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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

No, the eclipse and a planetary alignment will not cause massive earthquakes. Sheesh.

By Phil Plait
I don’t think this is how eclipses work. Credit: NASA

Oh, crackpots. They're so ubiquitous! It makes me wonder sometimes if there are there no pots left to crack.

If you're in the debunking of nonsense game, as I have been for so many years, you can't help but notice that a lot of crackpottery is just rehashed from older stuff, as stale and unhealthy as month-old Thanksgiving leftovers (I give you, for example, the Maya Notpocalypse of 2012, which was as wrong as it was unoriginal). Sometimes, these wild claims are just lifted wholesale from earlier ones, too, with nothing more than cosmetic changes.

Such is the case with the latest doomsday fear-mongering fertilizer I'm seeing around the 'net: A huge earthquake will be triggered very soon, either by — take your pick — the lunar eclipse tomorrow, or a planetary alignment in February.

What these two claims have in common is they're both about as accurate as, say, anything Donald Trump says about climate change. Well, that, and they also talk about astronomical alignments. And here they diverge just a wee bit. Oh, they're both wrong, but since I represent science here (read: reality) I have to be a little more careful. Here's the deal.

Earthquakes are typically caused by tectonic movement; the rubbing of continental plates together, say, or magma rumbling around a volcano (or, more recently, wastewater injection into fracking wells, yay!). Earthquakes happen all over the world all the time, it's just that most are too weak to cause much notice.

It's natural to wonder if outside influences can trigger earthquakes. Turning to space is also natural; the Moon and Sun have a profound influence on our planet in the form of gravity. Tides are an effect of gravity; the Moon stretches and compresses the Earth roughly twice a day as we spin underneath it, and this effect waxes and wanes as the Moon moves around the Earth in its elliptical orbit. The Sun, though farther away, is far more massive than the Moon, and also elicits tides on Earth, about half as strong as the Moon's.

Their tidal influence adds together when they are aligned; when the Moon is either new (between us and the Sun) or full (when it's opposite the Sun). We do see phenomena related to this; tidal flooding gets a bit worse when the Sun and Moon align. If the Moon is closer to Earth than usual, too, this can add to the effect (called a proxigean spring tide, a phrase that is just intrinsically cool).

Can this affect earthquakes too? Scientists have spent decades looking for some connection between the cycle of tides and seismic events. There is some small correlation between the Moon and weak, shallow earthquakes, but it's tenuous. But what about major quakes?

It turns out that's not easy to answer definitively. A recent paper states that there may be a correlation between the cycle of the Moon's orbit and strong earthquakes. However, their sample size is very small, and the effect they see is very tiny. For contrast, a more recent paper also looked at a lot of data and concludes there is no correlation… and makes the case in the paper's abstract rather concisely, I'll add:

OK then. Credit: Susan E. Hough

The point is that any connection is so weak it's incredibly hard to measure. One problem is simply time: Magnitude 8 quakes only happen on average once per year (mag 7 about a dozen times per year), and then you have to look at how often they align in time with the Moon. It's rare. That should tell you that any connection is weak.

And it should certainly tell you that predicting an earthquake due to the Moon is nonsense. That hasn't stopped some folks from doing exactly that, though, but of course they are always wrong. If there were indeed something to this geologists would be all over it like tephra on a cinder cone*.

What about planetary alignments? It turns out their effect is far weaker than the Moon's! At best, if you aligned all the planets and put them as close to Earth in their orbits that you can, combined they have an effect only 2% of the Moon! And that's just straight gravity. Tides are far weaker, and are dominated so much by Venus that no planetary alignment comes close to touching it. So there is literally no way the planets can cause earthquakes.

So why the doomsday prediction? Well, in this case it all comes from Ditrianum Media, a doomsday mongering YouTube channel run by a man named Frank Hoogerbeets, an astrologer (oh, sigh) based in the Netherlands. I've debunked him before, when he made exactly this same claim.

He is doing what we in science call anomaly hunting; looking for things that are odd and then trying to see if anything else aligns with them. This is very bad sleuthing; you will always find some correlation between some events with other things — in this case, quakes and planetary positions, but you might as well look at the fluctuations in the stock market or baseball scores. Without any actual physical reason for the connection you're spinning Just So Stories.

Hoogerbeets does claim to have a cause, but it's, um, wacky. You can try to puzzle it out for yourself if you like, but when he got to “electromagnetic amplification” I stopped. It's word salad. He uses lots of sciencey-sounding words, but not in any way that makes sense.

THIS IS NOT HOW ALIGNMENTS WORK! Not that they work at all. But still. Credit: From a video by Diatranium Media

When I watched his new video on all this and laughed out loud: He claims there will be earthquakes in February due to an alignment of Mercury, Mars, and Uranus… but in his video he shows the line being perpendicular to Earth! That literally has no effect whatsoever. It's nonsense.

Not that this will slow down Hoogerbeets. His site is filled with such easily disprovable stuff, but I have no doubt he'll continue to make these videos as long as people will watch them.

And I'll be clear: I have no idea if people like him are con artists looking to make a buck by scaring people (a time-tested and successful method of extracting money and/or votes from people), or simply crackpots who truly believe what they say.

Either way they are wrong. And that shouldn't exactly be earth-shaking news.

So watch tomorrow's eclipse and feel safe, and don't worry about planetary alignments. We have enough things to worry about on this planet of ours — earthquakes are a good example — without making up things to fret over.

* You're welcome for that joke, geologists.

My thanks to my friends and geologists Mika McKinnon and Holly Brunkal for their help.