The Canterbury earthquake has shaken out a fair bit of pseudoscience along with the shattered Christchurch masonry. First there was the Council of Homeopaths attempting to flog their shonky products to quake victims promising to help them “return to a more normal mental, emotional and physical state”.
Then there was the Christchurch mum who believes her two year old predicted the quake. Said solo mum Rachel Murray of her daughter Madison’s screaming fit 20 minutes ahead of the 7.1 magnitude quake:
’I have heard of children seeing ghosts and stuff but never believed it. Now I believe.’
But the flurry of emails I received late last week as Sciblogs was teeming with earthquake coverage, constituted something else entirely – a theory that extreme weather patterns are somehow tied to earthquake activity. The emails came from a 45 year-old Indian “post graduate in physics”, S. Prakash.
Prakash hails from Tamil Nadu in India, where he is apparently a “non-destructive tester” dealing with radioography testing, ultrasound testing etc. But seismology is Prakash’s real interest and, he explained in his letter to me, he has since 1984 been exploring the field of seismology, hoping to “save precious human lives” by pinpointing “nature’s forewarning” of earthquakes. As Prakash explained in his letter to me:
While weather changes and earthquakes result from the large-scale effects of plate tectonics, it has generally been thought that particular instances of weather changes and earthquakes are not directly related. But this observations [sic] and the correlations reveals that the Australia’s weather patterns are very closely connected with the geological process of its neighboring countries —Flores region, Banda region, Kep.Tanimbar region, Kepulauan Babar Indonesia, New Guinea (papua new guinea), Celebes sea, Molucca Sea and Timor Region; PNG, Solomon Islands, D’entrecasteaux Islands region,Santa Cruz Islands, Vanuatu, New Caledonia and Loyalty Islands, Fiji, Samoa and American Samoa and Tonga and Western Indian-Antarctic Ridge.
The numerous island land masses on the eastern side of the Australia plays a major role in affecting the over all Australian weather pattern. I positively identified the region and predicted almost all the quakes with close geological coordinates and its magnitude but due to lack of assistance and cooperation from the experts I couldn’t tell the exact time. However it is quite possible at the laboratory level of study.
Weather and earthquakes – a correlation?
The crux of Prakash’s arguments outlined in the non peer-reviewed paper below (the quirky phrasing is all his and presumably the result of a less than perfect grasp of written English) is that there is a correlation between extreme weather events like cyclones, flooding, storms and typhoons and seismic activity. He writes:
By watching even the smallest weather changes, scientists may be able to predict quakes more accurately and warn populations of impending disaster. Yes, the count down for a powerful quake will start, once the very heavy rain is over anywhere in the world!
It is quite possible to estimate the location & size of an impending quakes based on the quantity of flood amount; cyclone strength and the unusual blistering heat but except the exact precise time.
A completely wacky idea? Well, pretty much. The United States Geological Service describes earthquake weather as a myth:
Do earthquakes change the weather in any way? Earthquakes themselves do not cause weather to change. Earthquakes, however, are a part of global tectonics, a process that often changes the elevation of the land and its morphology. Tectonics can cause inland areas to become coastal or vice versa. Changes significant enough to alter the climate occur over millions of years.
However, a smattering of peer-reviewed literature has examined supposed correlation between weather and earthquakes, including this paper in Nature, which Prakash not surprisingly has seized on. This BBC story explains the research this way:
In a seismically active zone in Taiwan, pressure changes caused by typhoons “unclamp” the fault. This gentle release causes an earthquake that dissipates its energy over several hours rather than a few potentially devastating seconds. The researchers believe this could explain why there are relatively few large earthquakes in this region.
Interesting, but that doesn’t quite gel with Prakash’s theory that extreme weather events precede and can predict high-magnitude earthquakes. Prakash claims to have predicted numerous earthquakes (including the Canterbury quake), but has gained little traction when he shows his findings to scientists:
Yesterday evening only I just warn this massive quake but due lack of exact geological coordinates of the storm I could not locate the exact location. JUST SEE HOW EXACTLY THE CORRELATIONS MATCHED!!!
I continuously warn the USGS authorities but they ignored since they feel that my weather to quake correlations are inconsistent. I timely warned the Samoa and Padang quakes but the authorities concerned ignored my appeal. But after the happening of the American Samoa quake, one USGS authority Ms Linda Curtis asked me to furnish the details prior to that massive quake.
I was pretty bemused by Prakash’s earnest if misguided amateur earthquake forecasting. He’s not really doing any harm, though he is wasting a lot of time he could be spending on something more productive.
But Science years ago ran an interesting piece (H/T Lynley Hood for sending me a copy of it as it isn’t available online) about the case of Dr Iben Browning, a self-taught climatologist who in 1989 predicted a big quake for the midwest of the US and went unchallenged by scientists, allowing panic to spread.
Browning predicted that a catastrophic earthquake would strike the Mississippi Valley in the first week of December 1990. The media were all over the prediction, which was so specific that it caused “near hysteria” according to Science:
Schools and factories closed on the target day (3 December) and groups such as the Red Cross wasted precious funds in their efforts to calm the public.
Science suggested the seismological community waited too long to slam Brown’s predictions, leading to months of wild media speculation and stress among the public during the winter of 1989 as the countdown to earthquake day began. The element here making the difference between a crank making psychic predictions being consigned to the dustbin and getting widespread play, is the media.
And ironically, we saw just that in the New Zealand Herald in the wake of the Canterbury quake with weather analyst and Herald blogger Philip Duncan giving credence to the idea of “earthquake weather“. Duncan was in the Edgecumbe earthquake and was also in Christchurch for the recent quake there.
I can distinctly remember the eerie sky, cloudy but not completely overcast, dead still – not a breeze at all. And it was mild, luke warm really. The calmness is the most distinctive part of that memory.
Again, last Saturday in Christchurch, I landed in a wintry southerly, just 2 degrees and raining. By night time the skies had cleared. It was cold, yes, but dead still and cloudless. When the quake struck at 4:35am I remember noticing the stars as I looked out the window. I don’t know why I noticed them, I just did.
Wow, what a coincidence. But Duncan is trying to read more into it, a correlation in fact, and frankly, he should know better.