Turkey earthquake
Rubble strewn along a street after an earthquake in Vrisa on the Greek island of Lesbos, June 13, 2017. Getty Images

As the new year dawns on us, the first horrible news is already out for the year. Scientists are predicting a massive increase in the number of large earthquakes in 2018.

Scientists have found an alarming link between slowing seismic activity of Earth and an increase in the number of surface tremors. There are periods where minute fluctuations in the speed of Earth’s rotation cause a change in the length of days and nights. These changes add up and cause a period of measurably slower speed in Earth’s rotation around its own axis. It is believed these changes could trigger increased seismic activity.

A team of researchers from University of Colorado (CU) in Boulder found during the past 100 years, Earth’s slowdowns have correlated surprisingly well with periods with a global increase in magnitude 7.0 and larger earthquakes.

Usefully, the spike, which adds two to five more quakes than typical, happens well after the slow-down begins.

“The Earth offers us a 5-years heads up on future earthquakes, which is remarkable,” says Roger Bilham, professor at CU and lead author of study along with Rebecca Bendick at the University of Montana in Missoula in a study related released on journal Science.

“On five occasions in the past century a 25-30% increase in annual numbers of [earthquakes of magnitude of 7.0 or higher] has coincided with a slowing in the mean rotation velocity of the Earth,” according to an abstract of a study by the team.

Earthquakes of magnitude 7.0 or more are the most destructive, and can cause significant damage and loss of life. The deadliest quake of 2017 was the Iran-Iraq quake, which claimed over 500 lives and brought the two nations to a standstill.

The study said the periodic slowdown of Earth began four years ago in 2013. As 2018 begins, we enter the most dangerous 5-year mark of the slowdown, which has always corresponded in the past with a rise in seismic activity.

The last year saw its fair share of natural calamities, with several hurricanes ripping through the United States leaving several states in tatters. Even these hurricanes cause a change in the speed of rotation, added the study. Storms like El Nino drove day length to vary back and forth by a millisecond over a year or more.

“Next year we should see a significant increase in numbers of severe earthquakes. We have had it easy this year. So far we have only had about six severe earthquakes. We could easily have 20 a year starting in 2018,” Bilham was heard saying in a BBC Science in Action podcast.

Though the link between the changes in day and seismic activity was not clear, he said the reduced speed causes a change in the circumference of Earth by around 12 milimetres, which seemed tiny but was enough to cause an upset in the tectonic plates, which could unleash surface effects that could cause severe damage to life and property.

Last year there were 113 earthquakes above 6.0 in the Richter scale. If there was an increase in the large 7.0+ earthquakes (6 last year), there will be large scale damage in the affected areas. There is no way to predict where these will occur now. Seismic readings are restricted to a short period before the earthquake only and that is a huge problem.