On an early Friday morning in November 2018, the ground gave way in Anchorage, Alaska. At 8:29 a.m., a magnitude 7.1 earthquake hit just north of the city. Street lights blinked off, highways began to buckle, and buildings shook as enormous cracks opened in the walls and floors, coughing plumes of dust into the air. Later that day, photojournalist Marc Lester used a small plane to capture a chilling photo of Vine Road, a major artery, fractured like a puzzle, detritus scattered across it like broken toys.
For Ian Dickson, things only began to get truly bizarre later in the day. At the time, Dickson was a communications specialist for the Alaska Earthquake Center, the U.S. Geological Survey’s contractor in Alaska. About three hours after the quake, he watched in alarm as all of the Earthquake Center’s social media channels—Facebook, Twitter, direct messages on both platforms—were flooded with people saying that a larger earthquake had been predicted. Worse still, Dickson said, “some of the things I saw were highly specific, saying an 8.4 earthquake was predicted in the next hour. Scientists can’t predict that. Absolutely not.”
The Alaska Earthquake Center is a central clearinghouse for earthquake information in the state, both for scientists and for the public. The organization operates a set of seismic monitoring systems across the state, and works on mitigating the impacts not only of earthquakes but of tsunamis and volcanoes, the trifecta of catastrophic events in the region. The immediate aftermath of the quake had been “chaotic,” Dickson says, but also routine. “People look to us for the basic science information: magnitude, location, depth,” he says. “Then they want to know about aftershocks, and we can give general ideas about what to expect.” Though no deaths were reported, the quake caused $30 million in damage, and the aftershocks were indeed significant: Between November and January there were about 350 of a magnitude 3.0 or more, some big enough to cause additional damage.
On that first day, though, Dickson’s attention was focused on the urgent and very strange quake predictions. Dickson also noticed, to his alarm, that versions of those predictions were making their way onto the local TV news. KTVA 11 is a trusted local station that worked through the quake even as its own building was damaged and personnel had to be temporarily evacuated. On Facebook, though, Dickson noticed, the station had put up a now-deleted post which concluded, “The state of Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management are advising that an aftershock larger than the original earthquake could happen this afternoon.”
No scientist would ever make a prediction of that specificity. (It was possible for an earthquake larger than the original one to happen that afternoon, Dickson said, but the likelihood was astronomically small, something not made clear in the statement KTVA published.) While KTVA “corrected it pretty quickly,” Dickson said, other people reported to him that they’d heard the same information on the local weather channel and on KTUU, another Anchorage television station.
Dickson saw two possibilities: Correct information about possible aftershocks was being conveyed inaccurately, or someone at Homeland Security was getting truly bad information and relaying it. Either way, it was a problem.
He was concerned that the predictions he was seeing would cause a panic. “Some of the roads were messed up,” he said. “A lot of stuff was canceled. Traffic was snarled. The thing I was really worried about, as the hysteria grew, was if it was causing people to self-evacuate out of Anchorage for no reason. That seemed to be something that could plausibly happen.”
Strange though it was, Dickson also knew the source of at least some of what he was seeing, particularly the panicked messages he was getting on social media. It’s something that’s frequently discussed among seismologists and science communicators, but not particularly well-known among the public. An earthquake conspiracy theory forum was—or perhaps several of them were—clearly pushing out false and misleading information about what was going to happen next.
Scientists are racing to be able to predict earthquakes. It’s the holy grail of seismology: Accurately predicting an earthquake would save lives, decrease property damage, and allow humans to have some measure of control over one of nature’s most frightening and unpredictable events. For now, though, it’s still out of reach. The U.S. Geological Survey, or USGS, recently released an early warning system in California called ShakeAlert. It can provide people with a very, very brief warning once an earthquake begins, relying on sensors that monitor seismic waves, explained Sara McBride, a research social scientist at USGS. “We can’t provide two hours of warning,” she said, “but we can provide several seconds.” The agency can also produce probabilistic models about aftershocks following an earthquake, based on what they know from quakes past.
