Warnings of impending danger: Science and Social Factors

This is a paper I prepared for an ethics graduate class and have updated (7-June-2014). I present it in conjunction with a Strange Frequencies Radio podcast appearance on Sunday June 8.

Natural disasters happen every day. The people who can help prepare society for them are not psychics or crank pseudoscientists but those who study events inside out and upside down – scientists. Those who consider prediction a part of their research and responsibility range from weather forecasters to seismologists and volcanologists.

It’s a great responsibility to be tasked warning officials and the public about probable natural disasters. Warnings of impending danger cause predictable social and economic effects that must be considered along with achieving the primary goal, which is safety and minimizing loss of life. If a disaster prediction is wrong, several million people might be unnecessarily affected (Olsen, 1989 p. 107) and the region may suffer economic losses. If it is correct, but delivered inadequately, disaster is inevitable.

Accuracy of predictions is based on what is possible to observe and data that can be collected. For example, hurricane predictions are very accurate because scientists have extensive weather instruments and well-tested forecasting techniques to use. Volcanic hazard areas and shorelines prone to tsunamis are mapped based on zones identified through historical records – scientists can find geologic evidence that the land was affected by lava, ash or debris flows or inundated with waves of debris.

For many predicted events (volcanic eruptions, hurricanes, floods, blizzards), there is time to deliver the message and adequately prepare for the event. The worst situation is certainly earthquakes. There are no widely accepted precursors for quakes. Reliable prediction are long-term and large-scale — relatively unhelpful for preparation. With the potential for large seismic events to kill huge numbers of people, earthquake prediction theories have been particularly problematic and fraught with ethical dilemmas for the scientific community, public authorities and media.

It’s important to distinguish between predictions from the scientific community and those arising from the nonscientific community (pseudoscientific speculation, psychics and cranks). Scientific predictions must be supported by background theory and data and withstand skeptical scrutiny to be considered credible. The foundation mechanisms, explanations, calculations and assessments are expected to have gone through the gauntlet of peer review in order to gain acceptance. If the foundation is valid, then short-term, specific predictions will be credible. Predictive successes that have followed the conventional route include volcanic evacuations (Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Pinatubo in the Philippines, and the island of Montserrat) and severe weather alerts. Psychic and pseudoscientific predictions are not supported by theory or data and are not credible. I’ll not be addressing the ethics of those predictions as they are in a whole other realm.

Failed predictions fall on an impact scale from low (creating public inconvenience) to high (massive death tolls) with economic losses and potential career destruction in between. The following are some notable examples that highlight the major pitfalls inherent in predicting (or ignoring predictions of) natural disasters.

The Brady-Spence Debacle

In 1976, Dr. Brian Brady, a U.S. government scientist, made a specific prediction for a huge seismic event to take place in Lima, Peru in July of 1981. While the prediction itself was remarkably detailed, the theory supporting it was completely opaque (Olsen, 1989 p. 41). Brady’s theory had not been tested or published for peer review. During the lead up years to the event, things got complicated. Egos, priorities, agendas and protocol hijacked opportunities for proper, coherent, scientific critique. Peruvian officials and the public were confused by the lack of a reliable feed of information. The unstable political situation at the time led Peruvian citizens to think that their government was using the prediction to continue military control (Olsen, 1989 p. 131; Sol & Turan, 2004). The predicted quake did not occur. But, widespread disorder, decline of tourism, decrease in property values, and general public unrest resulted in an estimated economic damage in Lima of $50 million (Mileti & Fitzpatrick, 1993 p. 55).

The lack of following scientific protocol led to the situation getting out of hand. This episode is an example of a loss of objectivity by the chief scientist, the failure of the scientific community to address a serious situation in a coordinated way, and government agencies accepting rumors and pursuing misguided agendas without accurate information.


In 1985, Columbian scientists knew that villages in the valleys around the Nevado del Ruiz volcano were prone to disaster from eruptions. Yet, money was not allotted by the government to monitor the active volcano. The data that could be collected was ignored or not taken seriously by officials. When the media reported that an eruption would produce deadly mudflows that would obliterate the village of Armero, civic leaders called these press reports “volcanic terrorism”.

Church leaders added to the propaganda by telling people of the village not to fear. The poor population made no preparations to evacuate. Inevitably, the volcano erupted. That night, those who attempted to evacuate did not know where to go. Civil defense tried to get people out of the town but many refused to go – telling rescuers they were certainly mistaken. 23,000 people perished when a flood of meltwater and warm mud buried the town. Armero no longer exists, bodies were incased in dozens of feet of debris.

Government inaction in this entirely preventable situation was devastating. The situation was a heartbreaking testimony to the vulnerability of the poor to manipulation by authority  (Bruce, 2001).

Browning’s New Madrid prediction

Iben Browning was a scientist with unconventional ideas who took his claim directly to the media who gave it wide coverage. He pronounced that an earthquake on the New Madrid fault in the US Midwest would be triggered in December 1990 by tidal forces. In light of his prediction, serious social disturbances occurred. When the quake did not occur, he was ridiculed. Sol & Turan (2004) note that one can not use the defense of free speech to support predictions such as this since they create social disturbances with harmful consequences. Your speech has consequences.

Mr. Browning rejected scientific protocol and valid criticism but used the press to create a stir. While these actions were unethical if one subscribes to the ideals of the scientific community, the media also shares some blame for giving Browning’s opinion credibility it did not deserve. Several cranks persist in using this same “tidal forces” idea, unsupported by science, to gain attention from the media.


Hurricane Katrina in 2005 was the costliest and one of the deadliest hurricanes ever to hit the United States. A US House Committee (2006) investigated the catastrophe and found, though the forecasts were remarkably good, the right information did not get to the right people on time and decision-makers seriously underestimated the threat.

It was well known how vulnerable New Orleans was to hurricanes yet there were inadequate provisions, few acts of leadership, government ineptitude, misguided advice, and media hype of violence that together resulted in a pathetic governmental response and heightened death toll. Katrina also revealed ugly issues of race and class treatment which showed that being poor and black put one at a distinct disadvantage in a disaster situation. Previous federal government cuts for disaster preparedness had increased the vulnerabilities and taught a hard lesson about paying now or paying later.

Boxing Day Tsunami

The Sumatra-Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 was an example of lack of coordinated monitoring, notification and evacuation procedures that caused an enormous and mostly preventable loss of life (Revkin, 2004). Fifteen minutes after the offshore quake that generated the deadly tsunami, U.S. scientists at the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Hawaii sent out a warning bulletin. In spite of attempts they made to contact counterparts in other countries, the calls were not answered; the information and warning did not get through. Thousands died along populated coastlines completely unaware of the incoming surge scientists knew was coming.

