Science or superstition?

Just like the weather, everyone talks about earthquakes, but Yang Zhimin wants to do something about these powerful natural killers. 

The retiree knows it’s not possible to stop them, but he is eager for decision-makers to take his work seriously, which is predicting earthquakes in China.

Yang, 57, spends his days inside a small apartment in Guiyang, the provincial capital of Guizhou in southwest China where he monitors his equipment for signs of an upcoming tremor. He writes down unusual developments and blogs about it.

For example, on April 21, he wrote: “Since early April, I have noticed a high electromagnetic pulse from the southwest. It has reached the highest Thursday. From these abnormalities, I can be certain a 7-magnitude earthquake is building in the southwest.”

He continued: “The depth is at 15 to 20 kilometers. Time of eruption is between April and early May. In the meantime, if a 4-magnitude earthquake occurs in the area, it’s better to stay outside for a few hours.”

He said he felt his prediction was 95 percent accurate and was anxious to tell people about it.

“I have got no other channel but to release it on my own blog. I know the risks so I’m prepared to be taken away at any time,” he said.

In fact, the United States Geological Survey (USGS) reported that there was a magnitude 4.2 quake on Monday near the Qinghai-Sichuan border at a depth of 14.8 kilometers.

But the USGS also said that there are millions of earthquakes throughout the world each year. “Many go undetected because they occur in remote areas or have very small magnitudes. The USGS now locates about 50 earthquakes each day; 20,000 a year,” the USGS said.

While Yang and his fellow amateurs have thousands of believers and supporters on the Internet, they have a harder time convincing government seismologists and officials to accept their findings.

“I’ve never said they are pseudo-science,” Zhang Yongxian, a leading scientist with the earthquake prediction center of the China Earthquake Network, recently told a group of Chinese journalists in Beijing. “But just like we cannot trust a doctor who cured one out of 100 patients, you need to establish a link with the earthquakes for every abnormal phenomenon in your observation. Otherwise, it’s not science.”

In July 2007, Yang wrote his first post and the blog now has more than 11 million hits from followers in Shandong in the east coast to Xinjiang in the west.

Yang relies on his 700 yuan ($107) a month pension to live on but his hobby seems to give him more satisfaction than anything.

His earthquake fascination began early.

“One night in 1970 when I was 12, I was playing with a semi-conductor radio and accidentally found some unusual disturbances in

the electromagnetic wave. Several hours later, an earthquake happened. Since then, I have never faltered in my belief in earthquake predictions,” he said.

After several failed attempts to build a business, he returned to his childhood hobby to concentrate on capturing earthquake precursors through various gadgets – an ammeter for detecting small currents, an infrasonic sound wave recorder and an electromagnetic wave meter among others.

Shaky response

Early on, he tried to follow the rules and share his data with the local earthquake administration, but when officials learned how he came to reach his predictions, they ridiculed him and his blog was shut down temporarily.

“You can predict earthquakes? We don’t believe it,” they told him.

An official with the Longnan Earthquake Administration in Gansu Province, who did not want to be named, said there are more than 100 amateur seismologists like Yang in China. And he believes in them.

“Our hope is on these grass-roots predictors,” said the official. “I know the experts at China Earthquake Administration in Beijing. They are not so capable of making predictions.”

Predicting earthquakes is a complicated issue around the world. The USGS, for example, said on its website that it is not possible to predict earthquakes Thursday but it’s likely to be a reality in the future.

The USGS also said that anyone, anywhere could predict earthquakes without knowing if they are correct.

“Stating that an earthquake is going to occur Thursday is not really ‘predicting earthquakes.’ To date, they cannot be predicted. But anyone, on any day, could make this statement and it would be true,” the USGS says on its website. “This is because several million earthquakes occur annually; thereby, thousands occur each day, although most are too small to be located. The problem, however, is in pinpointing the area where a strong shock will center and when it will occur.”

His aim is to set up a nationwide network of earthquake monitoring centers without working closely with the national earthquake authorities.

China has had a shaky relationship with predicting earthquakes.

In March 1966, after two massive earthquakes hit Xingtai, 400 kilometers to the south of Beijing, Zhou Enlai, China’s late premier, instructed seismologists to study the mystery of earthquakes.

