Image: Cal Orey and Simon
Courtesy of Cal Orey
Journalist-author Cal Orey says that Simon, her "seismically sensitive 3-year-old Brittany," tends to become restless or clingy before an earthquake hits. Most seismologists scoff at the idea, however.
By Alan Boyle Science editor
msnbc.com
updated 4/13/2006 6:03:45 PM ET 2006-04-13T22:03:45

Years ago, Cal Orey just wrote about unconventional methods for predicting earthquakes. Now she's using them herself.

"I'm getting hits again and again, within a 24- to 72-hour time frame," the author-journalist said from her South Lake Tahoe home near the California-Nevada border.

But she's also a little self-conscious about claiming that migraines, dreams, a ringing in the ears or her pet dog Simon could point to future tremors. "I would think that you're going to make fun of all of this," she said.

Orey is among thousands of people seriously looking for portents of seismic activity in other natural phenomena, ranging from magnetic disturbances and phases of the moon to animal behavior and the premonitions of "earthquake sensitives." The seekers include Internet chatterers, free-lance geologists and entrepreneurs as well as scientists from Russia, China and even NASA — but not the U.S. Geological Survey.

"As a scientist, I'd like to say 'never say never,'" said USGS geologist David Schwartz, chief of the San Francisco Bay Area Earthquake Hazards Project. "But to get to this short-term prediction from a magnetometer reading, or a horse running around a corral, or your kitty running away — I think that's very marginal."

Instead, most earthquake researchers are trying to get a better picture of patterns in seismic activity, by making long-term measurements of ground strain along faults, analyzing how Earth's crust moves before and after earthquakes, and developing statistical forecasts for future seismic shocks. It's the kind of study that was pioneered a century ago, in the wake of the catastrophic San Francisco earthquake.

"A tremendous job was done after the 1906 earthquake in making the observations of everything that really occurred," Schwartz said. "We are still using that report today as a fundamental source of material about what earthquakes do, and how to respond."

What good is a 30-year prediction?
The problem is, the mechanism behind earthquakes appears to be so complex, and rooted so deep underground, that seismologists can forecast the future only in terms of decades. In 2002, for example, the USGS said the San Francisco Bay region had a 62 percent chance of experiencing a quake of magnitude 6.7 or stronger by 2032.

"My question is, how good is that?" Orey said. "If they give us a 30-year forecast that the Bay Area is going to have a major quake, what does that mean?"

The Holy Grail of earthquake prediction would be to anticipate the time and location of strong tremors mere hours or days before they occur. But is such a system even possible? Here's a look at some of the paths Orey and other grail-seekers are pursuing:

  • Orbital alignments: Retired geologist Jim Berkland charts "seismic windows" — time frames with a heightened potential for earthquakes, based on tides, phases of the moon and Earth's proximity to the sun and moon. Berkland believes that the extra flexing of the earth's crust caused by the gravitational pull of the sun and/or moon (the same forces that cause the earth's tides ) can set off a fault that's ready to shift. Orey has written about Berkland for 20 years, and he's the title character of "The Man Who Predicts Earthquakes," her newly published book. "I'm on record for having predicted two 7-magnitude quakes," including the 1980 Eureka quake and the 1989 World Series quake, Berkland told MSNBC.com. Overall, he claims a 75 percent success rate — using his own criteria for judging success. By the way, under his methodology, Berkland's next window of earthquake opportunity runs from April 25 through May 2.
  • Animal sixth sense: The idea that animals can sense tremors in advance is as old as the ancient Greeks of 373 B.C. and as new as the Asian tsunami of 2004 . Orey, for example, suspects a tremor could be on the way when her dog Simon or her cat Kerouac gets unusually jumpy or clingy. Other pets may get the urge to run away. Berkland, too, believes that animals may provide short-term warning of earthquakes and has tabulated the number of lost-pet ads in newspaper classifieds in an attempt to narrow down the area where California earthquakes might hit. The critter connection also has been the subject of research by the Chinese, and even the USGS looked into it for a while in the 1970s. For instance, the 1975 evacuation of Haicheng in China, just hours before a major earthquake, is often cited as a success story for animal prediction. However, China's animal-alarm system has also missed the mark badly — with the 1976 Tangshan earthquake, which killed more than 242,000 people, cited as the most devastating failure.
  • Human sixth sense: So-called "earthquake sensitives" trade their own quake premonitions on Berkland's Web site, SyzygyJob, which has 150 registered users. Some report a sense of nausea, or ominous dreams, or a ringing in one ear or the other. For Orey, it can be all of the above. She recalled getting her first "ear tone" one day while she was interviewing an earthquake sensitive. "The next day, a Japan quake hit," she said.
  • Magnetic field shifts: Berkland speculates that the sixth sense in animals and humans responds to disturbances in Earth's magnetic field, brought on by the seismic precursors of earthquakes. "I'm 99.9 percent convinced that it's the magnetic field," he said, "because we know that just about every animal has some magnetite in it." That may sound like a load of hoo-hah, but harder-headed researchers like NASA's Friedemann Freund have put forth a hypothesis that underground stresses in the rock generate electromagnetic waves, due to a well-known phenomenon called the piezoelectric effect. In fact, this year Russia is due to launch a satellite called Compass 2 with the aim of charting potential connections between magnetic disturbances and seismic disturbances. And China has its own seismo-magnetic research satellite in the works, as space official Luo Ge noted just this month .

