Eye-witness Accounts of Several Major Earthquakes
To show how common the gas related effects have been in reports of earthquakes of the past, I am giving here a list of such reports. I do not believe that the individual authors had much information about other such reports, and therefore these reports can be taken to be free from suggestive influences.
I am grateful to my colleague Dr. Steven Soter for his library researches that found the samples given here and many more like these.
Norcia and Aquila (Italy), 14 January and 2 February 1703
"In Aquila and Norcia, and in other places . . . the earth was here and there observed to split in cracks, from which streamed the evil odors of sulfur and bitumen; and men in Aquila most worthy of trust write that in many places after the earthquake sulfur and fire issued from the opened earth." (Quoted by Galli, 1911)
Lisbon, 1 November 1755
". . . we began to hear a rumbling noise, like that of carriages, which increased to such a degree as to equal the noise of the loudest cannon; and immediately we felt the first shock, which was succeeded by a second and a third; on which, as on the forth, I saw several light flames of fire issuing from the sides of the mountains, resembling that which may be observed on the kindling of coal. . . . I observed from one of the hills called the Fojo, near the beach of Adraga [near Colares], that there issued a great quantity of smoke, very thick, but not very black/ which still increased with the fourth shock, and after continued to issue in a greater or less degree. Just as we heard the subterraneous rumblings, we observed it would burst forth at the Fojo; for the quantity of smoke was always proportional to the subterraneous noise." (Stoqueler, 1756)
Komarom (Hungary), 28 June 1763
"Ruptures in the soil originated in thousands of places. From almost all of them water and quicksand were emitted together with flames and stinking smoke. . . . The river Danube began to rise . . . and the water appeared to be steaming as though boiling. It had a sulphurous smell. The majority of the ruptures occurred near the river bank and from some of them flames emerged alternately with the sand and smoke. Fertö Lake, 100 km west of Komarom, began to rumble and foam very intensely. . . . Flames as big as a barrel were seen over the river itself. Many horned cattle perished in the terrible stinking vapour that came from the earth. . . . At the bank of another smaller river, the Vag, red-colored flames rushed up from the ruptures, followed by sulphurous waters. . . . At some places the waters that came from the earth were distinctly black. The water of the river Bag appeared to be boiling." (Quoted by Rethly, 1952)
Lima, 30 March 1828
Water in the bay "hissed as if hot iron was immersed in it," bubbles and dead fish rose to the surface, and the anchor chain of HMS Volage was partially fused while lying in the mud on the bottom. (Bagnold, 1829)
(The anchor chain is reported to be on display in the London Navy Museum.)
Owens Valley (California), 26 March 1872
"People living near Independence . . . said [that] at every succeeding shock they could plainly see in a hundred places at once, bursting forth from the rifted rocks great sheets of flames apparently thirty or forty feet in length, and which would coil and lap about a moment and then disappear." (San Francisco Chronicle, 2 April 1872)
"Immediately following the great shock, men whose judgment and veracity is beyond question, while sitting on the ground near the Eclipse mine, saw sheets of flame on the rocky sides of the Inyo mountains but a half a mile distant. These flames, observed in several places, waved to and fro apparently clear of the ground, like vast torches; they continued for only a few minutes." (Inyo Independent, 20 April 1872)
Sonora (Mexico), 3 May 1887
"Another effect of the earthquake which terrified the frightened inhabitants of these places, was the fire upon all the mountains around the epicenter and even some situated in the territory of Arizona, among others the ridge of San Jose. Some of these, it is said, continued in flames for many days." (Aquilera, 1920)
Swabia (Southern Germany), 16 November 1911
The following are from among the many eyewitness accounts quoted by Schmidt and Mack (1913):
"We saw a sea of flames, gas-like and not electrical in nature, shoot up out of the paved market street. The height of the flames I can estimate at 8 to 12 cm; it was like when you pour petroleum or alcohol on the ground and light it."
"I observed very precisely how a bright fire, which had a bluish color, came out of the ground in the meadow. Its height was about 80 cm. . . . The first was present not only in the meadow but also in the whole surroundings of our house."
"Some people in the streets . . . noticed that for a while before the quake and particularly after it an evil stuffy air made breathing almost impossible."
