AP answers your questions on the news, from earthquake predictions to the commander-in-chief

Friday, February 12, 2010

Ask AP: Earthquake predictions, commander-in-chief

Curiosity about predicting earthquakes inspired one of the questions in this edition of “Ask AP,” a weekly Q&A column where AP journalists respond to readers’ questions about the news.

If you have your own news-related question that you’d like to see answered by an AP reporter or editor, send it to newsquestions@ap.org, with “Ask AP” in the subject line. And please include your full name and hometown so they can be published with your question.

You can also find Ask AP on AP Mobile, a multimedia news service available on smart phones. Go to www.apnews.com/ to learn more.

With the recent devastating earthquake in Haiti, I am wondering whether there have been any advances in predicting when and where earthquakes will happen. And besides California, what earthquake-prone areas in the U.S. should I be concerned about?

Daniel Lippman

Washington, D.C.

Scientists are making progress honing their ability to forecast the likelihood of strong earthquakes along fault zones, but they cannot predict a quake’s precise time, location and magnitude, said Stuart Sipkin, a geophysicist with the U.S. Geological Survey’s National Earthquake Information Center in Golden, Colo.

In fact, scientists are divided over whether such predictions will ever be possible. Sipkin said some believe quakes are by their nature too random to allow for precise predictions, while others feel science simply hasn’t found the right precursors that might allow them to make lifesaving quake predictions.

While predicting earthquakes isn’t currently possible, advances in the past decade using global positioning system measurements to reveal subtle changes in the Earth’s crust have aided science’s ability to forecast the probabilities of strong quakes along many fault zones.

Those readings show the growing pressures along faults — the areas where tectonic plates slide past each other. That data, along with a fault’s past history of strong quakes and the time that’s elapsed since the last such temblor, help scientists calculate the amount of stress faults can take before their plates suddenly slip, causing a quake.

GPS data were key to scientists’ 2008 forecast that the fault which caused January’s devastating quake in Haiti was capable of causing a 7.2-magnitude earthquake, Sipkin says.

That prediction, which came without a specific timeframe, was released about two years before a 7.0 magnitude quake hit Haiti’s Port-au-Prince area on Jan. 12.

The USGS maintains earthquake hazard maps illustrating the risk levels of quakes for the entire U.S. The high risk zones in the agency’s 2008 maps — earthquake.usgs.gov/hazards/ — include the West Coast, Hawaii, Alaska, Utah and the central Mississippi River Valley region.

Rick Callahan



Under the Constitution’s separation of powers the president is the commander-in-chief of America’s military. When he is referred to by a member of the military does he have any other official designations? Does he hold a official military rank? Does the president have an official uniform or emblem as commander?

Stephan Vertal

Forest Grove, Ore.

In his role of commander-in-chief, the president is at the top of the military chain of command. Orders go to the secretary of defense, through the Joint Chiefs of Staff to the combatant commanders. The president holds no military rank and has no military uniform. He has a presidential seal but no military emblem. Members of the military, like civilians, would typically refer to the commander-in-chief as “Mr. President.”

Robert Burns

National Security Writer

Washington, D.C.

Headlines periodically advise that corporations have settled allegations of improper practices with the Justice Department or the attorney general of a state, usually by paying a fine. What happens to that money? To what is it applied?

Michael Buerger

Bowling Green, Ohio

At the federal level, the money usually goes into accounts that pay for general government. Sometimes it goes into accounts for special purposes, such as environmental cleanup. Practices vary among the states but generally fall into the same categories. If there was fraud involving investors or other victims, the money may go back to them. In those cases a judge will appoint someone known as a receiver to make sure the money goes where it’s supposed to.

Curt Anderson

Legal Affairs Reporter


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