Disputed NASA Study Finds 99.9 Percent Chance LA Will Soon Face Major Earthquake

Some scientists say the odds are lower -- 85 percent.
BREA, CA, FRIDAY, MARCH 28, 2014 - Cesar Zamora, night manager at the 99 Cent Only store located on Imperial Highway looks ov
BREA, CA, FRIDAY, MARCH 28, 2014 - Cesar Zamora, night manager at the 99 Cent Only store located on Imperial Highway looks over aisles of fallen goods shaken off the shelves thanks to a 5.1 magnitude earthquake centered nearby in La Habra.

Are you ready for the big one, Southern California? According to a new study from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, there's a 99.9 percent chance the Los Angeles area will experience an earthquake of 5.0 magnitude or greater in the next 2 1/2 years. But not all scientists are on board with the prediction.

The study, published Tuesday in the the journal Earth and Space Science after first being published online last month, studied the potential for an earthquake in the area based on the behavior of the 5.1-magnitude La Habra quake in March 2014, which centered between the Whittier and Puente Hills Faults in the Los Angeles Basin. 

"If you think of pulling on a rubber band, you stretch it and stretch it, and if you pull on it hard enough, it's going to break," NASA geophysicist Andrea Donnellan, the study's lead author, told The Huffington Post, comparing the rubber band to the earth's crust. "The earthquakes are the breaking rubber band. So what we did in this study is we showed what stored potential was still in the northeast LA basin and northern Orange County."

That potential, the study found, amounts to an earthquake between magnitude 6.1 and 6.3 happening at some point in the future.

"We're missing an earthquake," Donnellan said.

The part of the study that's catching everyone's attention is the prediction that there's a 99.9 percent chance of an earthquake magnitude 5.0 or greater occurring within a 100-kilometer radius of the La Habra quake's epicenter by April 2018. The research also found a 35 percent chance of at least a 6.0 magnitude quake striking within the same boundaries in that time period.

That shouldn't surprise Los Angeles residents, Donnellan said.

"If you look at the statistics of earthquakes, there have been 32 earthquakes in the last 81 years above magnitude 5 in LA, so that's an earthquake every three years," Donnellan explained.

That aspect of the study has been called into question by the U.S. Geological Survey, which cautions against making such precise predictions. The USGS said it was unclear how NASA reached its conclusion. 

"This paper claims a 99.9% probability of an earthquake of magnitude 5 or greater occurring in the next 3 years within a large area of Southern California without providing a clear description of how these numbers were derived," the USGS said in a statement. USGS models show the chance of an earthquake of magnitude 5.0 or greater in the studied area in the next three years is 85 percent. 

Lucy Jones, an award-winning USGS seismologist known as Southern California's "earthquake lady," shared the same statement on Facebook, calling NASA's claims "alarming."

Thomas Heaton, a professor of engineering seismology and director of the Earthquake Engineering Research Laboratory at Caltech, told the Los Angeles Daily News that he cautions against trying to predict any earthquakes using the NASA study's method. 

“As far as I’m concerned there has never been a successful earthquake prediction and a scientific breakthrough would be required for us to make a scientifically based prediction,” Heaton told the paper. “While the authors are credible scientists, this paper does not meet my definition of science. That is, this type of slip deficit," the rubber band concept, "has been tried in the past, but it has been shown to have minimal predictive power. That said, earthquakes tend to cluster in time and space, and the fact that there have been recent events in the La Habra area tells us that there is a reasonable likelihood that there will be more.” 

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