Rumania, 10 November 1940
The following are phrases used in eyewitness accounts collected by Demetrescu and Petrescu (1941):
". . . a thick layer like a translucid gas above the surface of the soil . . . irregular gas fires . . . flames in rhythm with the movements of the soil . . . flashes like lightning from the floor to the summit of Mt Tampa . . . flames issuing from rocks, which crumbled, with flashes also issuing from non-wooded mountainsides."
Sungpan-Pingwu (China), 16, 22, and 23 August 1976
"From March of 1976, various large anomalies were observed over a broad region. . . . At the Wanchia commune of Chungching County, outbursts of natural gas from rock fissures ignited and were difficult to extinguish even by dumping dirt over the fissures. . . . Chu Chieh Cho, of the Provincial Seismological Bureau, related personally seeing a fireball 75 km from the epicenter on the night of 21 July while in the company of three professional seismologists.
The San Francisco Earthquake
The earthquake that destroyed parts of San Francisco and virtually all of Santa Rosa occurred at 5:12 a.m. on 18 April 1906. It was most intense perhaps a hundred kilometers north of San Francisco. We will here list some excerpts from the numerous reports, all indicating violent gas emission from the ground, gases that contained the poisonous hydrogen sulphide and gases that were frequently flammable. It is the earthquake for with the most detailed reports exist, and which shows every type of phenomenon that we have noted in other cases.
(a) Effects in Air
An extensive list of noises heard at the time of the shock, compiled from witnesses by Lawson and others (1908), includes the following: From Santa Rosa, "Heard noises in SW; then felt breeze; then felt shock". From Cotati, "Sound as of a strong wind before the shock". From Point Reyes Station, "Heard roar, then felt wind on my face". From Calistoga, "A rushing noise before the shock came". From Pescadero, "Noise as of wind preceded the shock". And from Mount Hamilton, "Sound as of flight of birds simultaneously with shock".
Other clear evidence for gas is given by a report published on 23 April in the Santa Rosa Democrat-Republican (the first newspaper to appear after the devastation). It said:
J.B. Doda, who came over from Fort Ross on Monday, reports that the earthquake caused immense cracks in the earth there, from which strong gases are emitted which make men and cattle sick.
Also, according to Edgar Larkin (1906), who collected a great many accounts, the odour of hydrogen sulphide was noted in the area of Sausalito. He also reported that sulfurous odors were pungent in Napa County during the night of the 17th and 18th before the upheaval, and lasted all day. . . . From many of the letters it is clear that the entire region north and east of San Francisco is saturated with gases of sulfur origin. . . .
In Santa Rosa, according to Lawson and others (1908), a strong smell of sulphur had been noticed two days before the earthquake by one Charles Kobes. Since during an earthquake eight years previously, "sulfur fumes came up from under his house which almost drove his family from home", the recurrence of this phenomenon on 16 April 1906 caused Kobes to tell his family that there would be another earthquake.
(b) Effects in Water
Numerous indications of hydrogen sulphide in bodies of water were reported. According to Larkin (1906), "creeks became milky in several places as if gas escaped from the water". Hydrogen sulfide bubbling through water is known to give it a milky appearance. Another report in the San Jose Herald of 2 May 1906 states that in Monterey Bay, on the day of the quake, there were thousands of strange fish floating on the water a few miles offshore, none of which were known to old fishermen on the boat. Similar reports of massive fish kills at times of earthquakes, especially of bottom-dwelling fish, are known from Japan, in some cases also associated with the description of milkiness of the water. Again, hydrogen sulphide, which is highly toxic to fish, seems a likely explanation, and in each case it is bottom dwelling fish which are not normally caught that are the chief victims.
(c) Anomalous Animal Behaviour
Strange animal behaviour preceding earthquakes is well documented in many parts of the world. Dogs, pigs, horses, cows and many other animals seem to show signs of restlessness or extreme disturbance prior to major earthquakes, and I would attribute this to their ability to smell the outflow of ground gases much more readily than humans and to be altogether much more concerned about smells. In San Francisco the major reports of this nature concerned the behaviour of dogs (Lawson et al., 1908), which are reported to have been howling during the night preceding the earthquake.
