This has not been a great year for those in the business of predicting natural disasters – just ask Harold Camping, the Christian radio broadcaster who prophesied that the world as we know it would end last month.
Scientists in New Zealand, however, are (perhaps not so surprisingly) better at their predictions; though they might be ruing their talent in the wake of yet another spate of nasty temblors in this country’s second-largest city, radiating out across half of these shaky isles, including the desk in Wellington where these words are being gingerly typed.
Late last month, residents of Christchurch, already seriously frazzled by two major earthquakes and 6,000 aftershocks since last September, awoke to the news that the region’s GNS Science had set the chances of another quake in the next year at 1 in 4. Specifically, the organization had put the likelihood of a magnitude-6.0 or -7.0 earthquake over the next 12 months at 23 percent, with a 90 chance of a shake between 5.0 and 6.0.
These predictions had native Cantabrians reaching for their telephones and thus Mayor Bob Parker for his laptop.
While not wanting to take anything away from these figures, Mr. Parker responded to concerns soothingly. It was important to note that the warning related to the entire region in which the city of Christchurch, home to around 400,000 Kiwis, is a relatively small part. The probability of any such quake again hitting the city was therefore “significantly lower.”
Early today, however, those probabilities were shown to be significantly higher, with both categories of tremors striking within a 90-minute period: first a nasty magnitude-5.5 jolt, with a genuinely unpleasant 6.0 encore at 2:20 p.m. Their combined seismic weight took down at least another 50 buildings in the immediate city and caused much liquefaction to bubble up again on the eastern side of what used to be known as New Zealand’s Garden City.
Still, there were no reports of serious casualties this time. Except, perhaps, to the fervent faith of some of us down here who hoped a little too hard that our scientific prophecies of doom might go the way of Mr. Camping's predictions.