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State Scrutinizes Firm That Sells Earthquake Forecasts

March 01, 2003|Kenneth Reich | Times Staff Writer

A Bay Area firm that is selling forecasts of earthquakes on the Internet has received a warning from state regulators and faces criticism from some quake experts who believe the system is a sham.

For $9.95 a month and up, subscribers to the service receive notices about upcoming earthquakes from around the world. Among the firm's forecasts this week was a 40% probability of a magnitude 2.0 to 3.2 earthquake in the Los Angeles area.

But critics point out that many of the forecasts are obvious: The Los Angeles Basin has about 1,000 quakes a year. There have been a couple of 2-magnitude quakes this week within the 50-mile perimeter geoForecaster uses to score the validity of its forecasts.

"They publicized a list of predictions last week, but they didn't include either the Big Bear [quake] or the earthquake in western China, the only quakes of the week that caused damage or casualties," said Bill Ellsworth, the scientist in charge of earthquake studies at the U.S. Geological Survey in Menlo Park, Calif.

"Those of us charged with this matter are skeptical of any of their claims," Ellsworth said. "Their methods, which they have not made fully public, should be subject to independent review."

GeoForecaster is the only firm in California to commercially offer earthquake forecasts.

Responding to complaints from scientists, the state Board for Geologists and Geophysicists sent a letter to geoForecaster Inc., of the Bay Area city Lafayette, saying the firm appears to be practicing geology in California without a license, a misdemeanor subject to a $2,500 fine.

Board executive officer Paul Sweeney said that to obtain a license, a geoForecaster prognosticator would have to appear for an examination.

Michael Kozuch, the firm's chief executive, in an interview from his home in New Zealand, said: "We're going to look at the letter carefully. If we need to, we will do everything we can to abide by the regulation. We want to be good corporate citizens like everyone else."

Kozuch said geoForecaster uses a geologist who is a former employee of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to make its forecasts. The geologist, he said, has five years of experience, as required by the California board to be licensed.

Asked to describe the firm's forecasting methods, Kozuch said: "It's an integrated system at looking at the relationship between earthquakes on a global scale. Whereas a lot of seismology looks at nearby faults and how they may influence each other, we look at the whole Earth and how it's interacting. So, in a nutshell, it's pattern-recognition methodology, and we look at that and determine our probabilities."

Sweeney said the board's attention had been brought to the matter by Richard McCarthy, executive officer of the state Seismic Safety Commission, who, like U.S. Geological Survey officials, has expressed concern about the forecasts' validity.

"I haven't seen anything to indicate they can predict earthquakes," added UCLA geophysics professor John Vidale, who has studied the geoForecaster Web site. Although he said he considers the firm sincere, "They are tying solar flares to earthquakes and also stressing waves moving slowly through the Earth such as we've never verified."

Kozuch would not say how many people or organizations subscribe to geoForecaster.

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