I spent a significant portion of my reading time the past year researching the latest ideas about earthquake prediction. I’ve always been fascinated by reports of earthquake lights and animal behavior foreshadowing a quake. One of my favorite books is “When the Snakes Awake” by Helmut Tributsch. I recently reread it and it prompted me to look into the recent state of earthquake prediction.
My journey took me back to the oldest ideas about earthquake prediction. In the face of the failure to develop a reliable prediction strategy in the U.S., (with a corresponding emphasis on preparedness, instead) other countries have taken a different path – a path nearer to the fringes of science. Lately, those fundamental earthquake prediction ideas are back in the news out of China with a technological twist.
Snake behavior is now being used as an indicator of a coming quake in southern China. Video cameras transmitting across a broadband Internet connection film captive snakes while experts watch for unusual behavior, such as frenzied attempts to escape.
The more I looked into these “primitive” forms of earthquake sensing, the more reasonable it seemed. Animals are not the only environmental channels we have available to tune in to oncoming quakes. Here are some of my findings over multiple posts.
Scientists have struggled to understand how earthquakes occur. Precisely where? Exactly when? How strong? We know that an earthquake is a movement of the earth’s surface caused by the dislocation of the plates that make up the crust or a release of energy from underground stresses. Today, seismologists know far more about earthquake processes than ever before but still they fail to predict earthquakes with certainty in workable time frames and thousand of people die.
In the 1970’s, scientists were optimistic that earthquake prediction was possible through the warnings from precursors. They thought that foreshocks occurred in a predictable way to be able to tell when the main shock was close. They observed some earthquakes occur when there was a gap in time or space along a fault. Measurements of how fast certain vibration waves passed through the ground seemed to suggest a predictable change occurs prior to an earthquake. When research showed that these techniques only worked sometimes, not nearly all the time, the attitude of seismologists soured on earthquake prediction especially in the U.S.
An article from the journal Science in 1996 was titled “Earthquakes Cannot Be Predicted”. This punctured the balloon of any who thought that earth movements were knowable. The expert consensus was that the faulted areas were so different, with individual stresses and physical conditions, and reacted so uniquely, it was not possible to be successful at wholesale prediction.
Perhaps that conclusion was correct for that moment in time. But, should they have given up? New and innovative ideas about earthquake prediction were developing in other countries like China, Japan and Russia. We can look back to ancient times for the root of these new ideas. Long ago, farmers, peasants and early naturalists noticed the clues the earth was revealing that meant the stress was building deep underground, about to give way.
Animals Gone Crazy
Of all the scientific anomalies that are related to earthquakes and earthquake prediction, none is more curious or mystifying than the heaps of reports on strange animal behavior prior to earthquakes.
From the time ancient people recorded their thoughts about the shaking earth, they have remarked upon the behavior of their animals. The best known story comes from Japan, where a huge catfish living under the ground was thought to cause the earth to heave whenever it wiggled. Catfish have been observed to jump and twist violently right before a quake. It is very likely that the observations helped craft the myth.
Along with fish, both domestic and wild, a wide variety of animals have been described in anecdotal reports as sensing a coming earthquake. Their actions greatly differ.
Some animals eat more.
Birds change their songs or sounds; they refuse to land or preen their feathers constantly.
Underground animals come to the surface.
Caged or penned animals become highly agitated, aggressive, fearful or try to escape.
Wild animals will leave an area.
Domestic animals, such as cats, will remove their young from buildings, clean themselves frequently or be especially attentive to their owner, crying or acting nervous.
Dogs notoriously howl or bark and become preoccupied with sniffing the ground.
Insects may suddenly disappear or appear in swarms.
Aquatic animals leave the water or head far out to sea.
Animals may act confused and appear in unlikely areas.
The strange behavior may be exhibited seconds before a quake or up to a month before.
Recently, minutes before Hawaii’s 6.7 magnitude quake this past October, a local television reporter noticed fish jumping out of a lagoon. Even for a small tremor, estimated at 2.4 magnitude in mid-December in Sinking Spring, Pennsylvania, locals reported that their dogs were subdued or nervous in the hours before the quake. Also in mid-December, the obituary for Max the pig, beloved pet of actor George Clooney, gives the animal credit for waking George minutes prior to the onset of a California quake years ago.