Back in 2003, Dr. Phil Cummings of Australia had pushed for an expansion of the tsunami network into the Indian Ocean. Formation of a study group was met with resistance from participating countries and the network was never expanded. In hindsight, it was noted that Dr. Cummings had accurately predicted the damage that would be done to Sumatra and India. This event put the new word “tsunami” into the vocabulary of many citizens around the world.

L’Aquila, Italy

Giampaolo Giuliani forecasted the 2009 L’Aquila earthquake in Italy based on radon ground emission readings – a scientifically questionable (but not outlandish) theory. Giuliani was reported to authorities for “spreading panic” by broadcasting his warnings weeks before the predicted event. Italian scientists assured the townspeople that quakes were not predicable and officials forced Guiliani to remove warnings from the internet (Neild, 2009; Mackey, 2009). When the predicted quake did not occur on the expected date, March 29, the Italian Civil Protection Agency denounced Guiliani as “an imbecile” (Israely, 2009). A quake occurred on April 6 destroying the central city of L’Aquila and killing more than 300 people.

In this case, a desperate scientist had made an attempt to do what he thought was the right thing. The government agency chose to use ridicule and censorship instead of providing a measured, coordinated response to a questionable scientific prediction. What might have been the result if a different tactic was undertaken?

In 2012, an Italian court convicted six of the scientists and a government official of manslaughter for failing to give adequate warning of the deadly earthquake. Were they at fault or just mistaken? What happens when scientists are held THIS accountable for a correct guess in an uncertain situation? The public will suffer.

The parties involved

Most crises are not instantly obvious. They take time to develop, sometimes from vague or contradictory signals (Boin & t’Hart, 2006 p. 49). Citizens expect public official to make critical decisions, provide direction and issue emergency warnings (Barberi et al., 2008). Because they are not experts on scientific topics, officials are vulnerable to misunderstanding and mischaracterization (Olsen, 1989, p. 38 and 139). Social scientists note “the public wants to hear things from people they trust” and “they want to hear things repeated”. Miscommunication can occur all too easily when an official speaks outside his area expertise and/or garbles the message. Constant, and correct communication is the key.

Predictions have a way of leaking to the press. The media can be an effective and critical means to deliver warnings and will look to experts for information and confirmation. Scientists, however, have not traditionally been open to making themselves available to address the public. One can argue that it is their ethical obligation to be accessible in such a situation and they MUST do so to establish and retain their place as a credible source of information. Otherwise, alternate, not-so-credible sources step in to fill the void.

New electronic media means word-of-mouth takes on a whole different scale as warnings from credible and non-credible sources are passed instantaneous around the world. “Prediction” via email or social network platforms is popular. Likely unaware that a warning is scientifically baseless, and without an easy way to judge its credibility, a receiver feels that she is doing a good deed by passing on a warning of impending doom. Warnings like this can cause undue concerns and economic effects.

The elemental question in predictive scenarios is: when is the evidence adequate to make a prediction to the public? Many prognosticators feel they have potentially life-saving information and are overcome with a moral obligation to inform the public regardless of protocol. They can’t seem to adequately assess the potential fallout if they are wrong. The public, however, considers costs of all kinds and is not always compelled to follow scientific advice. The public may be misled by a manufactured scientific controversy (such as vaccine dangers or global warming).

Science gets accused of oppressing unorthodox ideas that may form the basis of innovative prediction theory. The punishment for a scientific maverick can mean the end of a career. Desperate scientists with unorthodox ideas, rejected by their peers, will put forth their ideas to the community who will listen – the media and public.

The modern public generally has veneration for science and scientists (Posner, 2004 p. 97; Barberi et al., 2008). Yet, science can not deliver absolutes or provide guarantees. The prediction scenario must take public perception into account or the prediction will cause harm whether the event occurs or not.

The world’s most vulnerable population is the poor. Keys et al. (2006) asserts that expensive warning systems are a hard political sell if it is just to save the poor populations.

Governments and citizens will hesitate to undertake precautions that are expensive and time consuming. The public, however, is influenced by seeing others in the community (or, these days, online) taking a warning seriously (Mileti & Fitzgerald, 1993, p. 87). Where the people are poor, uneducated or distrustful of government (Bolin, 2006 p. 129), there can be a reluctance to accept an “official” warning to evacuate. People who feel they are in control of their lives take action to survive. Those who feel their lives are controlled by an external force will passively await whatever fate will come. Fatalistic attitudes, especially as a result of religious beliefs, are still encountered today, most notably in poor populations (Quarantelli et al., 2006 p. 19, and Bruce, 2001 p. 19). Leaders must be forthright to convince citizens to take the most reasonable course of action. Compassion for personal human concerns must be displayed for a warning to be heeded. Government must be prepared to follow through with obligations to the population whether the event occurs or not.


Many predictions are valid attempts to do the right thing under uncertain circumstances. There are social and political reasons why a prediction is taken seriously or completely ignored. The media and public may give a baseless prediction credence where the scientific community does not.

When the public, media and politicians become involved, a prediction becomes socially complex. Warnings must be delivered in relation to social conditions (Rodrigues et al, 2006b p. 486).

Government and scientists have an obligation to learn from historical events and not repeat mistakes. Even false alarms do not diminish future response if the basis and reasons for the miss are understood and accepted by the public (Sorensen & Sorensen, 2006 p. 196-7). Therefore, authorities should be willing to prepare their citizens without hesitation if the prediction is supported by science.

Science has an established process to be followed for a theory to gain acceptance. Scientists should be discouraged from short circuiting this process and appealing directly to the public. However, the scientific community must evolve its process to include modern technology and the new media in consideration of basic human needs and various responses to life-threatening events.

Barberi, F., M.S. Davis, R. Isaia, R. Nave, T. Riccia (2008). “Volcanic risk perception in the Vesuvius population.” Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research 172: 244 – 258.

Boin, A. and P. ‘t Hart (2006). “The Crisis Approach”. Handbook of Disaster Research. H. Rodriguez, E. Quarantelli, R. R. Dynes. NY, Springer: 42-54.

Bolin, B. (2006). “Race, Class, Ethnicity, and Disaster Vulnerability”. Handbook of Disaster Research. H. Rodriguez, E. Quarantelli, R. R. Dynes. NY, Springer: 113-129.

Bourque, L. B., J.M. Siegel, M. Kano, M. M. Wood (2006). “Morbidity and Mortality Associated with Disasters”. Handbook of Disaster Research. H. Rodriguez, E. Quarantelli, R. R. Dynes. NY, Springer: 97-112.

