The death toll continues climb in the wake of the Kahramanmaras earthquake on the border of Turkey and Syria, its devastation shocking and dramatic.
An international effort to bring aid to the region has only intensified this week since the magnitude 7.8 temblor struck Monday.
The number of dead and missing has already surpassed that of Japan’s Fukushima disaster in March 2011. That magnitude 9.0 quake triggered a tsunami that killed some 18,500 people.
Was Turkey-Syrian Quake Predicted?
In the horrific aftermath, news stories began popping up about the earthquake being “forecasted” days prior. One headline from The Jerusalem Post read: “How did a seismologist predict the Turkey earthquake 3 days earlier?”
Turns out, this was no Nostradamus hocus-pocus. A Dutch seismologist named Frank Hoogerbeets actually predicted the earthquake, nearly nailing the epicenter with laser-like precision.
His Tweet of Feb. 3 has more than 52 million views. It stated: “Sooner or later there will be a ≈M7.5 earthquake in this region.”
It turned out to be sooner – like, three days later.
Hoogerbeets claimed to use something called critical planetary geometry, or an alignment of the solar system’s planets, to make his prognostication. It’s a science many critics have been quick to shout down over the past few days.
Still, the question remains: Can seismic activity shiver its way around the globe and trigger something somewhere else?
Can earthquakes be predicted? That’s the $64,000 question. Do earthquakes in one part of the world trigger others hundreds or thousands of miles away?
Also, and most desperately important for people living in the obliteration zone of the Yellowstone caldera: Do smaller tremors portend a big one, or is it encouraging to see terra firma vent a little?
In the 2015 movie “San Andreas” starring Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, Paul Giamatti’s character plays a Caltech seismologist who can predict an imminent magnitude 9 in Southern California. How much of that is Hollywood hokum?
Foremost U.S. Geological Survey seismologist Dr. Lucy Jones debunks almost the entire movie with one unsettling exception.
First, she says that no, a tsunami would not have resulted — certainly not one as big as portrayed in the movie. And nothing higher than, maybe, a magnitude 8 will ever happen in Southern California.
Also a side note: Helicopters do not have an auto-hover feature.
But Dr. Jones admitted one realism from the Hollywood script. Could a quake in Nevada could trigger one in LA, in turn triggering a quake in San Francisco?
“Yes,” Jones answered.
Could Something Trigger Yellowstone?
Triggered earthquakes are a thing.
But — and here’s the kicker — the science behind them does not come into play with Yellowstone and its numerous geysers, hot springs, fumaroles and mud pots.
In fact, according to the guy in charge of babysitting Yellowstone’s burbling and bubbling, Mike Poland, any idea of Yellowstone being kickstarted into a supervolcanic event is, to to his exact scientific terminology: “A bunch of hogwash.”
Poland is one of several geophysicists whose phones start buzzing every time an earthquake rumbles anywhere near Yellowstone. Or, in this case, not so near.
He is with the Cascades Volcano Observatory and scientist-in-charge of the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory (YVO), a nine-partner consortium created in 2001 with the sole job of monitoring the Yellowstone National Park region every minute of every day.
Yellowstone itself is home to about 1,000 small quakes a year since 1973. That’s 2.7 a day on average, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
The only thing more frequent than Yellowstone earthquake swarms is stories about Yellowstone earthquake swarms possibly signifying the “big one” is right around the corner.
CSD’s own Bill Sniffin penned one such hype job for the Uinta County Herald in 2017.
We were admittedly trepidatious contacting the scientist in charge of the Yellowstone shakery. He acted like he knew the call was coming.
“It’s an understandable thing. You see an earthquake that’s strong enough you think will it have an impact on Yellowstone, and the answer is typically no,” Poland said, deflating our story in one sentence.
What about Turkey? Won’t that stress out some fault line and cause something else somewhere in the world to counteract?
Mike was infinitely patient with us, and the answer was again “no.”
Yellowstone Is Different
“First of all, magnitude 7 earthquakes are not new. There have been 43 since 2000, and that’s fairly typical,” Poland said. “Obviously, one that brings this kind of destruction and toll on life is a noteworthy event, but if we had to answer the [Yellowstone question] every time an M7 struck on earth, we would be on the phone every month.”
Poland concedes large earthquakes can, on rare occasions, cause another fault line to load up with stress and maybe spur a tremor. And a seismic wave caused by a large earthquake can produce “acoustic energy” that travels around the world.
But could one in Turkey trip one in Alaska that ignites Yellowstone?
Definitely no, says Poland.
“It is very unusual for an earthquake to trigger volcanic activity. We know this, for one, because in 1959 there was a M7.2 on the northwest border of Yellowstone and it did not result in a major eruption,” Poland said, referring to the Hebgen Lake earthquake on Aug. 17, 1959. “It changed some geyser behavior because it sloshed around underground conduit systems, but that’s about it.”
The last major eruption in Yellowstone was about 70,000 years ago, Poland said, and that featured lava flow.
“There have been thousands of strong earthquakes in the region since then and none have triggered anything like a supervolcano,” Poland assured.
Poland added that the magma underneath Yellowstone is mostly solid and “nowhere near ready to erupt.”
Further, he pointed to Japan as a place that has lots of volcanoes and earthquakes, with little evidence one influences the other.
“It’s not as if we haven’t had an M9 in our lifetime. Japan just had one in 2011 and it is full of volcanoes,” Poland said. “Gimme a break. This is the boogeyman status that Yellowstone has become.”
Nevermind The Supervolcano – Exploding Water Will Kill
OK science guy, if Yellowstone is not going to blow anytime soon, why are we studying it so much? What’s with the YVO?
Poland stifled a patronizing snicker. He’s heard this one too.
“Even though we are not worrying about a volcanic eruption, there are hazards involved with Yellowstone,” Poland said. “There are significant earthquake faults all throughout the region.
“It would not surprise me to see a magnitude 5 or 6 in my lifetime. But as far as any lava or volcanic activity, we will know that far in advance.”
Phew. Unpucker. Relax.
“What you really need to worry about is a hydrothermal explosion,” Poland continued. “These types of events occur every few thousand years, often triggered by an earthquake or large landslide.
“While not as destructive as a volcano, they sometimes measure a mile across and could be problematic in the middle of a busy summer tourist system.”
So, there’s that.