Extreme events and predictability of catastrophic failure in composite materials and in the Earth
University of Edinburgh, UK
Revised: 9 March 2012
Published online: 1 May 2012
Despite all attempts to isolate and predict extreme earthquakes, these nearly always occur without obvious warning in real time: fully deterministic earthquake prediction is very much a ‘black swan’. On the other hand engineering-scale samples of rocks and other composite materials often show clear precursors to dynamic failure under controlled conditions in the laboratory, and successful evacuations have occurred before several volcanic eruptions. This may be because extreme earthquakes are not statistically special, being an emergent property of the process of dynamic rupture. Nevertheless, probabilistic forecasting of event rate above a given size, based on the tendency of earthquakes to cluster in space and time, can have significant skill compared to say random failure, even in real-time mode. We address several questions in this debate, using examples from the Earth (earthquakes, volcanoes) and the laboratory, including the following. How can we identify ‘characteristic’ events, i.e. beyond the power law, in model selection (do dragon-kings exist)? How do we discriminate quantitatively between stationary and non-stationary hazard models (is a dragon likely to come soon)? Does the system size (the size of the dragon’s domain) matter? Are there localising signals of imminent catastrophic failure we may not be able to access (is the dragon effectively invisible on approach)? We focus on the effect of sampling effects and statistical uncertainty in the identification of extreme events and their predictability, and highlight the strong influence of scaling in space and time as an outstanding issue to be addressed by quantitative studies, experimentation and models.
© EDP Sciences, Springer-Verlag, 2012