A New Way to Help Predict Earthquakes

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This is SCIENCE IN THE NEWS in VOA Special English. I'm Barbara Klein.

And I'm Steve Ember. This week, we will tell about a new way to help predict earthquakes. We also tell about an American study on happiness. And, we tell about an international effort to prevent deaths and injuries in hospital operating rooms.

Scientists in the United States have developed a method that may help to predict earthquakes earlier. They say it could give people who live in deadly earthquake areas enough warning to leave before an earthquake hits.

Currently, the most modern systems for predicting earthquakes find them only a short time before the event. Like most strong earthquakes, the one that hit southwestern China in May was not identified early enough for people to flee the area. That earthquake killed sixty-nine thousand people.

But scientists who study earthquakes are reporting that new technology could measure very small changes in the Earth's surface. Their report was published this month in Nature magazine.

Fenglin Niu is a seismologist with Rice University in Houston, Texas. He and his team performed experiments along California's San Andreas Fault, an area famous for its many earthquakes.

The team placed highly sensitive electrical devices about one kilometer below ground in two different places. The devices were able to measure even small changes in air pressure on the Earth's surface. The scientists say such changes are caused when rocks push together, forcing air out of small cracks in the rock. When this happens, seismic waves travel faster than usual through the rock.

The experiment was performed near Parkfield, California. Two earthquakes hit the area in late two thousand five. The first took place on December twenty-fifth. A smaller earthquake struck five days later.

The scientists noted changes in the Earth's surface about ten hours before the first quake struck. That quake measured three in intensity. They then found similar changes taking place two hours before the other quake struck five days later.

The earthquake in China rated seven point nine in intensity. If additional tests confirm the changes are linked to earthquakes, the scientists believe their equipment could be used for early warning systems. A system that provides a signal ten hours before a major earthquake could help move people from the area and save lives.

The scientists now hope they can find earthquakes with even greater intensity by placing their equipment deeper in the ground.

Do you live in a happy country? Chances are strong that you do. Results of a recent study have shown that many people around the world are happier now than in the past. The study is called the World Values Survey. Researchers responsible for the study are based at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research in the United States.

The researchers gathered information from opinion studies done in more than ninety countries or territories. Those studies were completed between nineteen eighty-one and two thousand seven. More than three hundred fifty thousand people told how happy or unhappy they were feeling. They also said how generally satisfied or unsatisfied they felt.

The results were reported in the publication "Perspectives on Psychological Science."

University of Michigan political scientist Ronald Inglehart directed the World Values Survey. Mr. Inglehart says the results surprised him. He said it is widely believed that it is nearly impossible for happiness levels for a whole country to improve. He said many earlier studies have suggested that happiness levels do not really change.

Denmark was found to be the world's happiest country. Mr. Inglehart notes that Denmark's health care is good and few Danes are hungry. Zimbabwe was rated as the least happy country. Zimbabweans have suffered from political and social unrest.

Other nations in the top ten for happiness include Iceland, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Canada and Colombia. Colombia suffers from violence in some areas. But Mr. Inglehart says Colombians share strong family, friendship and religious ties. He says those qualities are common in areas along the Caribbean Sea. And he says they help balance economic and political weakness. Also, America's Central Intelligence Agency says the Colombian government has been working harder to control the violence.

The researchers compared the most recent World Values Survey with information from a study completed in nineteen forty-six. Several areas showed rising happiness levels. They include India, Mexico, Northern Ireland, Puerto Rico and South Korea.

Over the years, India's economy has grown. An improved financial situation is an important sign of happiness, the political scientist says. But living in a country that is becoming more democratic may be more important. So may acceptance of minorities. Mr. Inglehart says the study shows a strong link between happiness and freedom to choose how life is lived. It shows that equality between men and women is another reason.

Mr. Inglehart says Northern Ireland is doing well financially and moving toward sexual equality. He also says the area has the traditional bases of friendship, family ties and religion. Northern Ireland has suffered violence in the past. But he says most people there live a normal life today.

Some places showed less happiness than in the past. They were Austria, Belgium, Britain and the former West Germany. However, Mr. Inglehart says these areas were still in the top twenty-five percent for happiness last year. And, he says, that rating still shows a good level of satisfaction.

Doctors around the world now perform more than two hundred thirty million major operations every year. The World Health Organization says preventable injuries and deaths from medical operations are a growing concern.

Experts estimate that at least one million people die every year because of complications from surgical treatments. The W.H.O. says studies suggest that about half of these problems may be preventable. The United Nations agency hopes to reduce mistakes with a program built around a new Surgical Safety Checklist.

Atul Gawande works at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston, Massachusetts. He helped develop the Safe Surgery Saves Lives program. Doctor Gawande and other researchers studied records from fifty-six countries.

In two thousand four, surgical complications in developed countries led to death in less than one percent of cases. In developing countries, the rate was five to ten percent. Complications can happen during an operation or after. For example, an infection might develop after an operation.

More than two hundred medical societies and health ministries have joined in the effort to make surgery safer. The new list is similar to what airplane pilots use before flying.

One member of the surgical team is responsible for the checklist. The first questions are asked before the patient receives anesthesia. The very first step is to confirm the patient's identity and the operation to be performed.

More questions are asked before the first cut. All members of the team are supposed to identify themselves by name and job. Another step is to confirm whether the patient was given antibiotic drugs within the last hour to prevent infection.

The third and final part of the checklist is completed before the patient leaves the operating room. For example, surgical equipment is counted to make sure nothing unnecessary stays in the patient.

At eight locations worldwide, these actions were being done only thirty-six percent of the time. But the W.H.O. says use of the list increased that to sixty-eight percent. Some hospitals reached almost one hundred percent.

Early results from one thousand patients showed a drop in complications and deaths. Doctor Gawande says the checklist has helped him in his own surgery. A final version of the list is expected by the end of the year.

This SCIENCE IN THE NEWS program was written by Brianna Blake, Jerilyn Watson and Caty Weaver. Brianna Blake also was our producer. I'm Steve Ember.

And I'm Barbara Klein. Join us at this time next week for more news about science on the Voice of America.

Voice of America Special English

Source: A New Way to Help Predict Earthquakes
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