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Look! Up in the Sky! It’s an Earthquake!

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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.

Torpedo-Shaped Clouds

Charming aerial formations, or omens predicting destruction?

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.

Rainbow Clouds

A still from footage of supposed earthquake clouds prior to a 2008 quake in Sichuan, China. Pretty or frightening?

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.

Rippled Clouds

Bringers of rain, or rumblings?

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.

References

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 seen prior to earthquakes in China and Chile, replete with user comments trumpeting doom for the region through various conspiracy theories.

Taking into account that my fiance and I live about one mile from the San Andreas Fault Line in a mountainous region that regularly has cloud cover, I was intrigued by 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, scientific evidence is 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 earthquake cloud 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 real or imagined cloud after a quake and believing in 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 firm, scientifically-grounded base consisting of distinct observable characteristics, mechanisms of formation, and accurate understanding of the precursory nature of earthquake clouds (if any), 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.

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5 Responses to “Look! Up in the Sky! It’s an Earthquake!”

  • Bieber:

    This made me think. “Pics or it did not happen”

    Nowadays a lot is recorded on camera, but I am still waiting for footage with miracles, paranormal activity and such. I know some folks claim these things don’t work with a camera, but there are of course lots of ‘hidden’ cameras recording every freaking event possible, but still no paranormal phenomena and magic. Footage appearing on the web is fake. Fake UFO’s, fake ghosts, fake everything. The guys behind the screen in charge of paranormal activity and miracles must be aware of cameras and must have a reason why they are so shy. Which on its own is weird since paranormal people always claim that ghosts are seeking contact and religious people always claim that their god is doing everything to draw attention.

    Now these earthquake clouds… If you buy a red car you see red cars everywhere. That’s how our mind works. An earthquake is impressive. People tend to go through memories to see if there are patterns, omens. Of course there are earthquakes where clouds can be seen. When a volcano is about to erupt for instance, or if you happen to witness other geological activities like plumes of steam.

    Clouds of ice crystals that polarize sunlight (these rainbow colored clouds) occur everywhere and quite often. How much color you see depends on the average size of these ice crystals many miles high in the sky, and the location of the sun. It would be strange if clouds like these we’re never to be seen before an earthquake. There are many more meteorological phenomena we are not aware of most of the time.

    • Yup. Post hoc thinking and illusory correlations are amazing bi-products of our perceptual and reasoning systems.

      I attended a talk about dog behavior at the 2009 WPA convention and the speaker actually tried to convince us that dogs could predict earthquakes. He kept adding caveats to what he was saying, but it was obvious that he was convinced.

  • Oh my goodness, clouds predicting earthquakes, that is so funny. That reminds me of other coincidental correlations such as frogs migrating days before a natural disaster (some graduating-bright-spark in my class this semester told the class that it had been “proved”).

  • I went off on a self-inspired tangent a few years ago and delved into earthquake precursors. You can find it here (http://idoubtit.wordpress.com/2007/01/02/whispers-from-the-earth/) and it was published in The Anomalist No. 13. After thinking a lot about the topic, what I concluded were two main things that ought to be considered. First, earthquakes can be very different from each other. Depending upon various factors such as fault type, the type of stress that is built up, depth, type of bedrock, overlying features, etc., what results from a fault movement can vary widely. So, to say that precursors of certain types happen for all “earthquakes” is not valid. Second, some situations do appear to result in strange phenomena. Certain features that are not always going to line up can come together to produce an anomalous event, including atmospheric anomalies. Compressing and expanding microfractures in rock that is stressed can release gas in certain situations, water levels can rise or fall also in response to microfracturing in rock. I’m not certain about the ionic or electrical effects reported but that wouldn’t be outside the realm of scientific plausibility and there is some evidence to suggest that it does occur. I do wonder if we are not looking in the right places for precursors. Instead of measuring precursor seismicity, which isn’t reliable, we might want to watch the ionosphere to see if there is a correlation to large quakes.

  • Tylor:

    That top picture is what I saw today in Oregon. They have been predicting an Earthquake to hit here sooner or later. It will happen. It will be a 9.0 or larger. I could go on and on about information that backs it up but I’ve wrote this crap down a lot.