Buildings sit at bizarre angles after an earthquake in China

Jackson School Researchers Employ AI to Predict Earthquakes in China

  • Feb 6, 2024

A team of researchers at The University of Texas at Austin released in 2023 the results of a seven-month trial conducted in China after utilizing artificial intelligence to correctly predict 70 percent of earthquakes one week before they happened.  

Detail of a map showing predicted earthquakes in China in 2023

The research team from the Jackson School of Geosciences trained its AI algorithm on five years of seismic recordings in the region, then asked it to locate upcoming quakes based on current seismic activity. The algorithm successfully forecasted 14 earthquakes, each within about 200 miles of its actual epicenter. Meanwhile, it missed one quake and predicted eight that never happened.  

Many scientists have long considered earthquake forecasting to be impossible — or, at best, have approached it with extremely tempered optimism. But given recent advancements in AI, some researchers started considering whether that could change, and the UT Austin trial has bolstered hopes within the field. 

“Predicting earthquakes is the holy grail,” said Sergey Fomel, a geoscientist at UT Austin and a member of the research team. “We’re not yet close to making predictions for anywhere in the world, but what we achieved tells us that what we thought was an impossible problem is solvable in principle.”  

The trial in China was part of an international AI design competition, one of a few such events held in recent years to advance earthquake prediction technologies. The success of the earthquake prediction trial further positions UT Austin as a pioneer at the intersection of AI and geoscience research.  

The groundbreaking news coincided with UT Austin’s official launch of the Year of AI, a campuswide initiative conceived to place the University at the forefront of technological and societal innovation. By driving multidisciplinary collaborations, groundbreaking research and the development of future leaders, UT Austin poises itself to navigate the ever-evolving landscape and reach beyond the Forty Acres, shaping the future with transformative impact.  

Recognizing the current moment’s opportunity to pursue bold and creative solutions for addressing our world’s most pressing needs, UT Austin in 2023 became the first top-ranked institution to offer an online master’s degree in artificial intelligence. The Jackson School triumph indicates the possibility of expanding AI results to earthquake-prone countries beyond China. Nowhere is there a more pressing need for earthquake prediction than in Japan, which harbors more than 2,000 active fault lines beneath its surface. 

As the world grapples with the increasing frequency and intensity of natural disasters, the intersection of artificial intelligence and seismic science offers a ray of hope for more accurate predictions and enhanced disaster preparation. The Year of AI at UT Austin may well pave the way for a future where the impossible becomes routine in the realm of earthquake forecasting and beyond. 

Learn more at the Smithsonian Magazine and on the Jackson School website.