Is There Earthquake Weather? And Was That It?

October 16, 2013

I made a $100 bet on Monday that there wouldn’t be an earthquake.

I was eating lunch in the courtyard at the Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, where I am a student, and a classmate claimed, “This is earthquake weather!”

I told her there’s no such thing, and the bet was on. We shook on our left hands because I was still holding a sandwich.

Twelve hours later, around 1 a.m. on Tuesday, the ground shook. Not much, but enough to make me kick myself. It was a tiny magnitude 3.2, with its epicenter in Tilden Park.

Then there was another. And another. And another. And another.

Does weather really cause earthquakes? Is there such thing as “earthquake weather?” Was this week earthquake weather? I called the Berkeley Seismology Lab to ask the experts.

The answer from Cal seismologist Dr. Peggy Hellweg was decidedly confident.

“No. The short answer is no,” she said. “No such thing as earthquake weather.”

Warm fall days are what people typically think of as “earthquake weather.” But in reality, earthquakes happen all the time, “so they’re independent of weather,” Hellweg said.

Before humans found out about plate tectonics, we had some interesting ways to explain earthquakes.

Aristotle thought earthquakes were caused by winds trapped in underground caves.

Hellweg said the Japanese believed there was a big catfish underground that caused earthquakes. In India, legend suggested the earth was sitting on the back of an elephant. When the elephant moved, there were earthquakes.

When we talk about earthquake weather, we’ve probably already got earthquakes on our minds, Hellweg said.

On Monday, there was a 7.2 quake in the Philippines. And few weeks ago, there was a 3.1 centered in Berkeley.

In other words, when there’s one earthquake, people start to notice them more.

“The little earthquakes that you feel are a good reminder to keep your earthquake kit ready,” Hellweg said.

As we’re all busy noticing earthquakes, the Great California Shakeout, the country’s largest earthquake disaster drill, arrives on Thursday — just in time. Every year, the drill falls right in the midst of “earthquake season,” or more accurately, in October.

The drill hits at 10:17 a.m. (The time always corresponds with the date.) It’s timed to remind students returning to school of proper protocol in the event of the “Big One.”

This year’s Shakeout happens to coincide with the 24th anniversary of the Loma Prieta earthquake, a magnitude 6.9 also known as the World Series Earthquake.

While there’s no such thing as “earthquake weather,” it’s unwise to place bets on the likelihood of a quake.

Luckily my classmate forgave the debt. The Hayward Fault is fairly active and there are lots of small tremors happening all the time. That makes for some poor betting odds.

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