Seattle seismologist criticizes false earthquake reports, ‘unlikely stories’

Feb 29, 2016, 6:34 PM | Updated: Mar 1, 2016, 1:50 pm

Earthquakes are all the rage these days, from anxiety over the potential Big One, to preparing for a major shake.

But with all the concern may come some bad information, and that’s what Seismologist John Vidal has pointed out. He’s director of the University of Washington’s Pacific Northwest Seismic Network.

Related: Where were you during the Nisqually earthquake 15 years ago?

A concerned citizen recently posted to the Daily Kos alleging that a big earthquake could strike the West Coast very soon. The theory promoted is that before an earthquake happens, the Earth releases great amounts of gas, particularly carbon monoxide. Some believe that monitoring such gases can predict earthquakes.

Vidale is quick to dispel that theory.

“Back in the 1970s, when we were looking at all possible ways to predict earthquakes, there was an idea that the Earth cracks up in the area about to have an earthquake. And when that cracks, fluid and gases might come out of the ground,” he said, noting that back then a theory emerged that watching for those gases could indicate where an earthquake was about to hit.

“But that was back in the ’70s. Now we know the ground doesn’t crack across the entire area and that idea just doesn’t work,” he said. “In the 40 years since, when we’ve been watching faults, we have tremendously improved measurements, and that kind of signaling just doesn’t come before big earthquakes.”

Vidale recently took to his Facebook page to draw attention to a comment on the blog, which stated:

This diary should be deleted. It is alarmist nonsense. There is a large surface high pressure located over the west coast. The air is almost stagnant. Smog, which is rich in CO and pollution from fires, which is rich in CO, have built up over the west coast and western Canada … There is no connection of the general pollution pattern today to the San Andreas fault. The patch of high CO over western Canadian fires is a clue.

The lesson to be learned, according to Vidale, is a classic moral: You can’t believe everything you read on the Internet. Or simply, at least, read from trusted sources.

“We can’t predict earthquakes,” Vidale said. “We are not saying we can predict better than these ways that don’t work, we’re saying that there is no way that works well to predict earthquakes.”

“A lot of websites have stories that aren’t true and some websites just put up unlikely stories in the hopes that the public looks at them,” he said.

These “unlikely stories” aren’t uncommon, however. One need only to look back to January, when Superstation95 reported that “land beneath the ocean has suddenly sunk.” The report quickly spread on social media and led to concerned residents contacting emergency management. But the event that led to the report turned out to be nothing more than a buoy reporting wind-generated waves that were slightly larger than normal.

Check out where local quakes happen with MyNorthwest’s earthquake tracker

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Seattle seismologist criticizes false earthquake reports, ‘unlikely stories’