There is a Taiwanese saying that “when times are bad, people behave in strange ways.” Last week, a person surnamed Wang (王) spread a rumor on social media saying that a magnitude 7.2 earthquake would occur in the Chianan area in southern Taiwan between Tuesday and Thursday last week, most likely between 12am and 4am on Wednesday last week.
The rumor quickly spread across the nation, causing widespread confusion. Coincidentally, an earthquake measuring 6.0 on the Richter scale indeed occurred just before midnight on Tuesday last week on the Milun Fault in the Hualien area, which sits on the northeastern earthquake belt.
With an intensity level of 7, the earthquake caused severe damage to several buildings along the fault line, killing 16 people and injuring 285.
Seeing the rumor spread without any scientific support, with some panic thrown in, scientists do not know whether to cry or fret.
News spread that Wang’s prediction, which lacks any scientific basis, was correct and some people believed it.
The locally made Formosat-5 satellite, which travels in a sun-synchronous orbit, took 15 years of research and NT$5.7 billion (US$194.15 million) to build. It is equipped with a cube-shaped advanced ionospheric probe that receives and analyzes data.
Last year, the probe detected a 50 percent increase in electron density in the ionosphere above Iran and Iraq about seven to nine days before a magnitude 7.3 earthquake occurred on the Iran-Iraq border.
Formosat-5 passes above Taiwan once every two days, and five days before the Hualien earthquake, it detected a decrease in electron density in the ionosphere above Hualien.
Perhaps electric charges sometimes accumulate as a result of the movement of tectonic plates, but the data recorded before the earthquake were not clear, and therefore they were not significant enough to warn the public and evacuate residents.
Disturbances in the ionosphere do not always mean there is an earthquake brewing. Even though the disturbances in the electron density above Iran and Iraq were clear, they were not clear enough to warrant a disaster warning.
There are estimates that an earthquake probability warning system can be developed in about a decade.
Taiwan still has a long way to go before it will have science-based earthquake prevention and it will be an arduous journey that requires a lot of caution.
Considering how easily Taiwanese panic, sending evacuation messages would only cause a greater disaster.
Comments by lay people who lack any kind of scientific knowledge could be treated as forecasts, and in that case there would be no need for modern quantitative science and scientific instruments — people would only need to pray to the old gods and ask for divine opinion.
Ninety percent of all earthquakes occur in the countries around the Pacific Ocean. Governments and academics are devoting themselves to prediction research, since it is an issue that poses a threat to tens of millions of people.
Such fields inevitably attract the attention of people who act on rumor. Many media outlets that are not willing to do their research or report fairly and only want to create more news join in and offer a stage for these “earthquake experts.”
These news outlets no longer possess the trustworthiness and credibility of the fourth estate. As rumor-mongering is becoming a sickness, the nation needs more people to come forward and offer scientific explanations.
Lai Ming-huang is an engineer who holds a doctorate in engineering from National Cheng Kung University.
Translated by Chang Ho-ming
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