That’s about the limit, and those modest milestones have taken years of focused scientific work. Meanwhile there are people who will claim that they alone have discovered the key to quake prediction, as well as the hidden secrets behind why they happen. Earthquake conspiracy theorists aren’t a huge group, but they do exist and have an immense amount of sway over their dedicated fans. What’s more, with social media, their power is growing.
These are not people, of course, who would describe themselves as conspiracy theorists. They would say they are rogue scientists, unfairly reviled by their more mainstream colleagues for having mastered prediction, the ultimate goal of seismology. They say they’re only working to share that information with the public, and frequently accuse established scientific agencies like the USGS of hiding earthquakes or changing the magnitude after the fact to downplay their severity.
They’re “deliberately not reporting quakes,” said Michael Yuri Janitch in a November 4th YouTube live broadcast. He seemed to mean the USGS, and he had a theory about why. “Their blatherings would be debunked,” he declared, “and they wouldn’t look so professional, would they?”
Janitch goes by “Dutchsinse” online, and he’s the best-known and best-followed freelance quake predictor. His profile photos on multiple accounts show a slim white man with black-rimmed glasses, frequently sporting fedora. Janitch, who didn’t respond to a message sent to his email address or his official Facebook page requesting comment, has 354,000 subscribers on YouTube, where he describes his specialties as “earthquake forecasting and geophysics research.” He also has 110,000 followers on Facebook, 36,000 on Twitter, and 24,000 on Twitch. His videos on YouTube are monetized—each time I watched them, I got the same ad, for boat rental, for some reason—and he offers paid Twitch subscriptions, ranging from $5 to $25 a month. He also sells t-shirts and hats, has a blend named after him by a coffee brand—though he says he doesn’t receive any money from that deal—and has even inspired two hot sauces made by a fan in Florida, one of which is called the “9.5 Earthquake Blend.”
The reason for all this interest is straightforward: Janitch, who lives in St. Louis with his wife, claims to have “discovered and proven the ability to forecast earthquakes,” as he puts it on his website, using what he calls “various tools, and methods to check on seismic activity.” Since 2010, he claims, he’s found “a pattern and progressive movement in seismic activity across the globe.” (It’s unclear what, if any, scientific training or background he has.)
Janitch claims to have been described by “many viewers and critics” as “85% accurate in a weeks [sic] forecast,” and when he’s not livestreaming daily—sometimes hourly—making earthquake predictions, he has other interests, including HAARP (a conspiracy theory that the U.S. government is able to control and change the weather through a facility based in Alaska) and QAnon, whose predictions he’s tweeted about frequently. His videos are chatty, briskly-delivered, and direct; for someone who’s not a scientist, they could look an awful lot like something worth paying attention to. A common theme, one he returns to frequently, is the refusal of mainstream scientists to listen to him, at their own peril and that of humanity.
“I tried to show this to professionals,” he said in the November 4th broadcast, referring to one of his recent quake predictions. “They said it was just chance and coincidence. Then they said I was faking earthquakes. I’m just using the USGS seven-day feed.”
Janitch frequently talks about earthquakes that are tied to fracking, even selling a shirt that reads, naturally, “Fracking causes earthquakes.” There, he’s tapping into a real history of government denial and inaction—something conspiracy theorists across the spectrum are often able to do. Fracking does, in fact, indirectly cause minor earthquakes, which have plagued fracking-heavy states like Oklahoma. USGS points out, though, that itstheir research shows what’s really causing larger quakes is wastewater disposal, where fluid from fracking and other types of oil and gas production is injected into deep, underground wells. Nonetheless, states like Oklahoma and Texas that depend heavily on oil and gas production have been slow to respond to the clear problem of wastewater-caused quakes. (In Texas, the number of earthquakes has jumped dramatically in the last 20 years, yet the Texas Railroad Commission’s own staff seismologist recently claimed there is "no substantial proof of man-made earthquakes in Texas.”)
