An absolutely devastating 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck Turkey and Syria this week, quickly followed by a second 7.5 quake on a different nearby fault, and a flood of smaller aftershocks. As of this recording, the death toll is around 3,000 but expected to rise as emergency crews go through the rubble.
And as is the case with every horrific tragedy, unfortunately, the pseudoscientists are here to make everything just a little bit worse. In this case, I’m talking about kooks who think they can predict earthquakes.
Before I get into the details, as always, here’s the actual scientific fact up front: no one, not even trained seismologists who have spent their entire lives studying earthquakes, can accurately predict precisely where and when an earthquake will happen. The absolute best they can do is say, “Hey, there’s a big ass fault line here, and it seems to pop off in a major way once every 60 years or so, and now it’s been 70 years since the last time it happened, we can assume it’s going to happen at some point in the next 20 years, but also the planet is unpredictable so maybe not.”
Yeah, not quite as impressive as what everyone is saying about Dutch quack Frank Hoogerbeet, who Tweeted on February 4th, “Sooner or later there will be a ~M 7.5 #earthquake in this region (South-Central Turkey, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon),” two days before the 7.8 hit in that region.
How did he nail such a huge prediction? The same way I nailed a prediction in 2016 that an earthquake of a 4.0 or higher would hit California in the summertime, or how I accurately predicted that in 2019 a volcano would erupt at the same time that a hurricane hit the United States: I did it by choosing events that are more common than people think, and ignoring all the predictions I made that did not actually come true.
This is a common tactic amongst psychics: if you rattle off a few dozen predictions with varying probabilities of occurring, you’re sure to get a few of the highly probable ones and you have a decent chance that at least one low-probability event will occur as well. When it happens, you promote it, and you memory hole the ones you missed. People who want to believe you’re psychic will go right along with you and never suspect that they’re being scammed. Sure enough, Hoogerbeet has put out dozens of “predictions” over the past few years, including back in December of 2018 when he was absolutely positive that a “high seven to eight magnitude” earthquake would happen December 21-25, and before that he was sure that a 9.8 was going to happen in 2015. Third time’s a charm, I guess, and by “third” I mean “thirty thousandth time” because seriously, he seems to make a new prediction every few days. Is it shocking that one finally “hit”, when he didn’t even give a date (just “sooner or later”) and included a region that makes up thousands of square kilometers stretching across four countries incorporating several extremely active faults?
So, vague details, lots of guesses, and a little luck is how Hoogerbeet actually did it, but how does he say he did it? Simple: uranus. The planet. Astrology. And yes, I know that the professionals now prefer to say “urine-us” but that only makes me chuckle harder, so there.
Hoogerbeet claims he can predict earthquakes based on the “geometry” of the moon and the planets in our solar system, in the same way that a depressingly large percentage of the population believes that those celestial bodies affect whether or not we’re going to have a good day at the office. And even people who can clearly see that astrology is BS might be fooled by this larger planetary astrology, because after all, don’t we see how the gravity of the moon affects our planet every day?
And it’s true: Earth’s moon is big enough and close enough that it influences our tides, just as our sun does (because it’s REALLY big, even though it’s further away). AND, the Earth is big enough and close enough to the moon that WE can cause MOONQUAKES deep under the surface! But even in that case, where Earth is a much larger object pushing its gravitational force on the smaller moon, moonquakes are caused by a variety of things, like heat from the sun warming the crust, or asteroids hitting the surface.
So it’s not completely out of the question that the moon could occasionally contribute to earthquakes, but obviously the effect will be even less than Earth’s influence on the moon, and we have very active tectonic plates that are constantly moving, so it’s never going to be like “Oh, this quake was caused by the moon.” And it’s absolutely never going to be like “The moon is going to be five feet closer to the Earth this week so there’s going to be a magnitude 8 earthquake in Japan.” That’s just not how it works.
And relative to the pull of the moon, the other planets in our solar system are doing jack shit to Earth. If the tidal force of the moon is 1, the pull of the sun is .4, Venus is .000006, and Uranus, which Hoogerbeet is really interested in blaming, is .0000000003. I mean, it’s 7,000 times further away than the moon. I haven’t done the math but I’m pretty sure that Chinese spy balloon had more gravitational pull over the Earth than Uranus does. If you have more time than me, please feel free to do that math in the comments.
