Dear Dr. Universe: When will the next major earthquake be? Earthquakes really interest me and I want to know so I can be prepared when the next major quake happens.

– Carmen, 11, Chowchilla, Calif.

Dear Carmen,

Our planet’s surface is constantly on the move. Sometimes this movement really shakes things up.

The Earth’s crust is made up 14 major pieces and dozens of smaller ones, called plates, that move in super slow motion. Earthquakes can happen when these plates suddenly slip past each other. They send out waves of energy that make the ground shake.

We can learn a lot about earthquakes after they happen, but the truth is they are pretty unpredictable.

“Everyone wants to know precisely when the next earthquake will be, but the best answer is that we really don’t know the exact timing,” said my friend Katie Cooper, a geologist at Washington State University.

Earthquakes around the world

According to the National Earthquake Information Center, more than a million large and small earthquakes shake the planet’s surface each year. By the way, if you’re curious about where some of the recent earthquakes have happened, check out this cool map from the USGS.

You’ll be able to spot some places where there have been earthquakes today. If we look at earthquake patterns, we can say with pretty good confidence that they happen every day along plate boundaries. We just can’t pinpoint exactly where or when they’ll happen next.

Because we don’t precisely know, it’s a good idea to be prepared, especially if you live in an earthquake-prone region like a plate boundary. Cooper said scientists are working on ways to inform people at the very early part of an earthquake.

Some earthquake warning systems can pick up on some of the first seismic waves generated by an earthquake. This may give people ten or so seconds to prepare before the ground starts shaking. That might sound like a really short time, but even a few seconds can help save lives, Cooper said.

Engineers are also helping us prepare for earthquakes. Along with fellow universities, engineers here at WSU are working on new building materials to help people’s houses stay upright on shaky ground. They are using layers of lumber glued together to create thick solid panels. Later, they’ll use the materials to construct a 10-story building. Then they’ll simulate an earthquake in a laboratory. I can’t wait to see what they discover.

What you can do

One thing you can do to prepare for earthquakes is join the millions of people who participate in the Great ShakeOut, which helps people prepare for earthquakes at school or at home. If you haven’t already, you might even put together your own earthquake kit. It could include items such as a three-day supply of food and water, a flashlight, batteries, and other things you might need in case of a disaster.

Who knows, maybe one day you’ll discover another way to help us prepare for earthquakes—or help find ways to predict them. It’s a good question you ask, Carmen. Even when we don’t know exactly when an earthquake will happen, we can do our best to get ready.

Sincerely,
Dr. Universe

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