Sunday, January 19, 2014

Fault Frauds and Fantasies

I sat at a desk in the disheveled offices of the Los Angeles Times Valley Edition on Jan. 18, 1994.

It was the day after the great Northridge Earthquake and we were not far from the epicenter.   Just the day before, the office resembled a junkyard, a jumble of broken windows, spilled file cabinets, toppled desks and computers, books and newspapers, all soaked by a sprinkler system unleashed by the quake.

Through some miracle it was up and running the next day and we were deep into the herculean task of covering what at the time was the biggest natural disaster to befall an American city.  We paused only occasionally to dive under our desks when an aftershock rolled through.

Late in the morning the phone rang.  It was a woman who called to tell us that she always experienced a bout of gastro-intestinal distress before an earthquake.  And it happened the evening before the Northridge quake.   Would we like an interview?

I thanked her for the call and joked that many of us had experienced gastro-intestinal distress during and immediately following the quake.  She was not amused and threatened to call another newspaper the next time her symptoms struck.

We received a lot of calls like that, from psychics and pseudo scientists who were convinced they had found the Holy Grail of earthquake prediction.   Clearly, they had not.

One call, however, turned out to be at least partially correct.  A regular caller to our office was a woman once married to a small-time hood who operated in our zip code called Sid the Squid.  Sid had departed this planet some years ago so we referred to her as the Widow Squid.

Ms. Squid explained that some years back, she would share a bottle of booze and her favors with a building inspector who would drop by to visit.  On one such occasion, he told her that if there was ever a major earthquake in the Valley, all those apartment buildings with parking areas built beneath them would come tumbling down.

All of them didn’t.  But a lot did, including the infamous Northridge Meadows collapse which left 16 people dead.  It was a good tip that came too late.

The 20th anniversary of the Northridge quake has raised the question once again about earthquake predictions.   Many scientists believe it could become a reality sometime in the future.   Many believe it never will.

While the research continues, there are plenty of folks out there that will fill the void with their own theories.

Just a couple of months ago, a website called Catholic Online published a story headlined, “Major Quake Predicted for California.”

In it, the story pointed to the mysterious appearance of two oarfish washed up upon California shores as a precursor to an earthquake.

“In Japan, there is a traditional correlation between oarfish and earthquakes that dates back for centuries,” the story reports. “Traditional Japanese folklore says that oarfish beach themselves as a warning to the people before an earthquake. The normally elusive fish, which can be up to five meters in length, are said to be messengers from the palace of the Sea God.”

“A possible scientific explanation may be that deep-sea fish, such as oarfish, are more sensitive to seismic shifts and stress, and somehow respond to the tectonic pressure that builds before an earthquake by coming to the surface.”

It goes on the explain that “to be clear, the only evidence then is traditional Japanese folklore, which in a scientific sense isn't evidence at all.”

But it adds, “However, not all folklore is nonsense either.”

Maybe not, but the story certainly is.

Britain’s Daily Mail breathlessly reported to its readers this month that floating orbs that  “ have been linked to UFOs and hallucinations and thought to be harbingers of doom” could be a tipoff to a quake. 

“The lights, which take many forms and appear before or during earthquakes, could provide an early warning sign,” the paper reported.

Of course, if those lights happened to be stars or moonlight or aircraft or search lights or swamp gas, well, forget it.

The idea that animals can predict earthquake has been around for centuries.   It is still studied in Asia.   But here, according to the National Geographic, even though there have been documented cases of strange animal behavior prior to earthquakes, the United States Geological Survey says a reproducible connection between a specific behavior and the occurrence of a quake has never been made.

"What we're faced with is a lot of anecdotes," said Andy Michael, a geophysicist at USGS. "Animals react to so many things—being hungry, defending their territories, mating, predators—so it's hard to have a controlled study to get that advanced warning signal."

Just to be on the safe side, if you run across a beached oarfish with strange lights dancing above it while a dog howls somewhere in the night, you might want to get under a table.

There are well-intended but bogus predictions, then there is downright fraud.   A classic example was one that hit the Internet in 2010 claiming that Caltech was sending all of its students and faculty home because of an impending quake.  

Adding to the paranoia was the unspoken belief that, heck, if anybody knew a major quake was going to strike, it would be Caltech.

This, of course, kept the public relations staff at Caltech quite busy for a number of days,  telling the curious that scientists so far are unable to predict quakes  and that no one had been sent home.

It was my second favorite outrageous rumor, the first being the alarming disclosure some years back that Zero Population Growth had booby-trapped men’s toilets with razors to castrate the unsuspecting.

The most accurate prediction about earthquakes is that they will indeed occur, some small, some large, somewhere in California.  Always have, always will.   And the best advice to take away from the prediction community is to always be prepared.

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