Are Earthquakes Increasing?
The recent rash of deadly earthquakes has many people asking: is this unusual? Have the frequency and intensity of earthquakes been increasing in recent years? Geologists secular and theistic have weighed in on the question.
Two reporters at Live Science (Live Science #1 and Live Science #2) took up the issue and quoted geologists who concluded that the long-term pattern is random. Richard Kerr for Science Magazine News quoted experts on both sides: some who see the trend as unusual, some who see it as random.
There’s no question that the recent series of megaquakes (Japan, Indonesia, New Zealand, Chile) has been a cluster. But there have been other clusters of great quakes, notably a series from 1952 to 1964. We’ve only been measuring earthquake magnitudes for about 100 years, so scientists do not have a long enough record to fully establish the random hypothesis.
It takes many trials to get reliable statistics. That’s why Richard Kerr titled his article, “More Megaquakes on the Way? That Depends on Your Statistics.” What remains to be seen is whether one great quake can trigger others across the globe. Some geologists are preparing models to see if future quakes will confirm or disconfirm the random hypothesis as opposed to the trigger hypothesis.
Steve Austin, a prominent creationist geologist, has also written on the subject (see article on ICR). He included more long-term data from historical reports and agreed that the perception of increasing numbers of earthquakes in recent years is an illusion: “Since good seismographs went into operation late in the 1890’s, no steady trend suggesting increased frequency or intensity has been demonstrated.” Other factors contribute to the illusion: rapid reporting, larger populations in urban centers, and consequent greater damage and loss of life.
Noting that Jesus had prophesied “There will be earthquakes in divers places” as the “beginning of birth pangs” of his coming (Matthew 24:7; Mark 13:8), Austin said it is not necessary to interpret the metaphor as an increase in frequency and intensity, but as something erratic and unpredictable: “Global seismic activity is very non-uniform in time; it is like waiting for birth pangs.”
Christians need to be good statisticians and not jump to conclusions. The megaquakes in Japan, Indonesia, and Chile, and others in New Zealand, Haiti and elsewhere in recent years are disturbing, but inconclusive as to whether they are unusual in the long term. Remember, too, that one moderate earthquake in a densely-populated, unprepared country like Haiti can create far worse damage than several megaquakes in remote regions. The perception of an apocalyptic rise in earthquakes can be fanned by rapid, eyewitness reports, as seen in Haiti and Japan.
Perhaps a cluster of great earthquakes will accompany the other signs Jesus described, such as wars and rumors of wars and famines – “See that you are not alarmed, for this must take place, but the end is not yet,” Jesus said, instructing his disciples not to conclude His coming was imminent; “All these are but the beginning of the birth pains.” Remember that the beginning of birth pains are infrequent, and that a day to the Lord is as a thousand years. Wars, famines and earthquakes have been ongoing since His death and resurrection.
Jesus continued by describing what else would precede His coming: worldwide persecution of His disciples, a great “falling away” of nominal believers, hatred, lawlessness, and false prophets. But only at the imminent time of His appearing would there be specific signs, like the “abomination of desolation” in the Temple. And His actual coming would be accompanied by great signs in the heavens – signs so clear as to remove all doubt. The book of Revelation further describes great earthquakes as part of the judgment leading up to His return.
Parts of Jesus’ Olivet Discourse shortly before His crucifixion (Matthew 24, Mark 13), in answer to His disciples’ question about signs of the end of the age, are warnings not to try predict the day of His coming, because “no one knows the day or the hour”. Just like the days of Noah or of Lot, He said, nobody expected the sudden destruction that was imminent. It is wise to avoid rash conclusions from a few earthquakes, yet also to weigh the sum total of the signs all the Biblical prophets mentioned. Those who stay awake and faithful will not be completely surprised at that day, like the uniformitarians will be (2 Peter 3).