewish, he said, "created difficulties" but did not hinder his professional career, although it affected his daughter and granddaughter. "The system was not a solid wall," he said. "It had lots of chinks, and if you weren't afraid, you could find the chinks."

Such "chinks" allowed him to protect and get exit visas for his young Jewish and other assistants, he said.

His "tail-wags-the-dog" mathematical method is now being applied to predictions in fields well beyond earthquakes. Keilis-Borok and colleagues in other disciplines are into forecasting economic recessions, unemployment peaks and surges in homicides.

He and historian Allen Lichtman of the American University in Washington, D.C., have even ventured into predicting the popular vote in U.S. presidential elections. After deconstructing every presidential election since 1860, they found that the contests turned mainly on how well the White House incumbent and his party had governed during a given term.

Using 13 factors or "keys," they concluded that time-honored debates, speeches, rallies, platforms or campaign tactics exerted very little influence on the outcome. As of now and according to his 13 indicators, said Lichtman, President Bush will win the popular vote and a second term in November.

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