Bruce, V. (2001). No Apparent Danger. NY, Harper Collins.

Bryant, E. (2005). “Personal and Group Response to Hazards”. Natural Hazards, Cambridge Univ Press: 273-287.

Hinman, L. M. (2005). “Hurricane Katrina: A ‘Natural’ Disaster?” San Diego Union-Tribune. San Diego, CA. Sept. 8, 2005.

Israely, J. (2009) “Italy’s Earthquake: Could Tragedy Have Been Avoided?” Time Retrieved April 7, 2009 from http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1889644,00.html.

Johnson, B. F. (2009) “Gone and Back Again”. Earth (07 Apr 2009) Retrieved April 20, 2009 from http://www.earthmagazine.org/earth/article/1fe-7d9-4-7.

Keys, A., H. Masterman-Smith, D. Cottle (2006). “The Political Economy of a Natural Disaster: The Boxing Day Tsunami, 2004.” Antipode 38(2): 195-204.

Mackey, R. (2009). “Earthquake Warning was Removed from Internet”. NY Times News Blog (The Lede) (06 April 2009) Retrieved April 6, 2009 from http://thelede.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/04/06/earthquake-warning-was-removed-from-internet

Mileti, D. S. and C. Fitzpatrick (1993). The Great Earthquake Experiment. Boulder, CO, Westview Press.

Neild, B. and G. Deputato (2009) “Scientist: My quake prediction was ignorned”. CNN.com (06 April 2009) Retrieved April 6, 2009 from http://www.cnn.com/2009/WORLD/europe/04/06/italy.quake.prediction.

Olsen, R. S. (1989). The Politics of Earthquake Prediction. Princeton, NJ, Princeton Univ Press.

Posner, R.A. (2004). Catastrophe: Risk and Response. Oxford Univ Press.

Quarantelli, E. L., P. Lagadec, A. Boin (2006). “A Heuristic Approach to Future Disasters adn Crises: New, Old and In-Between Types”. Handbook of Disaster Research. H. Rodriguez, E.L. Quarantelli, R. R. Dynes. NY, Springer: 16-41.

Revkin, A. C. (2004). “How Scientists and Victims Watched Helplessly”. New York Times. December 31, 2004.

Rodriguez, H., E.L. Quarantelli, R. R. Dynes (2006a). Handbook of Disaster Research. NY, Springer.

Rodriguez, H., W. Diaz, J. Santos, B.E. Aguirre (2006b). “Communicating Risk and Uncertainty: Science, Technology, and Disasters at the Crossroads”. Handbook of Disaster Research. H. Rodriguez, E. Quarantelli, R. R. Dynes. NY, Springer: 476-488.

Scanlon, J. (2006). “Unwelcome Irritant or Useful Ally? The Mass Media in Emergencies”. Handbook of Disaster Research. H. Rodriguez, E. Quarantelli, R. R. Dynes. NY, Springer: 413-429.

Select Bipartisan Committee to Investigate the Preparation for and Response to Hurricane Katrina (2006). “A Failure of Initiative”. Washington, D.C., US House of Representatives.

Sol, A. and H. Turan (2004). “The Ethics of Earthquake Prediction.” Science and Engineering Ethics10(4): 655-666.

Sorensen, J. H. and B. V. Sorensen (2006). “Community Processes: Warning and Evacuation”. Handbook of Disaster Research. H. Rodriguez, E. Quarantelli, R. R. Dynes. NY, Springer: 183-199.

USGS (1999). “Most Recent Natural Disasters Were Not the Century’s Worst, USGS Says.” News release – US Dept of Interior, USGS (Geologic Hazards) (30 December 1999).

* I use the term prediction throughout this post since I am referring to the cases where a particular event was said to occur within a discrete time frame in a certain location. Please see this post in which I distinguish forecasting from prediction.

Originally published on this blog on 28 Mar 2011


Did zoo animals predict the Virginia earthquake? Look closer.

A day after the east coast earthquake (now forever to be remembered by me as “the best birthday present ever!”), the Smithsonian issued a press release about the behavior of animals at the National Zoo, more than 80 miles from the epicenter of the quake. Some media outlets reported on the news as “animals go wild”, “animals went berserk”. Many said “how animals predicted the quake”.

All of those are wrong.

What really happened?Read More »

The big difference between earthquake prediction and forecasting

I previously posted about how it’s unethical to endorse dowsing if you are a geologist bound by a professional code that includes using the best scientific procedures and evidence. Condoning a process which is scientifically questionable or invalid is a breach of this code.

A similar argument can be made for earthquake prediction. There have been several instances where scientists (and many more non-scientists) have predicted through various means when and where an earthquake will occur. Currently, there is a storm of criticism leveled at author (not scientist), Simon Winchester after he wrote this article strongly suggesting without evidence that the Pacific coast area is next in line for a big quake due to the strain at “a barely tolerable level” (whatever that means).

These next two blog entries will explore natural disaster prediction. First, it’s important to distinguish between prophesizing, predicting and forecasting.Read More »

It “appears as if” the world is ending

Remember that the year began with mass animal deaths? It continued with revolution in the Middle East. And, poor Australia was hit with the wrath of the gods. (What did you guys do? Just kidding.) Now, we have catastrophic earthquakes – one after another – and a wicked tsunami. With all the political turmoil and natural disasters this year, it would appear as if the world is being ripped apart, socially and physically.

“Appear as if” are the important words to consider. It depends on the perspective you take.

People mostly get their news from the media. The media gives attention to unique things, stories that affect certain groups of people or important people. They don’t always cover events that affect A LOT of people if those people aren’t considered important (remote, poor, unknown).

Once a story is in the news, the topic becomes important. I’m calling this the Google Alert effect. Read More »

Animals hearing the earth whispers again

Earthquake in Illinois! Is this the end times?

Hot-underground-fictional-place-for-sinners, no!

And, I’ll go on record to say End Times stories are totally silly. The world has been going downhill since we humans got here in (more-or-less) present form a million years ago. Enough of that tangent. It was just to get attention anyway.

It’s pretty darn cool to experience an earthquake but, putting things into earthly perspective, this is no big deal. No one was hurt. If there were no buildings, liquor stores and knick-knacks, no damage would have been done. When natural events like this happen, one would hope that interest would be generated in the science and explanations behind it. No, we get a lot of rampant speculation. People make correlations that have no basis in reality because our brains are designed to find patterns and connections. Thus, it must be the end of the world. Folks, stranger things happen all the time. Let’s not be scared of them, let’s embrace the challenge of discovery!

