In the United Kingdom’s House of Commons in 1854, a Member of Parliament stood up and made the suggestion that recent scientific advances might allow the weather in the city to be known ‘twenty-four hours in advance’. The House broke into uproar and laughter - the idea was considered utterly preposterous. But with thousands of lives being lost in the country every year as a result of storms, by 1861 storm warnings were being wired to ports using the new telegraph system. So popular were they, that these ‘weather forecasts’ quickly became a staple part of newspaper content across the country.
Now, 160 years later, operational earthquake forecasting is in a similar position. With a proliferation of sensors that would have been considered infeasible perhaps 50 years ago alongside growing computer modelling power and expertise, geoscientists increasingly have information about potential seismic activity that could be of use in emergency and public planning. But how best to communicate that?
Over a century of experience in communicating the risk of life-threatening storms has put meteorology in a strong position to help us tackle this problem, but they are not the only ones: those used to communicating flooding, epidemics of disease and even financial market fluctuations all have lessons we can learn from.
As well as talking to communications professionals in all these fields, we are also listening to people ‘on the ground’ in three key RISE countries: Italy, Switzerland and Iceland. By interviewing members of the public, emergency responders and long-term planners and testing our messages and visualisations on them we will hopefully soon be able to advise on how best to get useful ‘earthquake forecasts’ into the hands of those who can act on them.
Hopefully as well as learning from the successes of weather forecasting, we can be prepared by its failures. Tragically the father of the weather forecast, Robert Fitzroy, beset with scepticism from scientific colleagues about his methods, funding problems from government, and complaints from those who lost business as a result of false alarms in the warnings, killed himself before he saw them become the ubiquitous and lifesaving service that they are today. With the backing of RISE and alert to these potential barriers, we hope to overcome them.