For Janitch, it’s proof that a much larger cover-up is probably underway. As far back as 2016, he was criticizing USGS for what he saw as a too-slow response to the threats of fracking.
It was one of his more earthbound predictions, and an effective one for building his following. Janitch sells his viewers the promise of safety in an uncertain world, and his more rooted predictions around fracking surely make the bigger and more apocalyptic ones seem more credible. Recently, Janitch predicted a “significant” earthquake in the “West Pacific” sometime soon, telling his followers, “You’ll be way better off than most people who do not prepare. Warn your friends and family. Tell them what’s going down.”
That sense of preparedness is, obviously, why people tune in, and Janitch’s fans seem to be fervent; they pour into his social media feeds, thanking him for his predictions and offering their prayers for his safety against a variety of unseen and unspecified foes. He runs frequent fundraising efforts, writing in one that his work is at risk due to “multiple recent shutdowns, shutoffs, and blatant censorship of the seismic forecasts.” He adds that his findings are “controversial to certain government agencies” and that the news media has smeared him, leading to his findings being censored. The “professionals,” meanwhile, are beginning to adopt his “global forecasting models,” he claims.
There’s no real evidence that’s true, but it’s inarguable that based on followers and views alone, Janitch appears to be far more widely watched than anyone else in the quake prediction field. Most of his would-be rivals are very small operators, who use mainstream social media sites like YouTube and Twitter to push traffic to their own, often clunky websites. One is Ken Ring of New Zealand, who calls himself a “long range weather forecaster.” He claimed to have predicted the deadly 2011 Christchurch quake, then said he was forced into temporary hiding when those predictions caused him to receive a tidal wave of death threats. These days, he’ll occasionally tweet a vague, fairly staid prediction with a link to his site, like one on October 29 that read, simply, “Earthquake risk high over next few days, until 29 October.”
The quake prediction industry seems to have something of an unnaturally high turnover: for a time, as the New Zealand publication Stuff pointed out, Ring had a minor rival, a man named Nigel Antony Gray, who today shares a rich variety of environmental conspiracy theories on his Facebook page. But he has yet to grow much of an audience for himself, and hasn’t made a quake prediction publicly in a very long time. A relatively popular astrologer named Barbara Goldsmith, who has over 200,000 YouTube subscribers, made a sideline in predicting natural disasters about eight years ago, but these days confines herself largely to horoscopes for the week ahead.
In a way, it’s curious that the quake prediction world isn’t bigger. Because their work so often operates on the sometimes hard-to-spot border between science and pure fantasy, quake predictors haven’t faced kind of restrictions that other conspiracy theorists have—Alex Jones-level deplatforming, lawsuits or being stuffed down in search results. When you search “earthquake predictions” in YouTube, Dutchsinse’s channel is the first result, and the only channel recommended, and a long list of his videos appears before those of any legitimate news agency.
Most mainstream scientists and science communicators are aware of Janitch and other earthquake conspiracy theorists, but decline to discuss them specifically, saying it’s not necessary or productive to single out a single person or their fringe theories. One exception is John Vidale, the past director of the Southern California Earthquake Center and a professor at USC. He’s publicly tangled with Janitch in the past and says his predictions seem to serve mainly to frighten his fans—and keep them hooked on his next broadcast.
“When I was directing theSeismic Network in the Northwest, it seemed like a fair number of people in the Northwest were listening to him and getting scared and doing the wrong thing, like being constantly on edge, always on the verge of evacuating if they heard one or two more signs come up,” Vidale said. “Dutchsinse often says things like, ‘You won’t hear from me for a while, it’s a dangerous time.’ He’s always got people hooked onto listening to him.”
