Can Earthquakes Be Predicted?
OUR home the earth is jolted by a million earthquakes every year. Most of us are unaware of the majority of them. Less than one third are perceptible to humans. Nevertheless, one or two thousand cause destruction.
In a few seconds a large quake can shake a major city to rubble and bury thousands of persons in their own homes, schools and stores. Thus, knowing precisely in advance where and when earthquakes will take place could save countless lives.
Men have for long observed “nature” and tried to predict earthquakes. They know, for example, that dogs begin howing before a quake and that the timing of some water geysers speeds up. But long-range warnings are vital so that large metropolitan areas can be evacuated in advance.
Recent findings have stimulated the hopes of some persons that the day is at hand when men may be able to foresee earthquakes. What have they found? Before that question is answered, let us discuss what earthquakes really are.
What Is an Earthquake?
Simply stated, an earthquake is a shaking or quaking of the earth. There have been numerous conjectures about their causes. Ancient Japanese mythology blamed the movement of a spider that carried the earth on its back. Mongolians anciently attributed earthquakes to the unsteady support of a giant hog.
Even in comparatively recent times scientific theories as to their cause have come and gone. And today? Earthquakes are believed to result from a sudden dislocation in the earth’s crust. What causes the shift? Opinions vary. But one view gaining wider acceptance is that the earth’s crust is not rigid, but is made up of a series of “plates” that move over the earth’s “mantle.”
According to this view, when these “plates” (which are several miles thick) collide, one slides under the other, bending rocks in the process. In other cases, the horizontal action of these “plates” passing one another exerts tremendous pressure on crystal rock. Such movements occur along a “fault” or fracture in the earth’s surface. Then, it is believed, when the crust can no longer tolerate the strain, it “snaps” into a new position.
If the region above the rupture is heavily populated, there may be destruction, injury and death. The extent of the damage depends on the quake’s “magnitude,” that is, the power it releases, its location and other factors. The “snapping” sets off jarring energy vibrations called shock waves that travel through the earth at the speed of several miles per second. These waves are detected by sensitive instruments called seismographs.
On the basis of seismograph readings the earthquake’s magnitude is expressed on the Richter Scale, a logarithmic scale. A reading of 7 signifies a disturbance ten times as great as a reading of 6, which is, itself, ten times as great as 5. Any reading over 6 is considered to be an earthquake of major magnitude. Only one or two earthquakes each year will reach 8.
But now, what about those recent findings that some people believe will make earthquake prediction possible?
Current Efforts at Prediction
Scientists from several nations are trying to use knowledge of how seismic waves travel through the earth to predict where and when earthquakes will occur. A recent discovery reveals that just before strained rock breaks, it is laced with tiny fractures, slightly swelling the rock. As certain seismic waves generated by small earthquakes travel through the earth, they seem to slow up in these particular rocks. Then, a short time before an earthquake, the waves resume normal speed. Knowing this pattern, scientists hope to be able to spot weaknesses in the earth’s crust.
Other experts are studying electrical resistance in subterranean rocks and the level of radon (a naturally occurring radioactive gas) in well water to find a key to earthquake prediction. There is also anticipation of being able to interpret imminent earthquakes from certain bulges detected on the surface of the earth from space.
However, even the most optimistic students of the subject are cautious not to say that any sure system of earthquake prediction is near at hand. As Dr. C. B. Archambeau, a professor of geophysics at Caltech, observes: “There is still a feeling that an earthquake is so complicated and diverse that it might be impossible to untangle all its phenomena to build a predictive system.” A Los Angeles Times science writer, George Alexander, put it more simply: “An infallible system is all but impossible.”
This is not to say that men cannot predict earthquakes with some degree of accuracy. They can.
Men Accurately Predict Some Earthquakes
They now believe that they know where most of the world’s earthquakes will probably occur—that is, the general areas. Some 80 percent take place in what is called “the ring of fire,” land bordering the Pacific Ocean. Most remaining shocks occur in a zone extending from the Mediterranean Sea across Asia.
Only in this broad sense can men predict earthquakes with a fair degree of accuracy. But even here there is room for error. No location on this planet is really earthquake-free. One of the most powerful series of quake shocks on record occurred in New Madrid, Missouri, in the United States Midwest in 1811-1812. Men would not ordinarily predict such an earthquake far from either of the two major quake zones.
But does not the Bible show that Jesus predicted earthquakes? Are his prophecies in this respect reliable?
Jesus’ Earthquake Predictions
Jesus did not foretell any one specific earthquake, but he did prophesy about a period of time when there would be particularly great and widespread earthquake activity.
When his disciples wanted to know, “What will be the sign of your presence and of the conclusion of the system of things?” Jesus told them, among other things: “There will be . . . earthquakes in one place after another.” (According to Matthew and Mark) The Gospel writer Luke adds that Jesus also said: “There will be great earthquakes.” He said that at the same time there would be large wars, food shortages and pestilences, and called these “a beginning of pangs of distress.” These anguished conditions, along with the others that were foretold, have occurred since the year 1914. Jesus also said that before one generation—the generation of 1914—had passed away, all the things he prophesied, including the coming of a “great tribulation” from God, would take place. A new order with a paradise earth would follow.—Matt. 6:9, 10; 24:3-8, 21, 34; Mark 13:3-8; Luke 21:7-11.