The point is, no, the “geometry” of the planets in our solar system do not cause earthquakes and so there is absolutely no way to look to them for guidance on predicting earthquakes. Geologists, seismologists, physicists, and astronomers debunk this every time a new kook pops up to claim he’s cracked the code on predictin g earthquakes, and yet it just keeps on happening.
Why are people so gullible when it comes to this topic? It’s really the perfect storm of bullshit: earthquakes are big, scary, deadly events and it’s terrifying to know that we cannot predict when they will occur, and as individuals we have very little control over how we can stay safe. Here in the Bay Area I have go bags and an emergency earthquake kit and extra food and water, and I’m currently trying to save tens of thousands of dollars to fully retrofit my home, but I’m ultimately reliant upon my government to make sure our roads, bridges, public buildings, power, water, and sewage infrastructure is prepared for what is really an inevitability: some time in my lifetime, there will probably be a large earthquake along the Hayward fault, the San Andreas fault, or both.
We know that where there’s fear and uncertainty, superstition steps in to make people feel better. So here we have a lot of freaked out people finding a bit of solace in the idea that there’s a guy out there who will tell them when the Big One is about to hit, even if he has to fight against the entirety of science to do it.
While it’s impossible to predict earthquakes with astrology, I do have some good news to end on. First is the possibility of future ways of predicting earthquakes: researchers have found that some earthquakes (but not all or even most) are preceded by an abnormally high amount of radon gas being released into the atmosphere, which could lead to a predictive system in the decades to come. There’s also some evidence that faults push out charged ions in the days or weeks prior to a large earthquake, which may be what’s behind strange cloud formations that people sometimes report around earthquakes. Neither of these precursors appear to be there in 100% of earthquakes, and researchers aren’t even close to using them to predict anything, but they are concrete details that theoretically could be used, say, 50 years from now. I know, I guess when I said “good news” I meant relative to the previous bad news.
There is one tool for “predicting” earthquakes that isn’t really a prediction but does work: earthquake early warning systems, like the one here on the west coast of the US called MyShake. It’s automatically installed on Android phones and iPhone users can download and set up the app for free, and in return you will get a few seconds or minutes of warning before a large (over 4.5 magnitude) earthquake hits near your location. It works because earthquakes release two different waves of seismic energy: Primary (or P-)waves, which you might not even sense, are much faster than the destructive Secondary (or S-)waves. The alert system picks up on the p-waves and sends out the warning, giving you a little time to get to a safe place, drop to the ground, and hold on.
I have the app, and I was actually woken up in the middle of the night a few weeks back with the warning, a few minutes before a 6.4 earthquake struck in Ferndale, about 400 kilometers away for me. I didn’t feel it, so really all the alert did was make me panic for 5 minutes while I waited to die. It’s not the greatest promotion of the app, I know, but I do think I’d rather occasionally be freaked out for nothing than die unexpectedly one night because my bedroom is over a “soft story” that is likely to collapse in a large quake.
So if you live on or near an active fault (or near an active fracking operation, I guess), consider looking into your area’s local P-wave early warning system (MyShake is the only one in the US right now but there are similar efforts in other countries). And regardless of where you live, this might be a good time to double check your emergency kit. What’s that, you don’t have an emergency kit?? Whether you live in a place with earthquakes, wildfires, floods, hurricanes, tornados, or blizzards, it’s a good idea to have an old suitcase or other container stuffed with a first aid kit, a blanket, some cans of food, and some water! Go to Ready.gov to get other ideas on what can go in there. If you never need it, great! If you DO ever need it, it’ll be worth its weight in gold.
If you’re interested in seeing what’s in my kit, I’ll be posting a video over on my alt channel, since it’s about time for me to update it anyway!
If you’d like to give to relief efforts currently happening in Turkey and Syria, you can’t go wrong by helping out UNICEF, OxFam, or MSF.