Applying Earthquake Physics to Conflict Analysis

I really enjoyed speaking with Captain Wayner Porter whilst at PopTech 2011 last week. We both share a passion for applying insights from complexity science to different disciplines. I’ve long found the analogies between earthquakes and conflicts intriguing. We often talk of geopolitical fault lines, mounting tensions and social stress. “If this sounds at all like the processes at work in the Earth’s crust, where stresses build up slowly to be released in sudden earthquakes … it may be no coincidence” (Buchanan 2001).

To be sure, violent conflict is “often like an earthquake: it’s caused by the slow accumulation of deep and largely unseen pressures beneath the surface of our day-to-day affairs. At some point these pressures release their accumulated energy with catastrophic effect, creating shock waves that pulverize our habitual and often rigid ways of doing things…” (Homer-Dixon 2006).

But are fore shocks and aftershocks in social systems really as discernible as well? Like earthquakes, both inter-state and internal wars actually occur with the same statistical pattern (see my previous blog post on this). Since earthquakes and conflicts are complex systems, they also exhibit emergent features associated with critical states. In sum, “the science of earthquakes […] can help us understand sharp and sudden changes in types of complex systems that aren’t geological–including societies…” (Homer-Dixon 2006).

Back in 2006, I collaborated with Professor Didier Sornette and Dr. Ryan Woodard from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETHZ) to assess whether a mathematical technique developed for earthquake prediction might shed light on conflict dynamics. I presented this study along with our findings at the American Political Science Association (APSA) convention last year (PDF). This geophysics technique, “superposed epoch analysis,” is used to identify statistical signatures before and after earthquakes. In other words, this technique allows us to discern whether any patterns are discernible in the data during foreshocks and aftershocks. Earthquake physicists work from global spatial time series data of seismic events to develop models for earthquake prediction. We used a global time series dataset of conflict events generated from newswires over a 15-year period. The graph below explains the “superposed epoch analysis” technique as applied to conflict data.


The curve above represents a time series of conflict events (frequency) over a particular period of time. We select arbitrary threshold, such as “threshold A” denoted by the dotted line. Every peak that crosses this threshold is then “copied” and “pasted” into a new graph. That is, the peak, together with the data points 25 days prior to and following the peak is selected.

The peaks in the new graph are then superimposed and aligned such that the peaks overlap precisely. With “threshold A”, two events cross the threshold, five for “threshold B”. We then vary the thresholds to look for consistent behavior and examine the statistical behavior of the 25 days before and after the “extreme” conflict event. For this study, we performed the computational technique described above on the conflict data for the US, UK, Afghanistan, Columbia and Iraq.

Picture 4Picture 5Picture 6

The foreshock and aftershock behaviors in Iraq and Afghanistan appear to be similar. Is this because the conflicts in both countries were the result of external intervention, i.e., invasion by US forces (exogenous shock)?

In the case of Colombia, an internal low intensity and protracted conflict, the statistical behavior of foreshocks and aftershocks are visibly different from those of Iraq and Afghanistan. Do the different statistical behaviors point to specific signature associated with exogenous and endogenous causes of extreme events? Does one set of behavior contrast with another one in the same way that old wars and new wars differ?

Are certain extreme events endogenous or exogenous in nature? Can endogenous or exogenous signatures be identified? In other words, are extreme events just part of the fat tail of a power law due to self-organized criticality (endogeneity)? Or is catastrophism in action, extreme events require extreme causes outside the system (exogeneity)?

Another possibility still is that extreme events are the product of both endo-genous and exogenous effects. How would this dynamic unfold? To answer these questions, we need to go beyond political science. The distinction between responses to endogenous and exogenous processes is a fundamental property of physics and is quantified as the fluctuation-dissipation theorem in statistical mechanics. This theory has been successfully applied to social systems (such as books sales) as a way to help understand different classes of causes and effects.

Questions for future research: Do conflict among actors in social systems display measurable endogenous and exogenous behavior? If so, can a quantitative signature of precursory (endogenous) behavior be used to help recognize and then reduce growing conflict? The next phase of this research will be to apply the above techniques to the conflict dataset already used to examine the statistical behavior of foreshocks and aftershocks.

2 responses to “Applying Earthquake Physics to Conflict Analysis

  1. You might enjoy this Wikipedia article on “Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis”. The “rational actor” model is not always productive and correct.

    I like to say that actors very usually have some rationale for their actions, but that it might be nothing more than specious logic!

  2. USIP is hosting a Conflict Mapping Workshop on Central Africa and Sudan that addresses the role of technology in conflict analysis:

    NOVEMBER 8-10, 2011

    The Academy for International Conflict Management and Peacebuilding at the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP) is pleased to announce a 3-day Conflict Mapping Workshop on Central Africa and Sudan, which will be held at USIP’s headquarters in Washington, DC on November 8-10, 2011. The workshop is designed for practitioners from governments, international organizations, NGOs, academia, and the private sector who are interested in using participatory mapping technologies to support more effective conflict early warning and prevention efforts as well as community-level security initiatives.

    The workshop will explore how participatory mapping projects can be designed so as to maximize their benefit for practitioners engaged in conflict early warning and peacebuilding initiatives. The workshop will combine presentations and discussions with a multi-day case study, which will examine the design challenges of building a participatory mapping platform for the border region between South Sudan, northern Uganda, eastern Central African Republic (CAR), and eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Participants will develop strategies to address the technical, analytical, institutional, and political challenges involved in designing coordinated conflict mapping systems for this region.

    Speakers include:

    • Sheldon Himelfarb, Director, Center of Innovation: Science, Technology and Peacebuilding, U.S. Institute of Peace
    • Lee Schwartz, Director, Office of the Geographer and Global Issues, U.S. Department of State
    • Sharon Morris, Director, Conflict Management Group, Mercy Corps
    • Bernard Harborne, Lead Conflict Advisor for Africa, The World Bank
    • Margun Indreboe, Sudan Crisis and Recovery Mapping and Analysis Project, UN Development Program
    • Helena Puig, Sudan Conflict Reduction Program, UN Development Program
    • Nate Haken, Director of UNLocK project, Fund for Peace
    • Paul Ronan, developer of LRA Crisis Tracker project, Resolve
    • Rob Baker, Ushahidi

    See the attached draft agenda for further details. Tuition for the workshop is $895. Reduced tuition may be available for highly qualified applicants who can demonstrate financial need.

    You may register for the workshop at:

    If you would like further information, please feel free to contact Matthew Levinger, the workshop facilitator, at or (240) 644-4444.

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