Janitch is, as his lesser-known rivals are, part of a rich history of dubious claims about quake prediction. Raffaele Bendandi, an Italian watchmaker and self-taught scientist, became massively famous in the early 1920s for his earthquake predictions, claiming to have accurately predicted a 1915 one, for instance, which killed more than 30,000 people. Bendandi held that the planets had a gravitational pull on the earth’s crust that caused earthquakes. (That is not how earthquakes work.) His predictions became so respected that he was knighted by Mussolini in 1927, though the dictator also “banned him from making any public predictions, on pain of exile,” per the Telegraph. Bendandi’s reputation held up so well, even after his death in 1979, that thousands of citizens of Rome fled the city in May 2011, fearing an enormous earthquake the watchmaker had supposedly predicted before his death. (Italy is a strange ground zero for various kinds of earthquake pseudoscience, which can sometimes have life-alerting consequences. In the aftermath of a 2009 earthquake in L’Aquila that killed 309 people, six geologists and a government worker were convicted of manslaughter for failing to predict the quake. Before the conviction was ultimately overturned on appeal, the seven faced years in prison and fines in the millions of dollars.)
A more recent prognosticator was Jim Berkland, a retired geologist and writer who died in 2016; he became famous in 1989 for predicting an earthquake during the World Series, shortly before the devastating Loma Prieta quake struck minutes before Game Three on October 17, killing 63 people and injuring more than 3,000. Berkland never convincingly predicted another quake, but became famous for claiming that the moon was causing them; upon his retirement from a government job, he threw himself full-force into earthquake predicting and appearances on beloved UFO radio show Coast to Coast.
These days, the field remains colorful. A man named Luke Holmquist runs an exceedingly low-fi site called Quake Prediction, claiming he uses “thermal temperature changes, ULF or Ultra Low Frequency sounds, micro earthquakes, animal behaviour, human behaviour, moon phases, seismic gaps and satellite earthquake clouds” to accurately forecast quakes around the world. On YouTube, a person going by Mary Sutton Greeley runs a channel called Mary Greeley News that has over 100,000 subscribers; she describes herself as “just an average patriot.” Most of her videos focus on earthquake predictions within Yellowstone National Park, but they’re leavened with a series of claims of other notions about what the government is up to.
“Knowledge is power the globalist don't want you to have,” she wrote on YouTube. (All spelling here is as in the original.) “Knowledge is power to protect yourself, be prepared for what might be coming and survive the purge of the human race by 3/4. Just like in the book 1984 you have no privacy. If you think you can do that you are mistaken. Satan will use all this new technology to track you down when the time comes. Only God will protect us and hid us when the time comes. Those with eyes to see and ear to hear will know what I am talking about.”
This is fringe stuff, and for many years, it would’ve stayed firmly in the most distant jungles of the conspiracy-verse. But social media has a way of allowing the fringe to bleed into the mainstream. Occasionally, bogus, conspiratorial earthquake predictions leak into the public view or are shared by legitimate agencies on social media. The Alaska quake wasn’t the only recent example: after an enormous quake hit Southern California on July 4th, with its epicenter near the town of Ridgecrest, in Kern County, the fire department there shared a tweet claiming “another possible earthquake has been predicted within the next 15 minutes in or near Kern County.”
The tweet, which still hasn’t been removed, is wildly unscientific, but Kern County Fire never responded to tweets from dozens of scientists and scientific agencies asking them to take it down. The same day, the police department of California City, a small town in Kern County, shared a similarly alarmist and impossible prediction on Nixle, citing Kern County Fire’s tweet as proof. (That, too, has never been removed.)
“Prototype instruments are forecasting another possible STRONG earthquake to occur within the next few minutes,” it read, in part. “Residents should seek shelter immediately.” An update cited “several agencies [that] have instrumentation that may be able to predict an earthquake.”
The term “prototype instruments” was a baffling one, Dickson said. “Nobody in the legitimate earthquake science community has any idea what they meant by that.”