I did notice my favorite anecdotal earthquake precursor stories crop up once again in the midwest – animals sensing the earthquake. It appears from all the stories that people’s pet cats, dogs and birds were riled up hours, minutes and seconds prior to the event. Seconds before, animals can perceive something amiss with the usual sounds or vibration before us humans perceive these waves. Hours and minutes prior, could they be sensing the emissions of builtup stress in the rock, electromagnetic waves, infra- or ultrasound, gas release, air ionization, etc.? Most certainly they can. Not everyone’s dog or cat showed concern. I read reports from the local news that some pets slept right through. Others were shaken after the event just like their humans.

From our understanding of earthquakes, we know that the strain builds over time. Those conditions modify the immediate environment. See my article on Whispers from the Earth. I have been compelled by the evidence and theories of plausible mechanisms to explain the occurrences, that some animals, even people, are able to perceive precursors of earthquakes. It’s not unreasonable; it’s not kooky; it’s not even paranormal. It’s factual that animals perceive the world differently than we do. I think a lot more folks understand that now.

Whispers…Part 3 Anomalies and a new science

This is Part 3 of 3. The entire series is available as a PDF at my website.

Centuries of scientific and popular observations has given us a body of anecdotes peppered with actual physical measurements and recordings of anomalous phenomena occurring prior to large earthquakes. This fact is not in doubt. It has become well known that animals and the atmosphere exhibit odd behaviors that appears to be related to the coming quake. The failure of these signals to become a practical means by which we predict earthquakes in the short term results from 1.) unreliability of the phenomena, 2.) irreproducibility of the phenomena, 3.) inadequate explanation for the phenomena (which follows from the first two). We might add in there a hesitation to divert from the known path in science but that excuse is invalid. There is nothing wrong with holding to a path that has taken you quite far in the correct direction, but sticking to the path can’t hold forever because science progresses, perhaps in a different direction. In terms of earthquake prediction, the time may be now to diverge from the path.

When we consider anomalous earthquake-related phenomena (which I’ll dub ‘AERP’ just to save on typing), we don’t get far by just collecting the stories unless we proceed on to analyze, interpret and explain them. Then, to be of future value, they must be used to predict. Here are some of the theories that have been developed to explain pre-quake AERP such as animal behavior, EQLs (lights), EQCs (clouds), among other, stranger observations.

What happens before a quake

As discussed previously, squeezing, stretching and (micro)fracturing of the rock is inherent in the faulted area. Many AERP appear to have an electrical explanation – related to charged particles, currents and voltage. I do get a little technical in the descriptions that follow. It helps to have a primer in chemistry and physics (which I do have) but I’ll admit I had to look up some reference material in order to make sense out of it. (A great way to learn is to follow through completely on a topic of interest – it takes you to new places.)

First, an obvious consequence of stress and friction is heat. Do fault zones give off heat? The reports of hot, sticky weather preceding a quake suggests that but I had found no evidence to support it. Then, in 2006, Indian scientists report a bloom of plankton offshore prior to a quake may be the result of a release of thermal energy causing the local sea temperature to rise.

It is well known that gases escape from the ground before and during an earthquake. Water vapor, methane and other gases resulting from decomposing organic material may be released. Gas release may serve to explain the (nonelectrical) reports of putrid smells or atmospheric lens effects like observation of an elongated sun or moon before a quake. But, radon, a common, radioactive gas, trapped within rock, is released when the rock forms tiny cracks (microfractures). Increased radon in the air and groundwater has been measured numerous times prior to earthquakes.

Near the epicenter of the 1995 Kobe quake, a mineral water bottling plant noted that the gas content varied in the water prior to the earthquake. In Iceland, a similar observation was noted in 2002 when chemical constituents of a hot spring increased enormously within a 10 week span prior to a 5.8 magnitude quake.

Due to its radioactivity, radon can ionize air. Ionization of the air (by radon or other means) can creates particles known as aerosols. Ions are electrically charged and serve as nuclei for condensation. Aerosol particles can carry soot, dust, droplets, crystals (esp. salt), pollen, even virus and bacteria. The formation and collection of aerosols generated by underground processes would vary depending on the current weather conditions, the geology of the rock and other aerosols in the air. For example, wind and rain will quickly dissipate the particles. Aerosols may only last a few minutes after which they decay. However, if the mechanism that is creating them persists, a new supply can continually be formed.

The aerosol hypothesis, put forth by Tributsch (as an explanation for the various AERP, posited that the coming quake influenced the near-surface atmosphere to such a degree that unusual meteorological events occurred. But, that may be the beginning. There have been reports of metals in gaseous form being expelled in tectonically active areas. These metallic aerosols may play a specific role in the mechanisms that relate seismic activity to anomalies in the upper reaches of the atmosphere (a theory called “lithospheric-ionospheric [or seismo-ionospheric] coupling”).

Animals and people respond to ionized air. Positively charged ions in the air may affect serotonin levels. Serotonin is a hormone that regulates several physiological aspects in humans, such as mood, appetite, and a condition of feeling unwell.

Generating electricity

The idea of earth currents was discussed in 1890 by Milne. In the days of telegraph lines, the wires transmitted signals and static by themselves in response to seismic activity. There are other cases of natural electrical phenomena from the earth other than the usual lightning bolts. Glowing patches on mountains have been observed as the electricity is dissipated into the sky across a broad area. St. Elmo’s fire was observed on the high masts of boats and even occurs on high pointed structures on land with enough regularity for it to have been studied. Earthquake lights may be in the same category as anomalous ball lightning, flickering ground lights or “spooklights” and perhaps even some UFOs in that they result from static electricity generated from the ground surface. The theory that an intense electrical field and electromagnetic pulses are generated at a fault zone can potentially explain the various AERP discussed. Dr. Michael Persinger proposed the tectonic strain theory in 1975 relating light phenomena at fault zones to what eyewitnesses report as UFOs.

Rock can actually produce electricity thanks to the “piezometric” effect. It is the result of the ability of crystals, especially quartz, to generate a voltage in response to applied stress. The act of squeezing a quartz crystal induces a polarity to the crystal (one end positive, the other negative). This allows for a current to travel across the crystal. Piezoelectricity can free electrical charges from atom or crystals. These charged particles are ions that may contribute to the generation of a strong electrical field above the ground surface (or aerosols). Quartz is abundant in the earth’s crust, especially in granite, the common foundation rock for continents. Curiously, in an assessment of areas with and without defined precursors, those zones with quartz-poor rock, such as New Zealand, have fewer observable AERP.

