Humans are great at seeing patterns in things when, in fact, they don’t exist.
There are between 20 and 40 volcanoes erupting at any given day. Every now and then, volcanic eruptions make the headlines more often. All of a sudden volcanic activity is perceived to be on the up, when it’s not.
The same applies to earthquakes. A quick scan of the headlines this morning suggests that the Ring of Fire is shaking so uncontrollably that the “Big One” is imminent. Spoiler alert: The Ring of Fire isn’t what you think it is. Also, the Big One isn’t imminent, these earthquakes are unrelated, and the area is doing exactly what it’s supposed to.
Let’s tackle these in that order. First, the Ring of Fire, also named the Circum-Pacific Belt by scientific hipsters, is the seismically and volcanologically active zone, marked by multiple tectonic plate boundaries, that surrounds the massive Pacific Ocean.
These earthquakes are complicated, as are the volcanic eruptions that take place there. The tectonic plate boundaries aren’t all born equal: plenty are subduction zones, where one plate descends beneath another, which creates both explosive volcanoes at the surface and sometimes extremely powerful tremors.
Others, like the San Andreas Fault, involve plates sliding against each other in opposite directions. They all behave and move differently, which means quakes happen at varying magnitudes and at different times, all the time.
According to this useful earthquake tracker, which mines USGS data, there have been 146 earthquakes around the world in the past 24 hours with a magnitude of 1.5 or greater. Multiple occurred in California. There’s nothing weird about any of this.
Seismic events on the Ring of Fire are exactly what you should expect. Per Discover, it's a fairly colloquial descriptor anyway. It’s not really of any geological use, because what happens on one boundary or fault doesn’t affect another all the way across the truly colossal Pacific Ocean.
Dr Ken Hudnut, a California Institute of Technology geophysicist and earthquake expert, is exasperated. “Pattern, schmattern!” he exclaimed to IFLScience.
He notes that, like these tremors, stars are “pretty much randomly distributed.” Nevertheless, we make constellations out of them: entirely arbitrary connections that mean nothing at all. Although statisticians have long tried to find patterns in quake distributions, “they tell me that’s all just us humans interpreting noise. Any patterns are in people’s minds.”
Those quakes certainly aren’t harbingers of anything else – including the Big One.
The Big One generally refers to the damaging quake that will occur somewhere along the western boundary of the contiguous United States. It’ll occur thanks to the side-by-side grinding action along the San Andreas Fault network or further north within the Cascadia Subduction Zone (CSZ).
Both are genuine worries: The populations in these zones are far higher than they once were, and history tells us that quakes in these areas can be incredibly powerful and horrifically devastating. A sizable quake in these zones are essentially inevitable, but remember that no one can yet predict precisely when and where any tremors will take place.
Just like that quake swarm that took place off the coast of Oregon and California a few weeks back, these new quakes will have no effect on any predictive abilities, nor do they signal the Big One. It doesn't matter whether they are taking place on the Ring of Fire or anywhere else.
The USGS, among many other such organizations and geoscientists, continuously research these faults and tectonic boundaries precisely because of this threat. If they aren’t concerned, then you shouldn’t be either.
At the end of the day, misinformation based on false perceptions about these earthquakes doesn’t just scare the general public. It’s also a profound disservice to the scientists that spend their lives working on this problem.