USGS - science for a changing world

U.S. Geological Survey

Maps, Imagery, and Publications Hazards Newsroom Education Jobs Partnerships Library About USGS Social Media

SAFRR - Science Application for Risk Reduction

Earthquake Risk Communication Design Storm


Although an earthquake can strike at any time, there are some times when an earthquake becomes more likely. The most common is when another earthquake has happened which can trigger aftershocks and other earthquakes. At this time, seismologists can determine the probability of a large earthquake. Usually the probability is low in absolute terms, but much higher than it was. The USGS is seeking help in how to most effectively communicate this information to emergency managers and the public.

In a separate scientific development, we are also sometimes able to recognize that an earthquake is underway and communicate this information to more distant sites before the shaking arrives, thus providing a few seconds warning for the event, called earthquake early warning. This is a similar message to the earthquake clustering -there is a greater chance of earthquake shaking in a very short time frame - but for early warning the probabilities are higher and the time is shorter. We need to develop messages that will communicate effectively in seconds (we are planning a training program as well) and not be confused with the aftershock messages.

In developing these messages and sharing them in a way that maximizes their potential, communicators face constraints. For example, sharing probabilities to help people make decisions about their level of risk is constrained by a wide disparity in how probabilities are interpreted. Varying levels of risk science literacy and number sense create disparity comprehension. Another constraint is that, in a world where our ability to predict is limited by variability that cannot scientifically be fully comprehended, a worried public demands certainty. We seek to resolve some of the uncertainty of these constraints by merging the risk and crisis communication literature with the science to seismology to create, test, and improve emergency messages the forecasting of earthquakes.

The field of risk communication provides insights about how people respond to different types of messages in crisis situations. For, instance research has shown that the most effective messages include three components - 1) information that communicates why the situation applies to the hearer, 2) an explanation of why the information is known (the science behind it), and 3) the action that can be taken to be safer.

In this Design Storm, we want to bring together seismologists, emergency managers, risk communication researchers, and design professionals to develop a framework for earthquake probability messages for both emergency managers and the general public. Seismologists will explain what can be said, and the emergency managers will explain what they need to do their jobs. The risk communication researchers will help us avoid approaches that are known to not work. The outcome should be several sets of possible messages and approaches. After the Design Storm, the candidate messages will be tested with focus groups by the researchers at the Division of Risk Communication at the University of Kentucky.

One last desired outcome: The scientific practice of rapidly assessing probabilities of more earthquakes during clustering has been called Operational Earthquake Forecasting. Some in the seismological community object to the name as implying more ability to predict than we have, and others just find the name meaningless. One final objective of the Design Storm would be help in naming this activity.

Accessibility FOIA Privacy Policies and Notices logo U.S. Department of the Interior | U.S. Geological Survey
Page Contact Information: Ask USGS
Page Last Modified: Friday, June 21, 2013