Scientists have devised methods for predicting many natural disasters, including hurricanes, tornadoes, and tsunamis. Earthquakes, on the other hand, have eluded all attempts at advance warning. A new theory about ionized air molecules could finally change that and make it possible to predict major earthquakes hours before they begin. If the theory is proven, earthquake warnings could save thousands of lives each year.

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NASA researcher Friedemann Freund has proposed what many seismologists believe is impossible: a way to predict earthquakes before the tremors begin. Freund’s theory revolves around the concept that pressurized rock under the Earth’s surface emits an electrical current that ionizes air molecules, something that could be monitored and measured in earthquake-prone regions. His experiments, dating back to 2006, show some promise (the results of which were published in 2009), although some in the seismology community remain skeptical.

Related: In California, new seismic evidence points to strongest earthquake potential yet

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Scaled up versions of his early tests are ongoing. Freund is using conductivity sensors to monitor air molecules along fault lines in Alaska and on the San Andreas Fault in California. By attempting to detect changes in ionization there, he hopes to connect the data to seismic records and begin to understand the correlation. He says it’s already working. “Whenever there was a moderate or big earthquake there was indeed a large increase in air conductivity,” he said. Freund aims to develop a Global Earthquake Forecast System that would use ionization reporting to issue earthquake warnings up to 24 hours in advance.

Via The Guardian

Images via USGS