No 9.0 earthquake in Hawai`i (or anywhere else)
27 November 2006
Reports of a 9.0 magnitude earthquake and the inevitable accompanying tsunami in Hawai`i were greatly exaggerated. According to a story on Hawai`i Public Radio this morning, Civil Defense (by which I assume they meant the Oahu Civil Defense Agency) had received about six hundred phone calls asking about a 9.0 earthquake supposed to occur between midnight and 7a.m. HST. We were alerted to this imminent doom when a woman in Borders last night asked everyone within earshot if they had heard rumors of the `quake. Meanwhile, there was neither quake nor tsunami as of
7:30a.m. 11:30a.m. 3:30p.m. HST. The specifics of the rumor (quake magnitude, centered off of the Kona side of Hawai`i Island, narrow time window) remind me of many of the props used to give credibility to the asteroid impact rumors that crop up on the internet periodically.
Just to be completely clear, with current technology and theories, anybody who claims to predict earthquakes is probably highly accomplished at bending spoons. Notable events in quake forecasting include a Chinese government prediction in 1975 based upon a series of foreshocks but often erroneously attributed to animal behavior that was, indeed followed by a significant quake. This prediction followed by a quake was soon rebutted by another possible permutation: no prediction of any kind followed by a big quake. In 1976, the Tangshan earthquake killed at least a quarter of a million people. Continuing the annals of unsuccessful (though less disastrous by far) case studies includes another high profile prediction—that of the USGS for Parkfield, CA between 1988 and 1992. No earthquake occurred on that fault until 2004, well outside the prediction window.
IMHO, Oahu Civil Defense Agency missed an opportunity to up their street cred after the recent fallout from actual earthquakes. Their ‘Latest Information Updates,’ web page dates from more than six months ago and alludes to the 7/7 transit bombings in London more than a year ago. This seems to be both a classic moment of Security Theater and an opportunity for citizens to do as Bruce Schneier suggests and refuse to be terrorized while demanding better disaster response planning. In contrast, Hawai`i County Civil Defense has a brief, sane, and highly germane message. It looks like what people like Howard Dicus and Doug Carlson are calling for: greater efforts for government transparency and public education.
A palette of eligible but still unusable earthquake prediction techniques include monitoring metal levels in groundwater and satellite radar measurements of deformation. So far, however, none has moved from the level of anecdote to that of data, much less to theory. A debate engendered on the pages of Nature some years ago ended with resounding pessimism towards developing that capability in the near to moderate future. A little farther out on the fringes of establishment science are theories about strange lights, animal behavior, electrical field changes and cloud formations. While I don’t know enough to evaluate those, their absence from any discussions by better-qualified and highly motivated people makes me skeptical.
Meanwhile, here are some sites listing recent earthquakes and giving helpful tips to prepare for and mitigate damage by larger tremblors. [N.B.–It turns out that the old wisdom of sheltering in doorways or running outside during earthquakes has been updated to duck, cover, and hold under a sturdy piece of furniture.] As far as asteroid impacts go, I know some of the people who work to detect them, and they don’t seem the conspiring types since they are distinctly lacking in pencil-thin mustaches. This is not even to mention the tens of thousands of amateur astronomers who spend their time discovering comets and supernovae, and would certainly blow the lid off any astro-cabal. Any internet rumor that gives date and time of an asteroid/comet impact but not the site of impact is patently false, and in fact, very few events are described as certainties, ever. In summary, separating the hoaxes from the science can be difficult and may be made more so by scientists own elaborate theories, narrow applications, and obtuse jargon. But, as always, consider the source. Baloney detection may be more art than science, but it does require science.