As far as the USGS earthquake researcher Andy Michaels is concerned, however, all these theories are mere "sideshows" for the real action in seismology.

"You can come up with anecdotal case studies for one thing here or there, but it’s never stood up with respect to the animals," he told MSNBC.com. "With the moon, it’s a small effect. In some very large statistical studies, some people have found a relationship that would be useless for predicting earthquakes. It might tell us a little bit about the physics of earthquakes, but some of those studies are also quite controversial within the field."

Gaining traction?
Compared with lost-pet listings and telltale eartones, the seismo-magnetic connection seems to be gaining more traction in at least some scientific quarters. If it turns out that there's nothing to the idea, "there's probably a thousand people around the world who are wasting their time," said Tom Bleier of Palo Alto, Calif.-based QuakeFinder, a private seismic research firm.

Bleier would be one of those people. For more than a decade, Bleier has been doing his own research into the seismo-magnetic connection — starting out by placing kit-built magnetometers in schools and other locations around the San Andreas Fault.

Three years ago, QuakeFinder also participated in a satellite mission called QuakeSat — which Bleier said detected some "very unusual" bursts of electromagnetic noise linked to 2003's San Simeon magnitude-6.5 earthquake and half a dozen other seismic episodes.

"Now, is that enough?" he asked. "No, not really. That's not statistically significant at six or seven earthquakes."

The next step, he said, is to run through a much bigger data set from France's Demeter satellite, which was designed to look for correlations between seismic activity and electromagnetic disturbances in the ionosphere.

Czech researchers have already used the Demeter data to analyze 3,500 earthquakes greater than magnitude 4.8, and Bleier said they've seen "a trend of increased signatures several hours before the earthquake, if they happened to fly over the area."

Such signals could be linked to other claimed precursors of seismic shocks, including thermal hot spots as well as "earthquake lights," a type of ball-lightning effect associated with quakes, Bleier said.

"There are two or three dozen scientists around the world that are trying to make sense out of the signals," he said.

And that's the rub: making sense out of phenomena that may be linked or merely coincidental.

Nailing down the connection
The magnetic signals could well have been sparked by solar activity, or even human-made sources. In a recent letter to IEEE Spectrum, University of Tokyo quake researcher Robert Geller and other skeptics said efforts in the field of earthquake prediction had "no quantitatively testable theory to back them up."

"Work in this field has now been going on for over 25 years, and the absence of strong supporting statistical evidence does not bode well," they wrote. In fact, Geller and others have long argued that earthquakes are inherently unpredictable.

Another aspect of the debate has to do with false alarms: Non-predictions for earthquakes that don't happen are nearly as important as the prediction that turns out to be right. China, for example, had to clamp down on its experimental quake alerts in 1999 after a costly rash of false alarms.

A quick look at Berkland's Web site certainly turns up plenty of false alarms among the claimed successes.

For example, last month both Orey and Berkland passed along predictions for magnitude-7 quakes that didn't come to pass.

Even mainstream research focusing on the first faint tremors of an actual earthquake, known as the P-wave, suffers from the false-alarm factor. Some scientists believe quake-savvy animals are actually reacting to the P-wave's propagation. However, the USGS's Schwartz said, "There are some scientific issues about whether or not there really is information in the P-wave that says whether it's going to turn into a bigger earthquake."

Where to put the research bucks?
With so many theories to track down, Schwartz said his agency has to pick its shots carefully — considering that the USGS's annual budget for earthquake programs is a relatively modest $50 million, or less than a tenth the cost of a single space shuttle mission.

"When there's such limited money for research on earthquakes, you have to make decisions on where you want to put your buck," he said. "And clearly the community as a whole doesn't want to put its money on short-term prediction."

But Schwartz still holds out hope of shrinking the time horizon for seismic forecasting from its present decades-long scale, as more sensitive monitoring networks like the Plate Boundary Observatory and the San Andreas Fault Observatory at Depth are put into place. Another technology, known as interferometric synthetic aperture radar, or InSAR, is getting a lot of attention for its ability to detect millimeter-scale ground movements from space.

"Down the road, you might turn on your TV and get your strain report in addition to your weather report," he speculated.

That sounds eerily similar to one of Orey's dreams: "We want earthquakes to be forecast on the Weather Channel," she said.

There's at least one other point on which the earthquake sensitive and the earthquake scientist agree: People shouldn't just sit and wait for the Big One, or even a five-day extended forecast. The time to get ready is now.

"We're not out there to freak out the public and cause panic, which could be worse," Orey said. "But we're saying, get prepared. And so many people aren't."

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