Following his call, a nationwide campaign called “qun ce qun fang” or “mass prediction mass prevention” was launched. Locals were mobilized to set up monitoring centers to keep an around-the-clock watch on any changes in well water and meters they planted underground to measure terrestrial current.

Across China, 30,000 earthquake monitoring centers involving 200,000 volunteers were set up. These efforts paid off.

In 1975, in Haicheng of Northeast China’s Liaoning Province, minor tremors led the government to evacuate the local population and many lives were saved from the ensuing 7.3 magnitude quake.

But in the 1980s, the centers were labeled unscientific and a great majority of them were disbanded.

In 1998, when the new Law on Earthquake Prevention and Disaster Reduction was introduced, there was no mention of “mass prediction mass prevention”. But things have a way of changing after each major quake.

After the deadly earthquake in Wenchuan, bits of information emerged that some non-mainstream earthquake predictors had made more or less correct predictions and the value of these “unscientific” methods were noticed by decision-makers again.

Unscientific practice

In May 2009, when the new edition of the Law on Earthquake Prevention and Disaster Reduction came out, it said that “the state encourages and guides social groups and individuals to engage in earthquake mass prediction and mass prevention.”

“But the mainstream seismologists are still reluctant to work with the predictors at the grass-roots level,” the official from Gansu claimed.

The January issue of Outlook magazine, which is run by the Xinhua News Agency, reported that prediction of short-term and imminent earthquakes 7.0 or higher was just 5 percent in China.

Li Junzhi, 77, a professor who retired from Beijing University of Technology, spends his spare time inside a small courtyard on a campus in eastern Beijing. He has been predicting quakes for 35 years.

In 1976, following the 7.8-magnitude earthquake in Tangshan that killed about 242,000 people, his university set up an earthquake research lab. Li, a researcher in railway construction, was appointed to run the lab.

“What I am using now are unconventional methods of my own invention,” Li said. “I have never received a penny in research funds from government agencies.”

Li’s assistant, Chen Weisheng, works in a sunny corner of the courtyard.

On a recent afternoon, he slid open a wooden birdhouse with four colorful budgerigars. “We count their jumps and have found a close link with the upcoming quakes,” he said.

The birds, also known as tiger-skinned parakeets in Chinese, jumps about 4,000 times a day.

Each landing on the wooden stick in the center of the cage counts as a jump. A double-lined wire connects the stick with a monitor inside the research lab.

“You can buy the parakeets at the bird market,” he said. “But you need to pick up the sensitive ones.”

During the week before the Wenchuan earthquake on May 12, 2008 and the recent earthquake in Japan, the budgerigars suddenly doubled their jumps to 8,000 a day, according to Chen.

“Like the octopus that predicted World Cup champions, our parakeets can predict earthquakes,” Li said with pride.

“Before earthquakes, dogs, cats and other animals may display unusual behaviors, and parakeets are easier to keep. They live on millets and water,” he said. Under the elm tree at the center of the courtyard, a pair of thick wires connects a machine buried seven meters underground to measure ground stress with a recording meter inside.

When the equipment and the parrots show unusual patterns or activity, Li puts on his prediction cap.

At news briefing with journalists, Zhang Yongxian from China Earthquake Administration suggested even if China develops reliable technology to predict quakes, it wouldn’t solve all problems.

“Look at what happened in China after the quake in Japan. People panicked and bought tons of table salt. If we announce a quake tomorrow, people will react strongly. This will bring a lot of trouble to the government,” she said. 

Quakes and quacks

On February 21, 2010, tens of thousands Shanxi Province residents fled their homes in the middle of the night following rumors of an imminent 6.0-magnitude earthquake. The rumor was believed to have started after a series of earthquake drills at local hospitals.

On April 21, 2010, two university students were detained for spreading rumors that a 6 to 8 magnitude quake would hit the province in June that year.

On April 26, 2010, the seismological bureau of Nanjing in Jiangsu Province refuted rumors that a 7 to 8 magnitude earthquake is expected to hit the city on June 13, and urged residents not to believe it and act normal.

A 25-year-old woman, who spread the rumor after she read it on a friend’s QQ zone, a social networking site, was arrested for creating public disturbance on April 26. The rumor also said the temperature of the water in more than 76 percent of hot springs in the Jiangning district of Nanjing went up and the water turned black.

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