(d) Earthquake Lights
Again, as in many other earthquakes, there are many reports of flames issuing from the ground, either seen close-by or seen as a glow of light in the distance. In fact, while it was reported that the great fire, which was initiated by the earthquake, was in part caused by broken gas mains in the streets of San Francisco, this may not have been the major cause. There are numerous reports of flames seen in neighboring areas where no gas mains existed. Thus, George Madeira, a veteran mining engineer from Healdsburg, reports in the Santa Rosa Republican for 4 April 1910:
While investigating the natural phenomena of the seismic disturbance of April 18, 1906, I visited the mountain ranch of Mr. and Mrs. Adams, a mile and one-half northeast of Cazadero. They stated that for two night preceding the earthquake they "had seen small streams of lightning running along the ground". Their attention was called to the phenomenon by the incessant barking of their dog.
Here, evidently some 30 hours before the shock, earthquake lights were reported in what was soon to be the epicentral region.
During the earthquake itself there were more such accounts, like that of J.E. Houser, and engineer in San Jose, California, quoted by Larkin (1906):
This report included the following:
We could see down Alameda Street ablaze with fire, it being of a beautiful rainbow color, but faint. We passed out into the street and met a man who asked, "Did you see the fire in Alameda Street?" An hour later a friend told me that the ground all around was a blaze of fire.
(e) Explosive Noises (Brontides)
According to George Madeira in a letter written on 5 May 1908, as quoted by Alippi (1911),
Explosions much resembling the discharge of heavy guns have for the past two years been heard at intervals in the West and Middle Coast range of mountains, particularly in Marin, Sonoma and Mendocino Counties. Heavy detonations and rumblings were heard near the base of Mt. Tamalpais, Marin County, during the winter months and previous to the great earthquake which destroyed San Francisco and Santa Rosa in Sonoma County April 18th, 1906, and have been heard at stated times up to this writing.
Some of these later explosions evidently accompanied earthquake aftershocks.
(f) Visible Waves
The phenomenon of slowly rolling waves, like the waves at sea, was reported from many places in the San Francisco earthquake. Lawson and others (1908) list over twenty such accounts distributed geographically from the vicinity of Eureka to Visalia, a distance of more than 600 kilometres. Several of these accounts explicitly compare the ground motion observed to that of waves in the ocean. Similar accounts are also in descriptions of other earthquakes, especially that in Lisbon. These waves were discussed by John Michell (1761), a brilliant scientist of the 18th century. What he presumed was happening was that soft alluvial deposits can be bent and do not fracture as readily as the hard rock beneath. If a great mass of gas suddenly comes from cracks in the rock, it may lift up this carpet and in that case, gravity waves quite similar to the waves in the ocean would be set up.
Can Earthquakes Be Predicted?
We see that these descriptions make major earthquakes look much like violent eruptions, quite similar to gas eruptions from volcanoes or mud volcanoes. The airborne noises, the flames, the air pollution are all similar, and while most of the intense effects take place at the time of the quake, some of the effects occur as precursors and cannot therefore be ascribed to secondary effects of the mechanical deformation of the ground. It seems very strange that in all the attempts to predict earthquakes, no gas observations are included. Highly accurate measurements of the distortion of the ground represent the main effort, since the current theory has earthquakes resulting from a gradually augmenting stress in the rocks until they reach the breaking strain and the earthquake occurs. It is therefore supposed that one can measure the building up of the stress by the slight deformation prior to a quake. However, as a means to predicting earthquakes, this method has been entirely unsuccessful. The ground does distort on occasions, but not by any unusual amount before an earthquake.
The evacuation of Haicheng two hours before a devastating quake is an example of a successful prediction, and it was based mainly on gas effects such as a cloud of warmer air and fog developing above the known faultline, strange and nauseating smells and changes in groundwater levels. The same effects have been mentioned in very many of the ancient records.
Gases can indeed have a lot to do with earthquakes. A large volume of gas entering the crust of the Earth from deeper levels and at a high pressure, will greatly change the mechanical properties of the rock. Pore-spaces will be inflated, and the overburden weight of the rock will be effectively relieved by the pressure of the gas. The great weight of the overburden would normally have resulted in high internal friction, opposing any slippage at all but the shallowest levels. But with gas effectively bearing the overburden, slippage can occur much more easily. Much smaller values of stress in the rock will then be sufficient to cause a quake.
