The highest magnitude geologists expect that we will ever encounter is 10.0. This is based on modern theories of plate tectonics. The same theories that caused Japanese scientists to underestimate the precautions required to protect their nuclear power plants. The tsunami of 2011 arose from an earthquake much larger than scientists believed was possible in the location where it occurred. We have only been accurately measuring earthquakes since the beginning of the last century. It would not surprise me if megaquakes of 11.0 or 12.0 have shaken our planet in the past, and that they will again - perhaps soon - perhaps in 2012. And if you get a quake of such immensity (a 12.0 would be 100x more powerful than a 10.0), perhaps that would be sufficient to set off a chain reaction of earthquakes, a truly global cataclysm.
Unfortunately we don't have any way of measuring ancient earthquakes, except for by way of descriptions written by historians. While the damage from quakes might remain for archaeologists and geologists to investigate, they will be constrained by the magnitudes of earthquakes we have witnessed in recent times. It would take a brave scientist to declare that the Colosseum was ruined by a 12.0 quake.
An excellent book on this topic is Apocalypse: Earthquakes, Archaeology and the Wrath of God (2008), by Amos Nur, a professor at Stanford University. Here are something interesting snippets:
...around 1200 BC, practically every society in the Mediterranean region appears to have met with major damage or destruction, and, for lack of a better explanation, nearly every instance has been attributed at one time or another to invasion by an unknown enemy from the sea. The key problem behind the Sea Peoples hypothesis has been the failure (at least so far) to determine the aggressors’ identity. (p17)
If, however, coordinated attacks by the Sea Peoples were not the cause of all this destruction around 1200 BC, what other explanation is there? One way around the problem has been to assume that the Sea Peoples were actually bands of local raiders and that the destruction of so many sites resulted from general lawlessness at the time. What, then, was the cause of this lawlessness? Many theories have been suggested, from sudden advances in weaponry to climate change. As a geophysicist, I have to throw in my own chip: Could earthquakes have played a part? (p18)
Drews (1993) notes, “Within a period of forty or fifty years at the end of the thirteenth and beginning of the twelfth century almost every significant city or palace in the eastern Mediterranean world was destroyed, many of them never to be occupied again.” What caused the collapse? (p226)
The most persistent argument against the earthquake hypothesis is the sheer size of the quake required to cause such damage or the unlikely coincidence of so many earthquakes occurring in such quick succession. (p226-227)
...we now understand that some earthquakes can actually increase the stress on sections of the same fault, or nearby faults, that did not slip initially (King, Stein, and Lin 1994). Thus, one earthquake can increase the chances of another earthquake nearby. (p240)
Geophysicists have not agreed on what to call this phenomenon but describe modern examples either as “earthquake sequences” (e.g., Ambraseys 1970), “earthquake migrations” (Mogi 1968; Roth 1988), “progressive failures” (Stein, Barka, and Dietrich 1997), or, in places where many intersecting faults are involved, “earthquake storms” (Nur and Cline 2000). (p240)
According to numerous modern geologists, earthquake storms are a reality. According to Professor Amos Nur, the most likely explanation for practically every society in the Mediterranean region suffering from major damage around 1200 BC is either a megaquake, or an earthquake storm. Having established a megaquake as a possibility for a 2012 global cataclysm, lets look at if it could be cyclical, in a way that ancient civilizations may have been able to predict a doomsday in our time.
And I behold when he had opened the sixth seal, and lo, there was a great earthquake; and the Sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the Moon became as blood. -- Revelation 6:12
In ancient times eclipses were rare enough to frighten, but regular enough for advanced cultures, such as the Mayans, to predict. Today, they're a destination for astronomy geeks, and they make the news, and that's about it. We aren't scared of them any more, because we have been taught the science behind eclipses, and we know they are harmless.
But what if eclipses are no longer benign? What if they are triggering deadly earthquakes?
Although it is hard to find a scientist who will admit it, it can be demonstrated that there is a very minor increase in major earthquakes around the time of the full moon. This makes sense - the gravitational pull of the moon is enough to give us tides, and a full moon is when the Sun and moon are pulling on our planet from opposite directions (which is why full moons are overhead at midnight).
A lunar eclipse is basically a super-full moon, the alignment is so good that the Earth gets in the way of the Sun's light, and stops it reaching the moon. Likewise, a solar eclipse is an alignment, but where the moon and Sun are pulling on us from the same direction. Therefore if a gravitational tug-of-war can cause earthquakes, they are more likely to occur during an eclipse.
The above quote from the Bible is one ancient account which makes the connection between eclipses and earthquakes. There are others:
In the fourth year of the 202nd Olympiad, there was an eclipse of the Sun which was greater than any known before and in the sixth hour of the day it became night; so that stars appeared in the heaven; and a great earthquake that broke out in Bithynia destroyed the greatest part of Nicaea. -- Phlegon
"... there was an eclipse of the Sun at the time of a new Moon, and in the early part of the same month an earthquake." -- Thucydides
"earthquakes and eclipses of the Sun which came to pass more frequently than had been remembered in former times." -- Thucydides
The last quote could be informing us of an additional factor. What if the eclipse/earthquake connection is cyclical? What if the effect is more pronounced in some eras and not others? The gravitational pulls of the planets and moons of our solar system are basically fixed - if they weren't then orbits would not be maintained. And you can dismiss the positions of the other planets, their gravity has a negligible effect on Earth. However there is another force that is less stable, and that force is magnetic. The Sun, Moon and Earth each have magnetic fields, and we know that the fields of the Sun and Earth move around significantly. Strengths vary as well.
