Of Particular Significance

Is Someone Making Artificial Earthquakes under La Palma?

POSTED BY Matt Strassler

POSTED BY Matt Strassler

ON 10/26/2021

There’s a plot afoot. It’s a plot that involves a grid of earthquake locations, under the island of La Palma.

Conspiracy theory would be hysterically funny if it weren’t so widespread and so incredibly dangerous. Today it threatens democracy, human health, and world peace, among many other things. In the internet age, scientists and rational bloggers will have no choice but to take up arms against it on a regular basis.

The latest conspiracy theory involves the ongoing eruption of the Cumbre Vieja volcanic system on the island of La Palma. This eruption, unlike the recent one in Iceland, is no fun and no joke; it is occurring above a populated area. Over the past month, thousands of homes have been destroyed by incessant lava flows, and many more are threatened. The only good news is that, because the eruption is relatively predictable and not overly explosive, no one has yet been injured.

The source of the latest conspiracy theory is a graph of earthquakes associated with the eruption. You can check this yourself by going to www.emsc-csem.org and zooming in on the island of La Palma. You’ll see something like the plot below, which claims to show earthquake locations. You can see something is strange about it: the earthquakes are shown as occurring on a grid.

Earthquakes occurring under the island of La Palma, as plotted by the emsc website.

Clearly there’s something profoundly unnatural about this. That is exactly what thousands and thousands of people are concluding around the world. They are absolutely correct. There’s no way this could be natural.

When faced with something unnatural like this, there are two possible conclusions that a human can draw.

  1. The earthquakes are natural, but their positions appear on a grid because of something unnatural about the way the data is plotted.
  2. The data is plotted correctly, and the earthquakes really are happening on a grid — which suggests that the earthquakes can’t be made by nature, and must be human-made.

Now, when faced with these two options, what does a reasonable person guess is more likely? Option 2 requires a spectacular technology that can set off huge explosions five to twenty miles (10-30 km) underground without anyone noticing, by a group of people who are evil enough to want to set off earthquakes miles underground and clever enough to keep their super-high-tech methods secret, but dumb enough to set off the earthquakes in a grid so that a simple look at the earthquake’s locations by non-experts perusing the internet reveals their dastardly plot. Option 1 requires a tiny amount of human error or computer error.

No research is needed to conclude Option 1 is more plausible, but five minutes’ research confirms it’s true. First, other websites plotting the same earthquakes do not show the grid pattern. Second, as this video pointed out and as you yourself can check, the same website, plotting earthquakes in other locations such as Hawaii, again shows the grid pattern — so it’s a fact of the emsc website, not of the La Palma earthquakes. Third, as pointed out by the excellent Volcano Discovery website, looking at the actual data that the emsc website uses, one sees that the latitude and longitude are rounded off to the nearest 1/100th, and thus north-south and east-west locations on the map are rounded off to (roughly) the nearest kilometer. This “rounding off” moves each earthquake location to the nearest point on a grid. That’s the cause. No conspiracy, no magical technology, just a plotting issue. There’s nothing more here than nature doing its thing: making earthquakes, just as it does with every volcanic eruption on Earth.

This effect, where writing numbers to a particular choice of significant figures leads to a plot with a grid pattern, is well known to every scientist. Here’s an example of how it works. Below are thirty points chosen at random in a small region, shown at left. I plotted them using a wide range at the top, and then zoomed in to make the lower plot.

Left: 30 random data points. Top: the data points plotted on a wide scale. Bottom: the same data, zoomed in.

Next, the points are rounded to one significant figure after the decimal point, using the same methods we are all taught in school, and the points are replotted. Instant grid.

Left: the same data as above, rounded to one significant figure after the decimal point. Right: the plot of the rounded data; the lower plot of the previous figure is shifted into a grid pattern.

In short, we’re not looking at a plot to destroy La Palma and set off a tsunami. We’re looking at a plot of rounded-off locations. I agree that’s not nearly as exciting; but as any scientist with some experience will tell you, boring explanations are usually true and conspiracies, especially wild ones, are usually not.

What’s the point of this post? Well, aside from being a source that you can send to any friends, relatives or acquaintances who are falling for this ridiculous conspiracy theory, it’s an apolitical context in which to contemplate the real problem.

The real problem is that we face an increasing flood of half-reasoned badly-researched pseudo-science, combined with irrational knee-jerk conspiratorialism, the whole thing driven by an unholy mixture of fear, maliciousness, narcissism and greed. It’s a war between calm reason and emotional darkness, a war in which people are actually dying, and in which nations are actually at risk. At this rate, the voices of rationality may soon be drowned. So perhaps we might consider this question: how can an apolitical conspiracy such as this one be used as an example, one from which we can learn lessons that we can apply more broadly, in territory that’s much more complex and dangerous?

p.s., predictably, someone questioned whether the statement about Hawaiian earthquakes on the emsc website appearing on a grid was true. Well, here’s the plot below — the earthquakes aren’t so many, so the grid isn’t full, but you can see every plotted earthquake lies on a grid point. And the same is true for earthquakes on the island of Crete, as shown in the second plot. All of it data that has been rounded off to the nearest 1/100th of latitude and longitude.

