The stories about two oarfish washed up in California have sparked rumors that the beached fish may signal a coming quake. What’s the deal with that?
Social media has lit up with earthquake rumours after a giant oarfish washed up on a California beach – the second such discovery in several days.
The 4.3m (14ft) dead snake-like fish was found in the city of Oceanside – five days after another and larger specimen (5.5m) had been found.
Reports on social media recall an ancient Japanese myth linking extremely rare oarfish sightings to tremors.
But scientists remain sceptical of any link to increased tectonic activity.
This piece has some example of what was going on in social media circles as people passed on the rumor. Where did this rumor come from? I suspect that people Googled “oarfish” and came across the supposed (READ “SUPPOSED”) link with earthquakes and, since it’s California, just put the two ideas together. Well, DN readers, you are in luck because I have looked into earthquake precursors, especially animal behavior, and can provide you with additional info on the matter.
Of all the scientific anomalies that are related to earthquakes and earthquake prediction, none is more curious or mystifying than the heaps of reports on strange animal behavior prior to earthquakes.
From the time ancient people recorded their thoughts about the shaking earth, they have remarked upon the behavior of their animals. The best known story comes from Japan, where a huge catfish living under the ground was thought to cause the earth to heave whenever it wiggled. Catfish have been observed to jump and twist violently right before a quake. It is very likely that the observations helped craft the myth.
Along with fish, both domestic and wild, a wide variety of animals have been described in anecdotal reports as sensing a coming earthquake. Their actions greatly differ.
Some animals eat more.
Birds change their songs or sounds; they refuse to land or preen their feathers constantly.
Underground animals come to the surface.
Caged or penned animals become highly agitated, aggressive, fearful or try to escape.
Wild animals will leave an area.
Domestic animals, such as cats, will remove their young from buildings, clean themselves frequently or be especially attentive to their owner, crying or acting nervous.
Dogs notoriously howl or bark and become preoccupied with sniffing the ground.
Insects may suddenly disappear or appear in swarms.
Aquatic animals leave the water or head far out to sea.
Animals may act confused and appear in unlikely areas.
The strange behavior may be exhibited seconds before a quake or up to a month before.
So, the behavior is real in SOME cases but is not consistent. Each quake is a bit different and may exhibit impacts to the environment prior to the big quake. Or, may not. The reasons for this may vary – air ionization, gas release, small tremors, sounds.
As we know, mass animal deaths have various explanations. It’s not reliable to freak out about two oarfish when there may be other reasonable explanation. In fact, there is LIKELY to be other explanations. The animal-quake connection is NOT reliable.
In the Japan-oarfish case, it seems more like a correlation but NOT a connection.
Fishermen in Japan reported a sharp uptick in oarfish sightings in March 2010 following the massive magnitude-8.8 earthquake in Chile that same month, which marked almost exactly one year before the country was devastated by its own magnitude-8.9 quake in northeast Japan.
A whole year and a huge distance separates these events! That is more likely to be arbitrary than hold any significance. We have no exact mechanism to explain this and it’s not predictable. In the days before modern seismology, the only data people in earthquake-prone areas had was what they could observe themselves – behavior of animals and environmental signals. These became of great importance but they didn’t work so well. We are working to devise more precise ways of monitoring. While we are far from predicting a quake, we simply can’t rely on old folk tales to be accurate. They aren’t.
Bottom line – people on the US West coast should always be prepared for earthquakes. Because most often, we are not warned at all.
MORE: Some scientific reasons why they may have beached.
One was carrying eggs and may have been ready to spawn.