What if the ancient Mayan Long Count calendar, lasting 5126 years, measures a cycle of Earth-Sun-Moon magnetic interactions? Modern scientists have not been studying these magnetic fields long enough to notice any long-duration patterns. Ancient scientists were unlikely to have been able to measure magnetic fields - but an ancient culture could have noticed a cycle of megaquakes, which are the result of the magnetic interactions.
So, ancient writers noticed a connection between earthquakes and eclipses, and I have postulated that every 5126 years the effects are worse, enough to cause a megaquake that could seem like the "end of the world". If 2012 is the peak of that cycle, the eclipse/earthquake connection could be getting worse as we approach that fateful year.
Fortunately the data we need to determine eclipse / earthquake connections is readily available, via Wikipedia and earthquake.usgs.gov. First off, here are some recent examples - every full lunar eclipse since 2000, which strike a chord due to human lives lost:
26 January 2001 – A magnitude 7.6 earthquake in the Indian Province of Gujarat. The death toll was 19,727, with 166,000 injured. 15 days after the lunar eclipse.
1 May 2003 - 176 people have died and 521 people were injured from a 6.4 earthquake in Turkey’s Bingöl province. 15 days before the lunar eclipse.
17 November 2003 - 7.8 magnitude earthquake at Rat Island, Alaska. 8 days after the lunar eclipse.
4 May 2004 - Lunar eclipse does not cause any major earthquakes.
23 October 2004 – 6.7 magnitude earthquake in northern Japan, killing 30+ people and injuring more than 2000. 5 days before the lunar eclipse.
6 March 2007 – Two earthquakes struck Sumatra measuring 6.4 and 6.3. Over 60 deaths and 460 injuries. 3 days after the lunar eclipse.
15 August 2007 - 7.4 magnitude earthquake in Peru killed over 600 people, with thousands injured. 13 days before the lunar eclipse.
21 February 2008 – 7.4 magnitude earthquake in Indonesia killed 3 people and injured 25. 19 hours before the lunar eclipse.
21 December 2010 - 7.4 magnitude earthquake in Japan, on eclipse day. The following day there was a 6.5 quake in Iran, killing 11 people.
Looking further back in time, the earthquake in Iran on September 16, 1978, the most devastating one of that year, that killed more that 25,000 people, occurred just 3.5 hours before a total lunar eclipse was visible there.
What about solar eclipses? Well most of them do not have an obvious earthquake connection. But for those that do, the quakes can be horrific. The pair of earthquakes with the most fatalities in the last 6 years were Haiti on January 12, 2010 and Kashmir on October 8, 2005. Both of these devastating quakes occurred within 5 days of a solar eclipse.
Many deadly quakes occur during non-eclipse periods, so how much of a window around an eclipse is meaningful? I decided to spend a few days working on the numbers to see if the perceived connection stands up to statistical analysis.
I checked every earthquake measuring 6.5+ in magnitude since 1973 (as far back as the USGS records reliably go) against every lunar and solar eclipse. For solar eclipses the odds of an earthquake were slightly higher than average, but not enough to raise alarm bells. But, as noted, there does seem to be a connection with the worst quakes of recent times.
Lunar eclipses do have an effect. These numbers are for total and partial lunar eclipses, compared to average earthquake rates, from Jan 1973 until the present:
M6.5+ … normal is an average of one every 8.4 days
Within four days of a lunar eclipse, averages one every 7.26 days
Within one day of a lunar eclipse, averages one every 5.87 days
M7.5+ … normal is an average of one every 73.8 days
Within twenty days of a lunar eclipse, averages one every 51.6 days
Within four days of a lunar eclipse, averages one every 41.25 days
Within one day of a lunar eclipse, averages one every 33 days*
As an example, since Jan 1973 there have been 88 lunar eclipses, and within one day of those eclipses there have been 45 earthquakes of a magnitude of 6.5+. So there's roughly a 50/50 chance of such a 6.5+ quake occurring in that time frame, whereas it's only about a third outside of non-eclipse periods.
Of course these numbers do not mean that there will definitely be an earthquake every time there is a lunar eclipse. But it does mean that a large magnitude earthquake is roughly 50% more likely to occur, and a M7.5+ perhaps more than twice as likely to occur within one day. Therefore the gravitational tug-of-war, with the Sun pulling us from one direction, and the moon from the diametrically opposite direction, was a factor. If the constantly moving magnetic fields were also a factor, and could be used to predict a mega-quake in 2012, then far longer time-frames would need to be looked at, which we don’t have. But an advanced ancient culture could conceivably have had such data, if they only counted the very largest quakes, but over millennia.
The next lunar eclipses will be updated here with relevant data:
June 15, 2011 (7.2 quake in Alaska 9 days later)
December 10, 2011 (6.5 quake in Mexico 1 day later, 7.1 quake in PNG 4 days later)
June 4, 2012
November 28, 2012
Book-ending the June 15 eclipse are solar eclipses on June 1 and July 1, 2011. If this cluster of eclipses cause major earthquakes, I would become concerned that November 28 2012, or thereabouts, could bring forth a megaquake.
COMPLETE DATA NOW AVAILABLE TO VIEW https://docs.google.com/spreadsheet/ccc?key=0Avj6d6nLwrEbdEY4SU1Gb2hpUmNBTXphLVU1cDNQYUE - data has been updated on Jun3 3 2012
Oh, and by the way, while no Mayan writings remain to tell us what they believed would occur in 2012, what would destroy humankind at the end of the current Sun/Age... we do know what the Aztecs believed:
Nahui-Ollin (Earthquake Sun) - We are the inhabitants of this world. This world will be destroyed by earthquakes (or one large earthquake).
*With five 7.5M+ quakes occurring within a day of a lunar eclipse, we would need more data, from a longer time period, for this to be statistically significant.