Light can result when bonds are broken in a crystal when it is rubbed or cracked. This is called triboluminescence. The broken bond creates a positive and negative charge that recombine as a spark. It can easily be demonstrated by cracking a LifeSaver candy. It has also been observed while cutting diamonds. Scientists are still far from understanding this effect since some substances exhibit this property while others do not.

If enormous electrical currents are being generated, through known or as yet unknown mechanisms, could they serve as the signal we can measure to predict quakes. Do these mechanisms result in observable surface manifestations (AERP)? The buildup of stress in the rock, and release of electrical energy can feasibly result in a release of light and measurable electricity all beginning with the rock fracturing at microscopic scale. Electrons in the atmosphere are accelerated at the fault zone and they produce light when they strike other atmospheric molecules. The manifestation of different kinds of EQLs could be a result of the difference in charge distribution and the uneven field across different areas.

Laboratory experiments on rock samples, such as granite, subjected to high pressure, show that the electrical resistance of water-saturated rock changes just before it shatters. From experiments, the intensity of the electric field generated was greater through the process of microfracturing the rock than at actual breakage.

A stream of charged particles is called plasma. Examples of plasmas are lightning bolts or candle flames. What observers see as various forms of EQLs may be, in fact, plasmas, a stream of electrons from the ground that generates visible light.

We need to pause here to address why the piezoelectricity theory as a cause of earthquake precursor phenomena has been abandoned by some. It is hard to accept that the rocks can become conductive enough to generate an electrical pulse. The assumption made is that the random orientation of crystals in the rock would not allow for the effect to propagate and that the generated positive and negative charges would just cancel each other out. However, lab experiments have shown that if at least some of the crystals are oriented in the same direction, voltages can occur in rocks under stress. Even if only 1% of the quartz grains are aligned, considerable voltage can be produced.

So, if it is feasible that this can occur, where might that lead? The movement of charge in a rock will generate electromagnetic waves.

Electricity and magnetism

Electricity is related to magnetism. The passing of current generates electromagnetic waves. Prior to strong earthquakes in fair weather, scientists have observed anomalous electrical fields and electromagnetic pulses (in the Ultra Long Frequency range or ULF). Electromagnetic pulses can travel through the ground, air and water. Intense electric fields formed by the microfracturing of the underground rock would extent above the ground surface. Although, there will be regions on earth where the tectonic action is so deep, the ULF waves won’t reach the surface and no precursors would occur.

One explanation for AERP we might discount is a change in the earth’s magnetic field before an earthquake. It appears the change is so small, it is negligible. There is a story of a magnet that hung on the wall in Tokyo. In 1855, nails held by the magnet suddenly fell as if the magnet had lost its power. It may seem that the magnetic field was disturbed but it may very well have been that the electrical charge appearing from the ground overwhelmed the magnet’s strength, causing the nails to sway and be attracted to the ground. We are exposed to weak electromagnetic fields (EMFs) all the time. Many experiments have shown that we generally aren’t affected by them. Animals experience small but unimpressive magnetic field changes periodically and do not frequently act unusual. The change in magnetic field can influence some animals but the field is constantly changing especially during solar wind storms. The change in the field appears to be relatively minor as a result of seismic activity compared to these other influences.

Long wave electromagnetic radiation appears whenever electrical charges are generated or neutralized. Electric charge and electromagnetic signals are not detected by seismographs because there is no vibration. Whereas, a radio receiver is a good sensor to detect electromagnetic waves. AM bands on a radio will transmit the EM noise generated from nearby thunderstorms. Radio interference has been mentioned as a possible precursor to quakes.

A bent candle flame, or a candle that is hard to light or burns inefficiently has been noted as an AERP. Ikeya reproduced this effect by generating a charge on the ground that attracts the flame. Ikeya reproduced many other precursor phenomena in the lab by exploring the effects of electrical fields and EM waves. He produced very good evidence to suggest that these conditions are occurring as part of the earthquake progression and showed that the values that could be produced in nature are reasonable to show effects.

Disturbing the upper atmosphere

If we assume these mechanisms are at work in the stressed rock, large electrical fields can occur hours, days or even more than a month before the seismic release. The seismo-ionospheric theory, in development by Russian scientists for decades, suggests these fields reach so high above the earth’s surface that they can affect the upper reaches of the atmosphere and interact with the earth’s global electrical circuit. This area of the atmosphere where the interaction is seen is called the ionosphere. It is a zone 50-1000 kilometers above the surface. Soviet military satellites first recorded changes in the ionosphere in the days before large quakes.

The ionosphere starts to “feel” the zone of pending seismic activity from the preparatory mechanisms of a magnitude 5 event and above. U.S. scientists have not caught on to the foreign ideas but more experimentation and modeling has produced a viable theory that is being tested. First, the physical mechanisms must be studied and understood before any promise of prediction can be examined.

Low altitude satellites have recorded seismo-electromagnetic waves over earthquake-prone areas such as Armenia. The ionosphere disturbances over other seismically active locations have been recorded.

Curiously, the generation of these charges on the ground may not necessarily mean that a massive fracturing of the rock (an earthquake) will occur there. It can instead indicate that the fault movement is blocked. Thus, we can only say that the electromagnetic phenomena indicates rock fracturing with a possible earthquake to follow.

Can we explain EQLs?

Until recently, most scientists rejected the reality of earthquake lights because there was not a satisfactory means to account for their origin. The lights do not appear as regular alarm signals before a quake but are contingent upon whether the required large electrical energy has built up. This only happens when the subsequent quake is large. Lights appear to be evidence that an electrostatic charge is present.

According to calculations by Ikeya, the shape of the glow produced by an intense electrical field generated via underground fracturing would be a dome or ball shape. Relating EQLs to animal behavior, the concentration of air ions can be less in order to produce animal behavior anomalies than that which must occur to produce EQLs.

Can we explain EQSs?

Earthquake sounds may be generated by stress and local fracturing in massive rock. An example of this stress phenomena can be noted when you are near a metal or wood structure on a hot, sunny day. As the air warms or cools rapidly, the change in temperature results in stress in the material that gives a noticeable “crack” on occasion. The material is not visibly damaged but the stress was released. Ultrasound and infrasound might result from rock cracking. Perhaps only some people are sensitive to these frequencies that might be out of the range of hearing for the average person. Some animals may be sensitive to them as well. But sound as a precursor is not very reliable since the sound can be swamped by background noises or dampened within the rock. So, we have some idea about how EQSs might come about but no body of evidence.

Can we explain EQ weather?

The release of gases, formation of aerosols and electrified air might play a part in the formation of anomalous clouds and fogs reported as part of “earthquake weather”. The ionization process can explain a feeing of hot, oppressiveness that hangs over the land. While no particular type of weather causes earthquakes, there may be circumstances in which factors combine to signal changes happening in the earth below.

