Have recent earthquakes exposed flaws in or misunderstandings of probabilistic seismic hazard analysis?

Seismological Research Letters
By: , and 



In a recent Opinion piece in these pages, Stein et al. (2011) offer a remarkable indictment of the methods, models, and results of probabilistic seismic hazard analysis (PSHA). The principal object of their concern is the PSHA map for Japan released by the Japan Headquarters for Earthquake Research Promotion (HERP), which is reproduced by Stein et al. (2011) as their Figure 1 and also here as our Figure 1. It shows the probability of exceedance (also referred to as the “hazard”) of the Japan Meteorological Agency (JMA) intensity 6–lower (JMA 6–) in Japan for the 30-year period beginning in January 2010. JMA 6– is an earthquake-damage intensity measure that is associated with fairly strong ground motion that can be damaging to well-built structures and is potentially destructive to poor construction (HERP, 2005, appendix 5). Reiterating Geller (2011, p. 408), Stein et al. (2011, p. 623) have this to say about Figure 1:

The regions assessed as most dangerous are the zones of three hypothetical “scenario earthquakes” (Tokai, Tonankai, and Nankai; see map). However, since 1979, earthquakes that caused 10 or more fatalities in Japan actually occurred in places assigned a relatively low probability. This discrepancy—the latest in a string of negative results for the characteristic model and its cousin the seismic-gap model—strongly suggest that the hazard map and the methods used to produce it are flawed and should be discarded.

Given the central role that PSHA now plays in seismic risk analysis, performance-based engineering, and design-basis ground motions, discarding PSHA would have important consequences. We are not persuaded by the arguments of Geller (2011) and Stein et al. (2011) for doing so because important misunderstandings about PSHA seem to have conditioned them. In the quotation above, for example, they have confused important differences between earthquake-occurrence observations and ground-motion hazard calculations.

Publication type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Title Have recent earthquakes exposed flaws in or misunderstandings of probabilistic seismic hazard analysis?
Series title Seismological Research Letters
DOI 10.1785/0220120043
Volume 83
Issue 5
Year Published 2012
Language English
Publisher Seismological Society of America
Contributing office(s) Earthquake Science Center
Description 6 p.
First page 759
Last page 764
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