In China, changes in animal behavior is so accepted as a precursor to a quake that they printed informational booklets to give to the public. In 1974-5, in Haicheng, a strong earthquake was preceded by a long list of animal anomalies that were recorded by the population with the data fed back to scientists. Along with other precursors, the animal behaviors were credited with helping to predict the quake and save many lives.
With the huge variety of animals reacting to some signals from the earth, they can’t all be responding to the same signs. Different animals are sensitive to different things.
People are probably the least sensitive animals since we see, hear, smell and perceive far less of the natural environment than animals do. However, even people occasionally react to earth signs. Data collected before the Kobe, China quake in 1995 revealed that children in the fault area awoke before the quake and people reported unusual feelings of fatigue, dizziness or illness.
The American seismology community flatly denies any suggestion of animals as earthquake predictors. Their valid reasons include the range of behaviors as mentioned above, the inability to measure animal behavior, and the frequent lack of animal anomalies before quakes. What do animals react to? Can we ever measure what they feel?
To add more weirdness to this picture, we must include plants as potentially being responsive to earth signals. Some species grow vigorously, other bloom early, rebloom or wilt. Others close their leaves or tremble in still air. With roots reaching into the ground, do they detect signals that we miss?
Does the earth moan and groan before a rupture? How about howl and whistle?
Howling and whistling noises have been described associated with tremors. Explosive, echoing, or rumbling sounds (earthquake sounds or EQSs) were heard by local people in earthquake prone areas around the world minutes, hours or days before quakes. These sounds are rare but where they do occur, they are reported again in quakes that follow. Sounds like these have not been recorded by scientists who have no explanation for what causes them.
A ghostly new phenomena, not mentioned in the ancient reports, is the response of electronic devices to unseen signals before a quake.
Clocks stop or the hands rotate quickly. Appliances suddenly turn on. Cell phones ring without callers. TVs flicker and display distortion. Intercoms buzz. Florescent lamps dim.
In the days of telegraph wires, signals and static were transmitted out of nowhere.
Magnets holding nails suddenly lose the attraction and the nails drop.
Candle flames bend and distort without a breeze. Fires do not get hot enough to cook food.
There are also reports of corked wine turning cloudy or milk spoiling overnight.
It is common to note water levels in wells and on the surface suddenly drop prior to a quake. Groundwater becomes cloudy or muddy and may change in taste or odor. The sea may become still as glass. Ponds may become murky. Incidentally, groundwater levels in Pennsylvania were affected subtly, but noticeably, by the Alaska earthquakes of 1964 and 2002 and Virginia water levels jumped then dropped in response to the 2005 giant Asian quake (that spawned the deadly tsunami) so we know that the mechanisms are widespread as a result of the quake.
What other clues can be found if we only pay attention? Not only are they on the ground but they are in the air.
More to come next post about earthquake lights and earthquake weather…
Bolt, Bruce A., 1993, Earthquakes, W. H. Freeman and Company: New York.
Corliss, William R., 1983, Earthquakes, Tides, Unidentified Sounds and Related Phenomena, The Sourcebook Project: Glen Arm, MD
Corliss, William R., 1995, Handbook of Unusual Natural Phenomena: Eyewitness Accounts of Nature’s Greatest Mysteries, Gramercy Books/Random House
Geller, Robert J. et al. “Earthquakes Cannot Be Predicted”, Science 275 (5306): 1616.
Hough, Susan E. “Earthquakes: Predicting the Unpredictable?”, Geotimes, March 2005.
http://www.washingtonpost.com, January 8, 2005 “Asia Quake Impacts Va. Well-Water Levels”.
Ikeya, Motiji, 2004, Earthquakes and Animals: From Folk Legends to Science, World Scientific Publishing Co., Pte. Ltd.: Singapore.
Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, “Pennsylvania Wells Record Effects of Alaskan Earthquake”, Update, November 12, 2002.
Tributsch, Helmut, 1982, When the Snakes Awake: Animals and Earthquake Prediction, MIT Press: Cambridge MA.