Can we explain animal behavior?

Animal reaction is most likely to be a combination of several factors. Not all animals are sensitive to the same environmental stimuli. Some are acutely sensitive to smell (dogs) and others are not (birds). Some can sense vibrations but others, such as domestic animals, are surrounded by vibrations and noise that cancel out subtle signals.

Animals can be very sensitive to electric fields. Some have organs specifically for navigating or catching prey using electrical signals. Sharks and catfish, in particular, have extraordinarily sensitive electrosensory systems used to capture hidden prey and for communication, orientation and navigation. Mammals have hair that acts as a sensor for electrical fields. Even feathers, whiskers or antennae may be receiving electrical signals from the environment.

An electric field induces current to flow in the body. The animals, plants, objects and atmosphere may all be responding to the seismo-electromagnetic signals from the epicentral area of the coming quake. The generated electrical fields are strong enough for their local discharges to generate high frequency EM waves. A great number of results show revealing background anomalies in EM emission levels right up to the moment of the quake that may even continue after.

Animals also have been reported to act unusually before and during other catastrophes like storms, tsunami landfalls and during a house fire. These are also examples of where the precursors or early conditions may be perceived by animals but not by humans. Crocodiles in Japan behaved violently prior to an earthquake in the area and had similar behavior prior to approaching storms which may indicate they are responding to EM waves. Because we see parallels in behavior between coming storms and earthquakes, perhaps the underlying reason is also the same.

If we consider the process where the rock fractures on a small scale prior to breaking at the large scale and giving way to the quake, and that this creates EM pulses, then compression of rock in experiments should produce the desired effect. In fact, animal experiments have shown that mice become restless and show signs of fear and distress when in proximity to rock under pressure prior to bursting. Anecdotal evidence also exists for animals to sense rockslides and move away from the affected area days before an event.

Experiments showed that the electrical field values and their effects were consistent between that which might be generated in a seismic event and that which was recorded as affecting animal behavior. Ikeya posits that local stress changes in rock generates charges via the piezometric effect during microfracturing, frictional electricity or fluid flow electrokinetics. As an electric dipole collapses, it produces EM waves in pulses. The animals respond physiologically to the electro-phenomena. By using experimental results on the tolerances of animal behavior to electrical effects, he can estimate the electrical field strength needed to produce such effects. He estimates that a large earthquake, producing six billion watts (a small fraction of a large earthquake), can theoretically produce these effects.

Regarding EM pulses, some animals respond through surface contact and some can perceive it through the air. Ikeya’s experiments showed animals expressed distress when the applied voltage was effectively too low to actually hurt them. His experiments reproduced the reported behavior of animals before earthquakes by using generated EM waves. However, it does appear to depend on the particular species and individual sensitivity with some animals – like mice, rats and parrots – showing odd behavior at low currents. Animals attempted to move away from an electrical field. In addition, they tried to minimize the effect by avoiding water, rubbing or preening themselves in an attempt to relieve irritation, minimize contact with the ground, stay in contact with metal and aligning their body with or against the field. To produce a response, he notes that the earthquake must be greater than M4, the animal must be within 30 km of the epicenter and the intensity of the field must be greater than 1 volt/minute. The mechanism by which animals respond to EM waves is not clear.

The evidence does suggest…

While there are many, many questions that remain, experimental results have shown that the anomalies might be reproducible in a lab or a reasonable theory can be posited for them. In summary, those atmospheric changes can be accounted for if the electrical effects resulting from stressed rock conditions are occurring. There may also be some unknown mechanism at work underground that scientists have not yet measured or accounted for.

State of Prediction

It wasn’t until around 1800 that theories about the causes of earthquakes included the idea of precursors in the research. Precursors, such as water level changes, were just “curiosities of nature”. In the early 1900’s, an instrument, called a “coherer” was used in Italy to detect electromagnetic emissions, probably the first attempt to produce a practical device to recognize precursors before a quake.

Decades ago, the theory of rock dilatancy prior to a quake was tested. Dilatancy is when the rock develops cracks (or ‘dilates’) due to stress. This process might be measured through observance of the following: a lowered velocity of artificially (or naturally) generated seismic waves, ground uplift or tilt, increased radon emission, lowering of electrical resistivity through the rock. After the initial dilatancy (increasing the volume of the rock), there was presumed to be an influx of water into the fault zone as a result. Consequently, the seismic pressure wave speed would return to normal, the electrical resistivity would continue to lower and there would be an increase in the number of small local quakes just before the fault ruptured. Result of employing this theory for prediction were less than stellar and it was, more or less, abandoned, though not invalidated, as seismologists pursued the idea of foreshocks to predict the main shock.

In the last 20 years, the study of changes in electrical fields before earthquakes has made progress first begun in Greece, Japan and France. Seismologists were skeptical. But, the results were valid. Changes prior to earthquakes have been measured and electromagnetic anomalies have been documented. It is still not clear how the measured anomalies are linked with the quake itself, what they mean, and how they can be potential used as a predictive tool.

There are difficulties in measuring electromagnetic changes associated with earthquakes because of all the other sources for these waves – lightning, magnetic storms, artifacts from culture machinery. To eliminate the noise, the best locations to monitor appear to be deep boreholes or the sea floor. That’s not too practical. There are regular variations (hourly, daily, seasonally) in addition to a noisy background in the atmospheric electric parameters from storms, precipitation, winds, dust, etc. These factors complicate the processing of data to determine if a seismic-generated signal is within it.

Radon monitoring is being used to look for a characteristic rise and decrease in radon just before a quake. Observation of water levels is an inexpensively measurable precursor but gives us little information as to when and where the quake might occur.

The most cited example of animals aiding earthquake prediction was during the 1974-1975 lead up to the Haicheng, China quake. Along with the strange animal behavior observed by everyday folk, other ground indicators suggested the quake was near and prompted the government to act. A 7.3 magnitude earthquake occurred, 50% of the buildings were destroyed around the epicenter but there were few human victims. But, animals don’t always react reliably before a quake. Their behavior is not consistently recognizable as odd or indicative of a coming quake. There may be several alternate reasons why animals behave differently than normal. Therefore, animal behavior isn’t the best gage to use to predict quakes.