The “great earthquakes,” those occurring since 1914 in “one place after another,” verify the accuracy of this understanding of Jesus’ words. But some persons reason, ‘There have been “great earthquakes” in the past. Could not Jesus’ prediction of earthquakes be correctly interpreted as coming true in any generation?’
No. For one thing, as noted above, Jesus’ prediction of earthquakes occurs along with other woes, forming a composite “sign.” Further, the great earthquakes of the past were generally isolated events occurring years, even centuries, apart. There were not many of them in a single generation.
Uncertainties About Past Earthquakes
Nor do all historical records about “great” earthquakes of the past inspire confidence in their reliability. That was the view of noted earthquake cataloger John Milne. “In these catalogues,” we read in the 1939 edition of his book Earthquakes and Other Earth Movements (revised and rewritten by A. W. Lee), “there are uncertainties in the date, or even the years, for many of the ancient earthquakes. There are numerous inaccurate or obscure references in the original writings.” Vital facts about major quakes in previous centuries are often distorted, missing or wrong.—See, for instance, The Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America, June 1914, regarding the Lisbon, Portugal, earthquake in 1755.
Certainty About This Generation
On the other hand, consider what “great earthquakes” we definitely know have occurred to the generation living since 1914. World War I, which began in that year, brought great stress on man. Earthquakes added to that burden. In January 1915 central Italy, for example, was shaken from the Adriatic Sea on the east to the Tyrrhenian Sea on the west. Some 29,000 persons were killed.
Right after the war much of the world was afflicted with massive food shortages and disease epidemics, as Jesus foretold. At the same time, there were more earthquakes. In December 1920 a quake struck Kansu, China. About 180,000 persons were killed. A report by Upton Close and Elsie McCormick reads: “Of that most remarkable series of seismic disturbances which occurred throughout the world in November and December, 1920, the most phenomenal was undoubtedly the Great Kansu earthquake of the late evening of December 16 . . . Likely no other earthquake in scientific annals ever changed the physical geography of the affected region to the extent of the Kansu cataclysm.”
Thereafter, the 1923 earthquake in Japan that took some 143,000 lives is described as “the worst disaster in [Japan’s] history.”
In just the ten-year period after World War I started, well over 350,000 persons were killed by earthquakes. Yes, war, pestilences, food shortage and earthquakes were clearly “a beginning of pangs of distress.” They reveal that mankind entered “the conclusion of the system of things” in 1914.
And the number of deaths due to earthquakes continues to mount. All together, over 900,000 persons have died in earthquakes since 1914! Can any single “generation” of the past equal that terrible record? Jesus’ prophecies about earthquakes apply now!
Since Jesus’ predictions about modern earthquakes are recorded in the Bible—God’s Word—does this mean that God has directly caused them?
Is God Directly Responsible?
There is no evidence that God has directly caused modern earthquakes. They are, rather, the result of natural processes in the earth. Actually, many deaths connected with earthquakes can be directly blamed on man—his greed. Men have, for instance, in spite of knowledge to the contrary, insisted on building cities in unsafe areas; insecure building practices are winked at. Saturday Review magazine claims: “In the decades following the 1906 earthquake [in San Francisco, California] local governments muted unfavorable research reports and generally played down the danger in order not to discourage construction and investment.” There is no need to blame God for man’s selfishness, is there?
But what about the Biblical text at Job 9:6? Does it not say of God that “he is making the earth go quaking from its place“? This reveals that God is capable of quaking the earth, but he does not directly cause them all. Yet he has specifically caused some earthquakes in the past in order to further his purpose.
For instance, the giving of the Law covenant at Sinai was accompanied by a shaking of the area. (Ex. 19:18; Ps. 68:8) Later, he opened the earth to swallow up the households of Korah, Dathan and Abiram because of the rebellion of those men against His servants Moses and Aaron.—Num. 16:16-35; 26:9-11.
God is also spoken of as making the earth shake in a figurative way. In the Bible book of Revelation earthquakes from God are used to picture great upheavals in the human earthly system of things.—Rev. 6:12-17; 16:1, 17-21.
The book of Ezekiel predicts a future quaking from God. It is mentioned in connection with the attack of “Gog of the land of Magog” against God’s people, spiritually called “Israel.” Ezekiel 38:19, 20 says: “And in my ardor, in the fire of my fury, I shall have to speak. Surely in that day a great quaking will occur in the soil of Israel. And because of me the fish of the sea and the flying creatures of the heavens and the wild beasts of the field and all the creeping things that are creeping on the ground and all mankind that are upon the surface of the ground will be bound to shiver, and the mountains will actually be thrown down and the steep ways will have to fall, and to the earth even every wall will fall.”
This chapter and the one following it in the Bible assure us that God will rid the earth of his enemies. While doing so, Jehovah, of course, could actually ‘throw down mountains,’ and level “every wall” in a literal “great quaking.” He no doubt will make use of many natural forces in “the day of fight and war.” (Job 38:22, 23) But whether this “great quaking” proves to be a literal quaking over the whole earth remains to be seen.
However, that there will soon be an outstanding divine intervention in human affairs is sure. Conviction as to the certainty of this is dependent, not on man’s ability to foretell future earthquakes, but on events—including earthquakes—that have already occurred in our day in fulfillment of Bible prophecy. Now is the time to act wisely to get out of the danger zone and into a safe place—into a condition approved by God in active association with his true worshipers.