News & Politics

Can Humans Cause Earthquakes and Use Them As Weapons? We'll Probably Find Out Soon Enough

Once the topic of arcane science, defense research and conspiracy theories, wider questions emerge on the role humans played in recent earthquakes.

Last year, one of the most deadly earthquakes on record devastated China, killing over 80,000 people and rendering millions homeless. Yet last month, reports surfaced stating that the 8.0 magnitude Great Sichuan Earthquake could have possibly been induced not by Earth but its people. Particularly, the ones that decided to build the 4-year-old Zipingpu reservoir, which held 320 million tons of water, near a major fault line.

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It is rumored that Chinese geologist Geng Qingguo, who reportedly predicted the 1976 Tangshan earthquake, had sent a letter to China's Premier Wen Jiabao predicting the same for Sichuan. Evidently, he had been talking about it for months, years depending on who you read, but to no avail.

Of course, Geng is no Nostradamus, just a geologist with a firm grasp of what scientists in his discipline refer to as induced seismicity, basically earthquakes created by humanity. Currently, there are only a few ways humans can conventionally make earthquakes: Fossil fuel, groundwater or mining extractions, and erecting massive structures like buildings or dams.

"Dams have been implicated in reservoir-induced seismicity, and there is a vigorous debate whether Zipingpu dam may have triggered the Wenchuan Earthquake," explained Nicholas Sitar, professor of geoengineering and an expert on seismology at the University of California, Berkeley, who traveled to Sichuan to study the 2008 quake.

"However, the larger picture is that strain has been building up in that region, and the quake was probably overdue. Of course, we do not know if the outcome would be any different if the quake happened a few years from now on its own. In most recent quakes, the difference in the magnitude of the loss of life had more to do with time of the day than anything else. In Wenchuan, the schools were in full session when they collapsed."

Fair enough, but concern, and conspiracy theory, is mounting that humanity is intent on weaponizing earthquakes through means other than gross negligence or good intentions. Or already has.

Much of the controversy originates with the visionary scientist Nikola Tesla, whose revolutionary accomplishments in the fields of electricity and magnetism has since paved the way for everything from wireless communication and power to robotics, ballistics, nuclear physics and much more, including, for our purposes, telegeodynamics.

"It becomes possible to convey mechanical effects to the greatest terrestrial distances and produce all kinds of unique effects of inestimable value to science, industry and the arts," Tesla explained to reporters at his 79th birthday gathering in 1935 at the Hotel New Yorker, during which he also unveiled his plans for he described as "controlled earthquakes." Of course, he forgot to mention the "inestimable value" such an invention would have for the American military, who Tesla courted more than once with remote-controlled or directed-energy weaponry, but probably not by accident.

Two days after Tesla died in 1943, the government confiscated all of his papers, and the FBI declared them classified until further notice. That notice still stands.

"Rumors and Tesla go together," says journalist, humorist and author Tom McNichol, who wrote about Tesla's public feud with Thomas Edison in AC/DC: The Savage Tale of the First Standards War. "Tesla was the mad genius, equal parts madness and genius. Whenever anyone comes up with a superweapon, they usually say it is inspired by him. And though he was interested in beam weapons, telegeodynamics, death rays and more, he died almost penniless. But never rule anything out. I bet you when one of these weapons comes to fruition, Tesla's hand will be in there somewhere."

It would seem logical that Tesla's indirect hand is currently in the Air Force Research Laboratory's High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program, colloquially known as HAARP, in Alaska.

In short, HAARP is military project that is conducting bleeding-edge experiments in ionospheric measurement, communication, enhancement and, according to some persuasive conspiracy theorists, weaponization. HAARP critics explain that the facility is capable of manipulating the ionosphere, at best causing artificial light shows on par with Alaska's aurora borealis and, at worst, flooding Earth with electromagnetic waves that could do everything from disrupt satellites and missiles to create earthquakes and modify weather patterns.