Satellites have provided us with unique views of our world. Remote sensing equipment that measures changes in the ionosphere is proving to be worthwhile tool to help judge where the next epicenter will be. Ionospheric precursors give a quite reasonable and useful expectation time of 1-5 days. A statistical study done by Chen in 1999 showed that ionospheric precursors occurred within 5 days of a magnitude 5 event 73% of the time but 100% of the time for magnitude 6 quakes. The one- to five-day interval has been well established for ionospheric anomalies. There are complex electrodynamical, meteorological and chemical processes involved in producing an ionospheric disturbance. But satellite studies have clearly indicated the region of the future quake.

A New Science

An earthquake of magnitude 5.7 occurred near Coyote Lake California in August 1979. The area was loaded with geophysical instruments. Not a single precursor was identified via these instruments. However, the local spring experienced a change in water level and some abnormal animal behavior was reported. Along with the Parkfield experiment to capture an earthquake that finally occurred in 2004 (with no obvious precursors), hopes for prediction waned. What are the precise conditions under which an earthquake preparation area exhibits precursory activity? Not only are these conditions unknown, but the actual occurrence of precursors is still widely doubted by seismologists.

If charged particles are indeed released from the ground prior to a large quake, what might be measured to help in prediction? Release of gases, positive ions near the ground surface, change in the atmospheric electrical fields above the fault area, change in the vertical stream of ions into the atmosphere, increase in EM radiation, appearance of electrical earth currents, changes in the electrical potential of groundwater or surface waters. The trick is what to measure and how to do it.

Much has been learned about the earth signals before a quake. The most important may be the electrical effect. Ikeya hopes that recent progress will spawn a new discipline called “electromagnetic seismology”. The most interesting aspect is how wide-ranging the effect may be. It was previously assumed that any changes in the ionosphere were caused by environmental variability, geomagnetic storms and the like. Now, the thought is that seismic activity around the globe may play an important role in its variability.

Lithosphere-atmosphere-ionosphere coupling is a very complicated subject involving an array of physical effects and interactions on all levels from underground to the earth’s magnetosphere. The volume of knowledge is so large, it is hard to research the topic in all directions. Starting in the 1930’s, from observation of seismogenic electric fields, the idea of connecting the lithosphere effects with the atmosphere has been a zone of conflict. Because of the interdisciplinary aspects, the field is off limits to many scientists. The theory requires knowledge of tectonics, seismology, atmospheric and ionospheric physics, chemistry and electricity. Discussions between experts in these various groups ends up in complications and disagreement.

For short-term prediction and accuracy, we are hardly farther along than the ancient observers were. However, the new theory of seismo-ionospheric coupling is very promising. Russian scientists, such as S.A. Pulinets have called for a satellite system with ground-based measurements to analyze the anomalies and possibly turn them into a predictive method. Measuring only one parameter will not give enough confidence for prediction.

U.S. Scientists are now examining this idea. An ionospheric perturbation was produced by the Coalinga, California earthquake of May 2, 1983, detected by a network of high-frequency radio links in northern California. If we look for more, it seems likely that we will find more evidence to support this phenomenon.

The topic of earthquake prediction highlights the value of reported anomalies. We have seen how many anomalous observations by average citizens and seasoned experts formed the basis for learning valuable lessons about earth. A unifying theory to explain the reports gives them credibility. While not all the anomalies can be adequately explained, it is the hope of those who report and study them that one day they will fit within a scientific explanation. When scientists, such as Tributsch and Ikeya, proceeded with their research and publication, they were met with rejection from other professionals who did not judge citizen observation worthy of scientific research. Delving into these topics mean grants are hard to come by, your professional reputation can become tarnished. But, the public and mass media can be your strongest support. They expect science to get to the root of these stories. Scientists are reluctant to leave the safe environment of their practice. That attitude undermines the strong public interest in the phenomenon. Curiously, cultural differences may play a role with the western scientists less open to these ideas that may taste of superstition, while other cultures have different thoughts.

The public expects progress in science to develop ways to make them safer. Science progresses in pulses. The previous failures in EQ prediction do not necessarily mean that it can’t be done, it means we may be looking in the wrong places for answers. It does appear that there were many cases where we had adequate data prior to the quake but it was not properly used to save lives. As we saw in the Asian tsunami disaster, a coordinated effort is critical to success.

As a scientist, a geologist, I am admittedly out of my range of expertise when it comes to understanding the concepts and theories associated with these emerging ideas about the lithospheric-atmospheric connection. But, after much musing, it makes sense that processes on earth are interconnected. It does give me hope that the eyewitnesses and experimenters ridiculed by science and the anomalous observations once rejected, are now being accepted as valid. It is heartening to see that we may be on a path now to understand how the earth alerts us to catastrophic events and how we can use the signals along with personal precautions to minimize or eliminate the associated suffering and death. That’s the ultimate purpose of science.

BBC News.(2006) “Plankton Blooms linked to quakes”, May 9, 2006 from http://news.bbc.co.uk/go/pr/fr/-/1/hi/sci/tech/4750557.stm accessed on May 12, 2006.

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. (1996) “Earthquakes Cannot Be Predicted”, Science 275 (5306): 1616.

Gokhberg, Morgounov, and Pokhotelov (1995) Earthquake Prediction – Seismo-electromagnetic Phenomena, Gordon & Breach Publishers.

Hough, Susan E.(2005) “Earthquakes: Predicting the Unpredictable?”, Geotimes, March 2005.

Ikeya, Motiji (2004) Earthquakes and Animals: From Folk Legends to Science, World Scientific Publishing Co., Pte. Ltd.: Singapore.

Martinelli, Giovanni.(1998) “Earthquakes, Prediction” in Sciences of the Earth: Volume 1, Edited by G.A. Good. Garland Publishing, New York.

O’Hanlon, Larry (2003) “Earthquake Warnings in Ionosphere?” Discovery News (Discovery Channel), March 27, 2003.

Pulinets, S.A. (1998) “Strong Earthquake Prediction Possibility with the Help of Topside Sounding from Satellites”, Advances in Space Research, Vol 21 No 3.

Pulinets, S.A. (1998) “Seismic activity as a source of the ionospheric variability” Advances in Space Research, Volume 22, No 6. http://www.izmiran.rssi.ru/~pulse/COST%20SEISMO.pdf

Pulinets, Sergey and Kirill Boyarchuk (2004) Ionospheric Precursors of Earthquakes, Springer-Verlag: Berlin Heidelberg.

Serebryakova, O. N., S. V. Bilichenko, V. M. Chmyrev, M. Parrot, J. L. Rauch, F. Lefeuvre, and O. A. Pokhotelov (1992), “Electromagnetic elf radiation from earthquake regions as observed by low-altitude satellites”, Geophys. Res. Lett., 19(2), 91–94.

