Every so often a rumor starts making the rounds through social networking sites that is saturated in woo. My fiance ran across one on Facebook a few weeks ago that fit this description, focusing on the terror-evoking, sky-creeping vapor masses known as earthquake clouds. The post posited that there are certain clouds that appear in the sky that can be used to predict the onset of earthquakes. It referenced this brief article about rainbow-colored clouds over Los Angeles that were similar to those supposedly seen prior to earthquakes in China and Chile, replete with user comments trumpeting doom for the region through various conspiracy theories, destruction that ended up never taking place.
The fact that my fiance and I live about one mile from the San Andreas Fault Line in a mountainous region that regularly has cloud cover fueled my intrigue about this irrational correlation. We have earthquakes every few years of varying magnitudes, most of which occur with some cloud cover present before and/or during the rumbling. I have heard residents of the area claim they could somehow sense earthquakes coming, but never that someone could see indicators – especially in the sky. At the same time, I have never really hypothesized a connection between sky phenomena and plate movement. With my woo senses tingling, I decided to investigate.
To begin, I wanted to figure out what earthquake clouds are supposed to look like and this resulted in the first of many problems: no one appears to know. A Google Image search of “earthquake clouds” presents a muddling concoction of photos that hardly represent one another: some are sparse and jagged, others are large and smooth, some are in clear bands, and others are jumbled together. Descriptions are equally varied, with definitions of “upward tornado type [clouds] and a horizontal striped bright cloud” (Ondoh, 2009, p. 217), “linear clouds at [sic] the clear sky background” (Pulinets & Ouzounov, 2010, p. 5) , “a cloud with the colors of the rainbow splashed across it”, ancient mystical accounts of “threads of a black cloud spanning the sky like a long snake ” and contemporary mystical descriptions of “a special configuration like a snake, a wave, a feather, or a lantern”. With so many potential physical appearances and little consensus on what should be observed, any potential scientific evidence would appear quite difficult to gather.
Those who support the earthquake cloud theory also differ in their explanations of how the clouds form. Explanations include terrestrial gas emanations from active faults (Ondoh, 2009), temperature fluctuations, humidity drops, and radon emissions from faults (Pulinets & Ouzounov, 2010), and “scalar energy” (Park, 2003), among others. Some theorists claim the clouds form in seconds, while others posit the clouds form over a number of hours. While this is not an area that I have knowledge or experience in, it appears that the underlying processes are largely unknown and what little research that has been done is mostly speculative.
Of greatest detriment to the earthquake cloud theory is the vast differentiation in the time these clouds are theorized to predict quakes. Some supporters claim quakes occur as soon as 30 minutes after cloud formation, many citing this video supposedly filmed in China before the 2008 Sichuan earthquake (there is no way to validate the time or place of this footage). Others feel that the clouds-in-question present themselves much earlier, anywhere from 25 to 50 days or more before the shaking begins. This sizable time period and further lack of consensus makes it evermore difficult to categorize the theory as scientific.
Furthermore, there is much room for logical fallacy and magical thinking to run rampant in the attribution of quakes to clouds. It is quite possible that many observers of so-called earthquake clouds close to a seismic event execute post hoc ergo propter hoc or “after this therefore because of this” reasoning fallacies, recalling a cloud (real or imagined) after a quake and assigning a correlation between the two. Those who believe in earthquake clouds forming weeks or months before quakes could similarly be connecting two independent instances through magical thinking, anticipating seismic activity at some point after observation of a suspected earthquake cloud. The later an earthquake takes place after observation of a believed earthquake cloud, the less likely the two are correlated, but firm believers in earthquake cloud theory will still support a connection despite this fact.
Without a scientifically-grounded base consisting of distinct observable characteristics, mechanisms of formation, and accurate understanding of the precursory nature of earthquake clouds (if there is any of value), the belief in these perceived ominous vapor formations can only be categorized as pseudoscience.
Ondoh, T. (2009). Investigation of precursory phenomena in the ionosphere, atmosphere and groundwater before large earthquakes of M6.5 Advances in Space Research, 43 (2), 214-223 DOI: 10.1016/j.asr.2008.04.003
Pulinets, S. & Ouzounov, D. (2010). Lithosphere-Atmosphere-Ionosphere Coupling (LAIC) model – An unified concept for earthquake precursors validation. Journal of Asian Earth Sciences.