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37 Responses

  1. Sorry Matt- could have told you that would happen. The problem is that people believe these theories.
    Do you believe the Standard Model?
    Or is it merely the model which best fits the observations made, to date?
    Are you ready to reevaluate that ASSESSMENT immediately in the face of new evidence?
    Yeah, that’s what I thought.

  2. Generalization here is utter nonsense. Science, in common form, does not work on conspiracies. That’s because of the fundamental assumption that nature harbors no malice toward researchers. Full stop. Math still works, but it’s hard. Example: Trump-Russia conspiracy. There were so many reports that people assumed that when there is smoke, there is fire. Alas, now it comes out that the smoke was the courtesy of Hillary’s campaign. Wrong conclusion came due to erroneous assumption of absence of adversary action and assumption (trust!) of neutrality of reporters and certain FBI personnel.

  3. Since conspiracy theories are constructed to be the least likely explanation, by construction an untestable putative mechanism, it looks weird for everyone else..

    Thanks for writing on this important topic!

  4. Dude literally disagreed with you, and your reply was, ‘so you agree with me.’

    Get your head out of your ass. This is unnatural and you’re a government shill trying to expose conspiracies. You can’t even decipher a human response let alone plotting points on a grid.

  5. While this article does provide a convincing explanation, it doesn’t address a couple of issues.
    1) if you have accurate coordinates, rounding them to 1km is just frikkin’ stupid. Trust the science… I can’t when scientists are this dumb.
    2) If someone very evil actually wanted to artificially create earthquakes to destroy the island and create a tsunami heading for the USA, what better way to do it than place the quake charges directly on the grid locations shown on the earthquake map so as to mask what they’re doing.
    Its the perfect cover.

    1. The counter to your points though is that firstly, this is one website out of dozens doing this. It’s not ‘the science’ and ‘scientists’ that are being this stupid but one bunch of guys behind a website. That’s why this pattern doesn’t show up on other sites. There’s dumb people in and outside science and you have look at the balance of a viewpoint to judge.

      Secondly ‘the perfect cover’ works only on this site and would stand out like a sore thumb anywhere the data isn’t immediately rounded like this.

      1. Your counter argument is that they’re are other groups saying this exact same thing under a tyrannical government.

        You can actually look at the data for each earthquake and plot the graph yourself. Nowhere in the world does it make this grid other than La Palma.

        You’re the type to have obvious information in front of you but listen to a fact check that has loopholes. This is really a clown world.

  6. I guess conspiracy theories are a natural consequence of the human tendency to see agency in random or non-understood events.

    I tend to believe the one about OJ Simpson being framed by police in his famous murder case. That is, I think he did it, but also some of the police, probably independently, planted false evidence–if what I have read is true, e.g., that a full tube of his blood sample was taken to the crime scene instead of straight to the forensics lab, and was only half full when turned in.

    Reliable lie-detectors, maybe based on MRI technology, would resolve a lot of conspiracy claims, but could also be used by dictators to test loyalties.

    Anyway, thanks for an interesting post.

  7. Aah. I hadn’t heard of this particular conspiracy. As if the world didn’t have enough already. I should craft a theory on how all these theories are actually false flags to distract us all from the REAL conspiracy, the wave of tiger attacks across the country.

  8. I wish at least scientists would stop talking about baseless beliefs as “theories”. Call them “conspiracy myths” when groups of people honestly believe in nonexistent conspiracies. Call them “conspiracy lies” when somebody is spreading lies for political gain.

    I suppose those who believe in some conspiracy myth probably believe that they have a well-reasoned explanation of how their beliefs fit together, in which case it makes sense for them to call that a theory. When we talk about how their beliefs are provably false and their reasoning is illogical, then we should call their myth a myth, not a theory.

  9. Heard it had been announced the La Palma eruptions should end by December. That would be news to the Atlantic ridge which has been undergoing a constant eruption for approx. 180,000,000 years. Nothing in human history or experience prepares us for an eruption lasting a million years, such as the fissure which produced the Siberian Traps. Perhaps we need a reminder that we live on a fiery ball of melted rock and metal nestled upon a crust proportionally thinner than the skin of an apple. Life has always been a precarious balancing act with just a few thousand meters of breathable atmosphere above and below sea level. We’ll see if the eruption stops. If not, eventually it’ll cause a cooler climate but not before mass migrations to Asia where air is still somewhat available. Best plan is: try not to think about it too much and observe.

    1. /Perhaps we need a reminder that we live on a fiery ball of melted rock and metal nestled upon a crust proportionally thinner than the skin of an apple. Life has always been a precarious balancing act with just a few thousand meters of breathable atmosphere above and below sea level./
      Unnaturalness (metastable) by Natural selection, spoiled by UnNatural selection towards Naturalness (slightly towards stable)?