Wendy Bohon is an earthquake geologist and a science communications at IRIS, a consortium of over 100 universities in the U.S. studying seismology. She watched the false earthquake predictions out of Kern County, and quickly figured out where they came from. “That particular rumor sprang from a account that looked very official and was not,” she says, leading Kern County to share the information. “Part of that has to do with social media and the speed of information. When you have rapid onset geologic hazards like earthquakes, people are looking for information as fast as they can. Because they’re trying to get out information quickly with the very best of intentions, they’re not always doing their due diligence in checking the source.”
It seems obvious that, because police and fire departments aren’t scientific agencies, they might not necessarily be very good at distinguishing science from pseudoscience. But earthquakes and other natural disasters put them in the unusual position of having to vet and share scientific information. “Their social media personnel may not be trained in every disaster or know who exactly to talk to in every potential situation,” Bohon said. “They’re doing the best they can. That’s why we need more scientists on social media and out in the media, to show where you can go to get the science.”
The effects of earthquake conspiracy theories aren’t just limited to during or immediately after a quake; their effects, like that of earthquakes themselves, can be felt for far, far longer. Sara McBride, the research social scientist at USGS, previously worked at GeoNet, which is part of New Zealand’s equivalent earthquake agency. McBride was there when the devastating, magnitude 7.8 Kaikoura quake that killed two people and injured 57 hit in November 2016. Days later, a bizarre rumor started to circulate.
The rumor, McBride said, originated on 4Chan. “Someone claimed they were an employee of GeoNet and that there was a much larger earthquake coming in the next week,” she said. “They also said that GeoNet employees had been advised to evacuate their families out of Wellington.” From 4Chan, the rumor jumped to Twitter and then to Facebook; GeoNet was flooded with panicked and furious messages from people accusing them of a coverup.
“I’m not entirely sure what the intention was,” McBride said, but the effects were pretty clear. Her job became instantly harder, as she tried to balance getting actual, timely aftershock information out to the public with the challenge of dispelling the rumor.
“It was me and two other people working full time in this communication role,” she said. “I slept on the floor of my office for a couple days. Earthquakes are constantly happening because of aftershocks, you’re constantly on call in terms of questions from the media, social media, phone calls. You’re constantly taking input from people. To have to stop the process to address these rumors, it’s time-consuming and costly. We’re trying to focus on getting out what we know. It can add a whole level of stress.”
McBride points out that before Kaikoura, New Zealand had also experienced the Christchurch earthquake in 2011, which inflicted deep psychic scars on the region: It killed 185 people, injured thousands, and produced thousands of aftershocks for years afterwards.
“People’s anxieties were already very, very high,” McBride said. In that context, the conspiracy theories made sense to her, even when they impacted her personally: At one point, someone filed an open records request for her emails, in an apparent bid to prove she was hiding communications about the supposed effort to move GeoNet employees out of Wellington.
“There was nothing to show,” McBride said, “because this was not a conversation.”
McBride said that it makes sense that earthquakes provoke so many “alternate theories,” as she gently calls them.
“Earthquakes psychologically are very different than pretty much disaster we experience, because of the sudden onset,” she said. “When we’re looking at hurricanes we have seven days, often, that something might be coming. Tornadoes, there’s a tornado season and you get some warning. There’s a heightened season where you’re aware you have to take preparedness precautions. Wildfires, you’re looking at short time frames sometimes, where you have 10 minutes to evacuate your house, but at least there’s a seasonal aspect to it. Earthquakes happen 365 days a year—any season, any time, while you’re in the shower or driving to work. That makes it fundamentally different than most other natural hazards.”
For that reason, she said, “I have so much empathy for people who are in these situations and they don’t know who to believe. They shift towards the person who can provide the highest amount of certainty.”
And when people go looking for certainty, Janitch and others will be there. On a recent morning, as ever, he was broadcasting, zooming around a map of the earth to show supposed hot spots, pitfalls, and fault lines only he could see. “Don’t be scared,” he told his viewers, before signing off until the next daily emergency. “Be prepared.”
This article originally appeared on VICE US.