Where's technology when the earth shakes?

This past week has been calamity filled. Following the freak dust storm in Sydney, Typhoon Kestana flooded into the Philippines and later raged its way toward Taiwan and Vietnam.

This past week has been calamity filled. Following the freak dust storm in Sydney, Typhoon Kestana flooded into the Philippines and later raged its way toward Taiwan and Vietnam.

Then came the 7.6 magnitude earthquake that hit Sumatra on Wednesday, where the tremors were so strong that neighboring Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore were also shaken by the ripples.

I was in the office, located along Singapore's shopping strip Orchard Road, when I started swaying. The building has been trembling pretty often over the past year, due to some heavy construction work across the road from where we are, so I initially didn't think much of it. But, it struck me later this experience felt different since previous tremors caused mostly vibrations, not sways.

News of the severity of the Sumatra quake broke soon after, and we're still feeling the aftershocks here two days after.

Amid the shakes and bumps, I wondered what technological advancements have been made in this field.

Most of us know it's difficult to predict when earthquakes will hit. The behavior of quakes has proven so complex that seismologists have concluded temblors are random and unpredictable.

In the 1996 blockbuster film Twister, a team of storm chasers built a tornado research system that carried sensory balls, attached with aluminum wings cut out from Coke cans. The "flying balls" would then be lifted by the passing twister and capture vital data that researchers could learn from and use to predict future tornados.

But that's fiction, and that was 1996. Surely, with all the advancements we've made in science and technology, we must now be closer to being able to foresee natural disasters? Not quite.

In an August 2009 report by Taipei's Central News Agency, the Central Weather Bureau's deputy director Shin Tsai-Chin said finding ways to predict earthquakes is like a "blind man feeling an elephant".

Shin said various research facilities worldwide have focused their efforts on studying electromagnetic field variations and making tremors more predictable, such as the Institute of Earth Sciences under Taiwan's Academia Sinica. The research institute has been operating eight earthquake monitoring stations since 1988 to analyze the link between earthquakes and geomagnetic fluctuations but, so far, it has been unable to determine the reasons behind the relationship, Shin said.

The U.S. government's National Aeronautics and Space administration (Nasa) uses satellite technology in their quest to predict impending quakes, which has shown promising results. Nasa's research includes the use of radar images and data fusion to detect ground motions at the surface measuring as little as 1mm per year. Combined with satellite feeds, scientists can view tiny motions and surface contortions around fault lines in more detail, and decipher where there're buildups of high-strain points.

Satellites fitted with infrared cameras can also detect hot spots from space, which may prove a critical tool because thermal sensors have detected spikes in temperature just before an earthquake strikes.

Despite the advancements in technology-assisted research, however, earthquake predictions today are still largely a collection of informed guesswork and with varying accuracy.

Regardless, it's an important area of research that must continue to receive sufficient support. Adequate forewarning will result in safe evacuation and emergency services can be better prepped.

Until then, some believe that animals, birds and even insects are useful warning devices, showing changes in behavioral patterns just before an earthquake hits. There've been reports of snakes crawling out of hibernation just before a series of tremors were recorded, and of cattle and horses showing restlessness and fear for no obvious reason, only to be followed by a major quake.

Good thing I sleep with my dog every night.