Shaky Ground: Predicting Earthquakes Isn't Yet a Science

When it comes to predicting earthqukes, no one stands on terra firma.


| March/April 1989



predicting earthquakes - map of continents and major tectonic plates

Knowing the locations of major tectonic plates hasn't made predicting earthquakes any easier.


ILLUSTRATION: DON OSBY

Even before Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger first went to China, stories had begun trickling out of the People's Republic about the local penchant for predicting earthquakes — or in any case their onset. Barnyard animals and even wild birds, it was touted, behaved oddly in the minutes and sometimes hours before the event.

The news caused considerable stir in northern California, where I lived at the time, and not a few nervous types promptly went out and bought themselves chickens, rabbits, or goats and began keeping a sharp eye peeled. Some of these same people, incidentally, had already taken to sleeping in beds equipped with roll bars, in case their ceilings came crashing down in the middle of the night. They understood, and appreciated, the danger. Those of us less provident ignored it altogether, content simply to drink a little more California wine.

Some seismologists, however, felt compelled to look into the stories from China; a few of them going so far as to consult biologists, gamekeepers, and farmers in quake-prone areas to see if they had ever noticed anything funny — like cocks crowing at noon, rabbits refusing to couple, goats suffering indigestion, birds heading south that had just arrived exhausted from the trip north. Any behavior connected with the rumbles underfoot? Unusual avoidance activity, for example. Dogs climbing trees or cats failing to land on their feet? Had anyone had the diligence to note not only what was going on in the barnyard but also with the weather, the planets, the various constellations and the Richter scale? The real question was, did animals possess some kind of "geo-gland" enabling them to sense changes in the earth's magnetic field or, more to the point, the first faint vibrations of tectonic plates starting to shear apart way down below the surface?

Clear answers never emerged, not even from the Chinese, and before long the questions petered out, as did widespread American interest in the I Ching, barefoot doctors, and the Great Wall. The seismologists went back to their ordinary studies, concerning themselves in recent years not only with switching from analog to digital mode on their recording devices — gone is the revolving papered drum with squiggly lines on it — but with blanketing the globe with seismic stations to monitor both natural and man-made tremors, especially those of the underground nuclear kind.

The rub is that while the recording instruments have grown increasingly sensitive, and their interpretation more sophisticated, the ability to predict earthquakes with reasonable punctilio remains elusive. Ask anyone in Soviet Armenia.

"What happened to our Soviet scientists?" demanded one Armenian bitterly last December, his dwelling and his town turned into toothpicks and brick piles, his family crushed beneath them.





Crowd at Seven Springs MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIR

MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIR

Sept. 15-17, 2017
Seven Springs, PA.

With more than 150 workshops, there is no shortage of informative demonstrations and lectures to educate and entertain you over the weekend.

LEARN MORE