Tributsch, Helmut (1982) When the Snakes Awake: Animals and Earthquake Prediction, MIT Press: Cambridge MA.

U.S. Geological Survey http://earthquake.usgs.gov

Veysey, John (2004) “Icelandic Water gives clues about quakes”, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Aug 8, 2004 http://www.jsonline.com/alive/news/aug04/249223.asp accessed Aug. 10, 2004.

Wu, C.(1997) “Impurities give crystals that special glow” Science News Online, May 17, 1997 http://www.sciencenews.org/pages/sn_arc97/5_17_97/fob2.htm.

Whispers…Part 2

Of all the natural disasters we experience regularly here on Earth, the most violent and destructive are earthquakes. Thousands are killed each year, especially in poorer countries where buildings are not designed to withstand the violent shaking and rolling of the ground.

I’ll continue my discussion of currently unexplainable or poorly explained phenomena that have been consistently, reliably reported (and now even recorded) prior to strong earthquakes.

Earthquake Weather

“Something’s coming, sky is purple
Dogs are howling to themselves
Days are changing with the weather
Like a rip tide could rip us away” – Beck Hansen, “Earthquake Weather” from the album Guero (2005)

If you live in an area prone to earthquakes, you might know the stories about earthquake weather. Earthquake weather is said to be a dry, hot, oppressive calmness. It leaves one with the miserable feeling that something bad is about to occur. People feel weak, nauseous and uneasy. There are also reports of the atmosphere being thick with smoke, dust, fog or vapors. Thunderstorms were associated with earthquakes. The moon or sun were red, were surrounded by a halo or elongated in shape. The stars appeared closer. Short-arc vertical or horizontal rainbows have been seen. Early observers, like Aristotle, noted these unusual weather characteristics.

There are numerous instances of bizarre-shaped clouds (earthquake clouds or EQCs) appearing in the sky days before an earthquake. Prior to the 1995 quake in Kobe, Japan, several were captured in photographs. Proverbs tell of dragon or snake-like clouds foretelling the coming of the earthquake. A large cloud also appeared suddenly in a blue sky moments before a quake in Tokyo, Japan in 1923.

EQCs are stationary and do not drift away like normal clouds. Diffuse, low clouds settle into a fog. Earthquake fogs (EQFs) are commonly associated with a coming quake and were described in historic documents. Fogs and clouds were so connected with the strong tremors that it was once thought that they were the cause of the quakes that followed soon after. Aristotle called it “pneuma” meaning breath of the earth. There are historic and current reports of this “breath” having a sulfur odor or a smell of decay. Mainstream science does not correlate these atmospheric changes with seismic activity and does not consider these as precursors that can predict a coming quake.

Glows, balls and curtains of lights

Gaining more credibility as an earthquake precursor are luminous phenomena that occur before or during a strong quake. The high quality evidence for these events comes from historical writings especially from Japan where earthquakes are very common.

Earthquake lights (EQLs) come in a great variety of shapes and colors and can appear out of the ground or from the sky. They can be seen moments before a quake as a glowing dome or as flashes, curtains, sheets, funnels, arcs or balls that may even travel along the fault line in blue, red, green, yellow, orange, purple or white. Link to USGS page.

EQLThe dozens of good EQL photographs helped bring EQLs out of folklore and into the realm of scientific investigation. However, there is still no good explanation available mainly because a way to objectively measure these lights does not exist.

There is an even stranger account of balls of lights that comes from fishermen in Turkey before a 1999 quake. They described fire balls (ball lightning?) in the sky and undersea explosions with bright balloons of light ascending through the water. Their fishing nets were burned. What does one make of this?

Modern science rejects reports such as this. As in the other prequake anomalous occurrences, without data – collected in an objective way – the idea of EQLs cannot be seriously evaluated.

What in the world is happening?

Unusual animal behavior, anomalous atmospherics, light displays, sounds, spooky happenings around the house. Is the earth sending signals to which we fail to listen? It all sounds bizarre. How can all these things seemingly occur before earthquakes and we can’t explain it?

The first question that must be asked is: “Are these things really happening as people have described?” Can this be a case of mistake observations, observations after the fact (where we attribute every little thing as associated with the quake), or hoaxes?

As noted above, precursors of earthquakes have been reported in ancient times. They described phenomenon that is generally the same as that experienced today. Now, there are instances where many, many reliable observers have documented these events, even by camera, videotape and sensors.

The reports have entered the field of mainstream science. Though few scientists are willing to study them, there has been some advancement towards understanding. For example, Ikeya has determined that there is sufficient correlation between time and location of phenomena that shows the events are definitively related to the subsequent quake.

But how does one study these events? We can’t predict earthquakes so how can we be prepared to study precursors? More importantly, how do governmental and university scientists obtain funding to study phenomena that many discount? Those scientists that do go against the grain have suffered some professional discredit, even when their experiments produced results. But, there results have promise.

Several theories have been mentioned with respect to the above ground phenomena that occur in conjunction with below ground activity. Newer theories are being formed that suggest the earth often tells us well in advance that she is about to heave.

A theory must account for an invisible source that causes these observations. There are scads of invisible sources that may account for these observations. Gases, charged particles (ions), electrical fields, magnetic fields, infra- or ultrasound, infrared or ultraviolet light – sources that people can rarely detect without assistance of equipment. An invisible source may be detectable to animals or everyday electronic devices or may interact with the environment in such a way as to become noticeable to people.

What happens prior to the quake? Rock is being strained, compressed, heated and bent, down to the very crystals, before it finally breaks en masse. Before the rock mass breaks and unzips, it cracks. Tiny cracks form in the rock structure. The stress and strain placed on rock in an active fault zone changes the properties of the rock. If it changed, can we measure it? If we can measure it, can we use it to predict when the quake will occur?

Coming up (when I manage to pull it together in a cohesive explanation that I can understand), cutting edge science and research on earth signals before a quake. They really are out there.


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.

Gokhberg, Morgounov, and Pokhotelov, 1995, Earthquake Prediction – Seismo-electromagnetic Phenomena, Gordon & Breach Publishers.


Ikeya, Motiji, 2004, Earthquakes and Animals: From Folk Legends to Science, World Scientific Publishing Co., Pte. Ltd.: Singapore.

Pulinets, Sergey and Kirill Boyarchuk, 2004, Ionospheric Precursors of Earthquakes, Springer-Verlag: Berlin Heidelberg.

Tributsch, Helmut, 1982, When the Snakes Awake: Animals and Earthquake Prediction, MIT Press: Cambridge MA.

Continued at…

Whispers from the Earth

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.

Reuters news article

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?

Earth Sounds

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.

Paranormal effects

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.

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