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A Century of Earthquake Prediction Possibilities

October 4, 2013

Right up there with the saying that "everyone complains about the weather, but nobody does anything about it," might be the statement that scientists keep talking about earthquake prediction, but they're never able to do it. I've written about earthquake prediction in several previous articles (Earthquake Prediction, January 16, 2013, Earthquake Prediction, February 18, 2011 and Earthquake Warning, March 27, 2012). Scientists are getting better at predicting the weather, mostly through advances in instrumentation and satellite remote sensing, but they're still far from being able to predict earthquakes.

From earliest times, the best predictor of an impending earthquake has been strange behavior in animals. This might be a consequence of their possessing magnetic and electric field receptors. Magnetic field receptors have been confirmed for some birds and bacteria, and they may offer some evolutionary advantage.

Claudius Aelianus, a Roman author who lived around 300 AD tells one anecdotes about earthquake prediction by animals in his De Natura Animalium (Περι Ζωων 'Ιδιοτητος, "On the Characteristics of Animals"). He writes how mice, snakes, insects, and other creatures left the Greek city of Helike before it was destroyed in 373 BC by an earthquake and subsequent tsunami.[1]

Reports have come down to us from antiquity that earthquakes have be preceded by such things as changing water level in wells. Our modern age has added some other items to the list of possible earthquake precursors, such as radon dissolved in well water, changes in electrical noise caused by the piezoelectric effect in rock under stress, fractoluminescence, in which the electric fields caused by separation of mineral crystal planes will generate light, high intensity ultralow frequency (ULF) radio signals, and satellite remote sensing of electromagnetic fields.

Pierre Curie

Pierre Curie

Physicist, Pierre Curie, and his older brother, Jacques, a mineralogist, discovered piezoelectricity.

It seems reasonable to assume that the great stress on crustal minerals that precede an earthquake would produce piezoelectricity.

(Nobel Foundation portrait, c. 1903, via Wikimedia Commons.)

Electromagnetic signals have appeared to be a promising way to detect impending earthquakes. The Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989 was preceded by strong radio signals in the ultralow frequency (ULF) range of 0.01 to 10 hertz.[2] ULF signals can penetrate tens of miles into the Earth with little loss, and ULF precursors to earthquakes have been detected by satellites.[3] There is also an approach involving detection of magnetic field pulses presumably produced by electrical discharges within the Earth.[4]

The Earth has had a wide area array of electric field sensors since about the middle of the nineteenth century. These are long telegraph wires capable of receiving induced currents. This was proven during the Solar storm of 1859, also called the Carrington Event, in which a Solar flare and coronal mass ejection caused the largest known geomagnetic storm on Earth. Geomagnetically induced currents from August 29 - September 5, 1859, disrupted telegraph services, induced electrical arcs between telegraph lines, and even shocked some telegraph operators.

Solar flare observed from Skylab, June 1, 1974.

Solar flare observed from Skylab, June 1, 1974.

Huge though this appears, it apparently pales in comparison with the flare causing the Carrington Event of 1859.

(NASA image ID: S74-23458, via Wikimedia Commons.)

Manuel Berberian, in an article in Seismological Research Letters,[5-6] reports on a correlation between an earthquake and a preceding telegraph signal by an Iranian telegraph operator in 1897. As reported in 1909 in a local Iranian newspaper, the New Iran, "Yusef (Joseph), the telegraph operator and cashier of the Kerman Telegraph Office," in the desert town of Kerman in southeast Iran not only reported the effect, but he suggested that it might be used as an earthquake warning system.[5-6]

Yusef's telegraph circuit was a single wire system in which current return was through the ground. His telegraph receiver was apparently a Wheatstone/Cooke-type needle magneto-electric device used in the late nineteenth century. He first noticed this anomaly on his telegraph instrument during an earthquake in 1897. The article describing the 1897 discovery was nine months after a particularly devastating January 23, 1909, earthquake in Iran by which more than 8000 people died and more than 130 villages and a town were destroyed.[5-6]

Yusef saw the same signals he had seen preceding the 1897 earthquake, and he was able to give occupants of his building six seconds warning to evacuate prior to the 1909 earthquake. Wrote Yusef,
"I am confident if a more sophisticated instrument is built... a few minutes after the needle's anomalous move, the earthquake will be felt. And if the system is connected to a big bell (an alarm system), it can be heard by all the people, and their lives will be saved."[5]
Berberian mentions in his article that in the hundred years since Yusef's report, more than 164,000 Iranians have died in earthquakes. Surprisingly, Yusef wasn't the first to notice this effect. A physician, J.D. Cooper, proposed a similar system in a San Francisco newspaper, The San Francisco Daily Bulletin, in 1868, and telegraph operators in New Zealand, Switzerland, Chile and the Caribbean had also noticed the effect. Yusef would not have known of Cooper's article or the other anecdotal evidence.[5-6]

Isn't 150 years a long enough period to prove at least one electric earthquake warning system?

Warning sign from telegraph pole.

Today, fiberoptic cables spanning some wilderness areas have had to be buried, because hunters would shot them up.

This was a problem much earlier, during the telegraph era, as people would throw stones to break the glass insulators where the wires attach to the pole.

This sign bears the emblem of King George (GR="Georgius Rex")

(Photo by Andy Mabbett, via Wikimedia Commons.)


  1. Claudius Aelianus, "De natura animalium," 1784, Digitized by Google Books from an original at the University of Lausanne, April 1, 2008, p. 149.
  2. Scientists debate new evidence for electromagnetic earthquake predictors, Stanford University News Service, December 31, 1991.
  3. M. Athanasiou, G. Anagnostopoulos, A. Iliopoulos, G. Pavlos and K. David, "Enhanced ULF radiation observed by DEMETER two months around the strong 2010 Haiti earthquake," arXiv Preprint Server, December 7, 2010.
  4. Richard Lovett, "Scientists Seek Foolproof Signal to Predict Earthquakes," National Geographic News, January 4, 2013.
  5. Manuel Berberian, "Early Earthquake Detection and Warning Alarm System in Iran by a Telegraph Operator: A 116-Year-Old Disaster Prevention Attempt," Seismological Research Letters, vol. 84, no. 5 (September/October, 2013), pp. 816-81.
  6. Iranian telegraph operator, first to propose earthquake early warning system, Seismological Society of America Press Release, September 3, 2013.

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