In 1995, concern hit a crescendo upon the publication of Nick Begich's and Jeane Manning's Angels Don't Play This HAARP: Advances in Tesla Technology, which was passed off as conspiracy theory, no doubt fueled by the fact that Begich's father, Rep. Nick Begich Sr., D-Alaska, mysteriously disappeared in Alaska in 1972. Throw the continually controversial Tesla into the mix and you have a nearly bottomless source of plausible deniability for the military.

But for how long? From recent revelations on the various military uses of HAARP to mysterious sonic booms and visible atmospheric phenomena in the sky preceding earthquakes in China, including the Tangshan tragedy, which by death toll is reportedly the most devastating earthquake of the 20th century, it is getting harder by the day to chalk these events up to Mother Earth.

It didn't help matters for those opposed to conspiracy theories that the New York Times allegedly reported that minutes before the Tangshan earthquake:

... the sky lit up like daylight. The multihued lights, mainly white and red, were seen up to 200 miles away. Leaves on many trees were burned to a crisp, and growing vegetables were scorched on one side, as if by a fireball.

Nor did it help that the Tangshan earthquake -- following on the heels of the timely deaths of Zhou Enlai, Zhu De and Mao Zedong -- drove a stake through the Cultural Revolution's heart, kick-starting the regime of Deng Xiaopeng, who opened China's once-closed doors to global economic expansion.

Three-fourths of China's communist Gang of Four dead within the same year a fireball-toting earthquake kills several hundred thousand people? No wonder the year is known in China as the "Curse of 1976."

China and its possibly man-made earthquakes in Tangshan, and now in Sichuan, both predicted by Geng Qingguo, have now unspooled into speculation that even the geologists at the United States Geological Survey cannot keep pace with.

"What's HAARP?" USGS geologist Walter Mooney asks, before I interview him about the possibility of using Earth itself as Tesla's directed-energy weapon. "You would have to be pretty advanced to induce earthquakes by electromagnetic waves or pulses to faults. Even tidal forces are not powerful enough to trigger earthquakes. In science, you can never say something is impossible, but it would seem to be unlikely in the extreme to assume humans could weaponize earthquakes."

Others were less diplomatic about the idea. "This sounds like UFO stuff to me," USGS public affairs officer Mike Gauldin cracked, when I contacted him about speaking to some of his scientists about the issue. Of course, his suspicions are well-founded, as are all suspicions, until they are confirmed or denied. Earthquake weaponization is still a severely speculative prospect. It conjures images of Gene Hackman's unhinged Lex Luthor, who launched nukes into San Andreas Fault in an attempt to split the state in half Richard Donner's film, Superman.

"The weapon with enough energy to initiate a fault rupture in a region that has sufficient build-up of stress, presumably a nuke," adds Sitar, "would create such devastation, that the earthquake damage would be completely incidental. Could one use an underground explosion with less fallout? Possibly, but I don't know of anyone with the know-how to actually determine how much would be needed and where exactly to put it for maximum effect. So, no concern. We have much nastier things to worry about."

For now, as the possibility resides in fringe science. But fringe science has a way of coming true; ask anyone who has experienced the displeasure of Raytheon's pain ray (thanks, Tesla!) or worked alongside an armed robot in Iraq. If the 20th century has taught us anything at all, it's that our science is only limited by our imagination. And we can dream up some seriously crazy shit, especially when we want to kill someone.

"There is a continuing interest in Tesla from Air Force guys saying, 'Say, wouldn't it be great if we had a ...' " McNichol cracks. "The government always comes back to him. And Tesla himself made claims during his tenure that were wildly out of line compared to what he actually had in his hands. He was his own conspiracy theorist before anyone could use him, so you can run with him in almost any direction you want.

"I went full circle on him. But I wouldn't at all be surprised if someone came up with weaponized earthquakes, or anything else, because of him."

Scott Thill runs the online mag His writing has appeared on Salon, XLR8R, All Music Guide, Wired and others.