The absence of high stresses along the San Andreas fault was indeed a surprise to the investigators, when they had a chance to make such measurements in the deep well drilled at Cajon Pass in Southern California. They also failed to find there the extra heat that the known past slippage should have left behind, had it taken place without gas levitation.
When gas has invaded an area of the crust, it generally shows some emission at the surface that can be observed, and that results in the various effects mentioned. Of course the gases that were in the pore-spaces to start with are pushed up first, before the "new" gas has got to the surface. This brings up smells which cause surprise or consternation among many animals; it brings up more carbon-dioxide and less oxygen than air has normally, and this drives animals out of burrows; it brings up humidity and temperature of the sub-surface and thus frequently makes a fog. This contains more of the heavy CO2 molecule than the average air, and can therefore make a warmer cloud that stays on the ground instead of rising rapidly. Radioactive gases that are normally generated in the ground make a prominent appearance as they are flushed from the ground.
These signs should be taken to mean that the rock underneath has now suddenly lost much of its strength, and even small stresses will allow it to break. There was no particular build-up of stress prior to the quake, and measurements of this are therefore useless as predictors. The sudden event was the gas invasion that weakened the rock, and it is on this that a prediction method has to be based. During earthquakes and after, a lot more gas escape can usually be observed, and by then the deep source gas may have made its way to the surface. This is often combustible, probably mainly methane as this is in most common gas in deep rocks, and it often catches fire.
In China, in Japan, in the Soviet Union, much more attention is paid to gas phenomena. Japan even has a "Laboratory of Earthquake Chemistry." The US is far behind in this field, not because it does not have the technology, but just because it took a wrong choice some time ago, and now does not wish to change course. But the citizens of earthquake-prone regions will be more concerned with obtaining a warning than to be party to a scientific controversy. Sub-surface gas observations are simple and comparatively inexpensive, such as changes in groundwater levels in water wells, or changes in gas pressure above a water table. It is high time that California and the Central Mississippi region obtained the knowledge and experience in this field that will be necessary to establish a meaningful prediction service. Instrumentation operated by scientists is one aspect of this; public earthquake education and a reporting network is another, to assure the widest possible coverage for the observation of the many phenomena that may be relevant for predictions. One wonders how many such observations go unreported because their relation to earthquakes is not generally known.
Alippi, T. (1911). The 1952 Fort Yuma earthquake—two additional accounts. Seismol. Soc. Amer. Bull. 68, 1761-1762.
Aquilera, J.G. (1920). The Sonora Earthquake of 1887. Seismol. Soc. Amer. Bull. 10, 31-44.
Bagnold, T. (1829). Extraordinary Effect of an Earthquake at Lima, 1828. Quart. J. Soc. Lit. Art 27, 429-430.
Demetrescu, G. and Petrescu, G. (1941). Sur les phénomènes lumineux qui ont accompagné le tremblement de terre de Roumanie de 10 Novembre 1940. Acad. Roumaine Bull. Sec. Sci. 23, 292-296.
Galli, I. (1911). Raccolta e classificazione di fenomeni luminosi osservati nei terremoti. Bol. Soc. Sismol. Ital. 14, 221-447.
Larkin, E.L. (1906). The great San Francisco earthquake. Open Court 20, 393-406.
Lawson, A.C., et al. (1908). the California Earthquake of April 18, 1906. Carnegie Institution, Washington, D.C.
Michell, J. (1761). Conjectures concerning the cause, and observations upon the Phaenomena, of Earthquakes. Phil. Trans. Roy. Soc. 51, 566-634.
Rethly, A. (1952). A Kárpámedencék Földrengesei 445-1918. Academic Publishing House: Budapest.
Schmidt, A. and Mack, K. (1913). Das Süddeutesches Erdbeben vom 16 November 1911. Württ, Jahrbücher f. Statist. u. Landeskde., Jahrg. 1912, Heft I, 96-139.
Stoqueler, Mr. (1756). Observations, Made at Colares, on the Earthquake at Lisbon, of the 1st of November 1755, by Mr. Stoqueler, Consul of Hamburg. Phil Trans. Roy. Soc. 49, 413-418.
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