Wed, Jan 17, 2007 - Page 4 News List

Earthquake predictors win fans but face steep fines

PAINFUL PREDICTIONS The Seismological Observation Center says scientific data, not people, should predict earthquakes, even if self-styled quake predictors disagree

By David Chang  /  DPA , WITH STAFF WRITER

Last month's earthquake off southern Taiwan that killed two people and injured 42 has revived a debate on earthquake prediction as several residents claimed they had predicted it because they heard strange sounds or had chest pains.

The most popular among these earthquake "predictors" is Lee Chen-chi (李振吉), 38, an insurance company manager who claims he can hear sounds before an earthquake occurs.

Chen said that several days before the Dec. 26 quake struck off Hengchun (恆春) in Pingtung County, he heard sounds like a ship's horn and radio jamming.

He e-mailed his predictions to friends and Professor Chu Tzu-hau (朱子豪), a geologist at National Taiwan University, he said.

The quake, measuring 6.7 on the Richter scale, destroyed 15 houses and damaged undersea cables, disrupting telecommunications across Asia.

Lee said he realized he could predict earthquakes after a magnitude 7.3 quake on Sept. 21, 1999, which left 2,415 dead, 11,305 injured and 400,000 homeless.

"After that quake, I realized that whenever I heard muffled sounds, an earthquake would occur in the next few days, so I began to e-mail my predictions to the Seismological Observation Center [SOC]," Lee said.

After several seemingly correct predictions, Lee became a national celebrity with reporters following him every day, asking him if he had heard strange sounds and when a big quake might hit.

Three dozen other earthquake predictors soon emerged, claiming they could predict earthquakes because they could also hear strange sounds or pick up other signs.

In response, the SOC banned unofficial earthquake predictions in 2005.

Violators of the ban face a NT$1 million (US$30,000) fine.

SOC section chief Hsiao Nai-chi (蕭乃祺) said that most of the predictions were unreliable and inconsistent, "so we must rely on scientific data from our equipment," he said.

The SOC, relying on 70 monitoring stations, can report an earthquake five to 10 minutes after it has struck Taiwan or off Taiwan's coast.

But many Taiwanese like Chu Tzu-hau say that animals, human beings and scientific equipment can predict earthquakes.

"A month and a half before the Sept. 21, 1999, earthquake hit Taiwan, Chinese space scientists had predicted it, but they did not notify Taiwan until after the quake due to strained Beijing-Taipei ties," the geologist said.

The Chinese scientists had noticed -- through satellite thermal imaging -- a 2oC to 6oC rise in temperature of the ocean surface around Taiwan, he said.

Chu added that among three dozen people in Taiwan who say they can predict earthquakes, five to six of them are "accurate" in their predictions.

These include Lee and Chiu Tai-yuan, 66, a dry-cleaning store owner living in Banciao, Taipei County.

Chiu said that he had developed the ability to predict earthquakes while meditating in 1984.

"My body went through a transformation," he said, referring to belief in an energy that flows through everything that exists.

"All the channels of the qi opened, and my body became a cosmos. When one part aches, I can tell an earthquake will happen in the coming days, and I can tell you the location," he said.

"My head is south, my feet are north, my right side is east and my left side is west. So if I have a pain near my head, it indicates a quake will hit southern Taiwan. And a pain toward my feet means a quake will hit Japan," he said.

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