Are earthquake probabilities or forecasts the same as prediction?

No. Probabilities and forecasts are rather like climate probabilities and weather forecasts, while predictions are more like statements of when, where, and how large, which is not yet possible for earthquakes.

Probabilities describe the long-term chances that an earthquake of a certain magnitude will happen during a time window. Most earthquake probabilities are determined from the average rate of historical events. Assuming the annual rate is constant, one can make a probability statement about the likelihood of such an event in the next so-many years. These probabilities might range from 1-in-30 to 1-in-300.

For some faults, historical occurrences are not available, but rate of slip along the fault can be estimated. Assuming a particular magnitude, one can estimate the number of years it would take to accumulate the required amount of slip. This estimate can be used to give an annual rate and used in the same manner as historical rates. These probabilities might range from 1-in-300 to 1–in-3000.

Forecasts are like probabilities but for shorter time windows, and we generally apply this term to aftershocks. After a large earthquake, there are aftershocks that are typically less frequent and smaller over time. Most aftershock sequences follow the same pattern, so the probability of an aftershock in a time window following an earthquake can be determined. These probabilities might be larger than 1-in-30.

For information on Predictions, see the FAQ under Earthquake Myths – Can you predict earthquakes?

(contributed by Dave Perkins, edited and modified by Lisa Wald, Jan 2017)

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