    2. I have heard announcements like that before, and they mystify me; it seems to be politicians and journalists completely misunderstanding what scientists are telling them. The only *facts* here is that the longest known eruption of this volcano, in the six hundred years of records, lasted 84 days, and that the average of their durations was 55 days. You might then infer, if you’re a scientist, that there’s a reasonable probability that the current one will also be over within 84 days — by December. But still, there’s also some probability that it will last much longer, and no one knows the probability for that — nor does anyone know what’s going on deep within the earth, where the magma is originating. So you can’t say “it will be over by December”, only that “we can reasonably hope it will be over by December.” This is the most voluminous eruption the island has seen in many centuries, and for all we know it will last for years (but it probably won’t, and let’s hope not.)

  10. Really, I don’t see a problem on debunking such CT’s. ‘Mother Nature’ often proceeds in patterns and even close to symmetrical ones too. Indeed we depend on it for many things not least for growing crops etc. It might be different if there were sightings of some unnatural ‘activity’ beforehand at the locations but I don’t think that is the case here.Seismology is still relatively new science especially now where satellite data is just beginning to be linked with ground stations. Maybe in the next few years we’ll find ‘patterns’ too.

  11. “Conspiracy theory would be hysterically funny if it weren’t so widespread and so incredibly dangerous. Today it threatens democracy, human health, and world peace, among many other things.”

    Fear of conspiracy theories seems to have much in common with conspiracy theories…

      1. There have certainly been cases where conspiracy theories were used as propaganda by groups bent on genocide – though I doubt they themselves were the major drivers of any genocide. It nevertheless seems quite a stretch to fear them as a major threat to humanity. People amuse themselves with such things, but they do what they were going to do anyway. An anti-vaxxer may talk about Bill Gates putting chips in the vaccine – but if you prove to his satisfaction that no such chips exist… guess what, he’s still not getting the vaccine anyway!

        1. The doubt that conspiracy theories were the major drivers of genocide is one worthy of discussion, but perhaps beyond what we can reasonably hash out here. Certainly pogroms and lynchings and witch-burnings were sometimes driven by false conspiracy theories. It is often true that effects have multiple causes; for instance, there might be a well thought-out plan to eliminate an ethnic or political enemy, and as part of that plan, a conspiracy theory is hatched and spread in order to create an army/mob of people willing to carry out murder. You need both the plan and the mob, so they’re both major drivers. [The massacre in Rwanda might fit that bill: you might consider it a conspiracy to hatch a conspiracy theory.]

          What I see in the modern era is the new and powerful means by which false conspiracy theories can be spread, and it’s clear that (for instance) these have very successfully blocked vaccination drives, despite overwhelming scientific evidence of the vaccines’ safety and efficacy, with the result that many people have died and been permanently damaged by largely preventable diseases. So l disagree that fear of conspiracy theories is itself like a conspiracy theory. It is based purely on public evidence, observing the role of conspiracy theories in public decision making, and not on a idea that someone, somewhere, is hiding something (which is the essence of a conspiracy theory.)

          That said, how much concern one should have, in one’s interpretation of that evidence, is open to debate, and I’ll grant you that I might be overly concerned. Or maybe you are too unconcerned. On this point, the only evidence will be retrospective.

  12. Matt, it is always a pleasure to read you, thank you.

    In 2013, I retired and when back to physics and mathematics as a hobby. I have read your whole website. As a self learner, I reviewed Lagrangian mechanics (Goldstein) and quantum mechanics (both books of Cohen-Tannoudji), and more. I want to step into QFT, the best introduction I found so far seems to be Zee (QFT in a Nutshell), but Ido not have the solutions to problems. Please do me a favour, could you recommend a book and exercises with solutions. Thank you.


    1. Hi Claude, as an intermediate step to QFT I would suggest you look at Sakurai’s two books. Then you might try my colleague Matthew Schwartz’s book on QFT, which is more up to date than the classic by Peskin and Schroeder. QFT is huge, much much harder than QM, and so there’s no perfect book; really you will want to read multiple books, as I found I had to when teaching the subject. As for solutions, I believe you will find solutions to many advanced problems in many books by looking around on-line… indeed it’s almost too easy to find solutions now.

  13. Hello. Saying all conspiracy theories are dangerous is, itself, a conspiracy theory. Thank you

    On Tue, Oct 26, 2021 at 6:59 AM Of Particular Significance wrote:

    > Matt Strassler posted: ” There’s a plot afoot. It’s a plot that involves a > grid of earthquake locations, under the island of La Palma. Conspiracy > theory would be hysterically funny if it weren’t so widespread and so > incredibly dangerous. Today it threatens democracy, human h” >

    1. That sounds cool, but it doesn’t make sense. A conspiracy theory involves believing someone is doing something in secret; but I’m not suggesting that all conspiracy theorists are making theories in secret.

      That said, I am not implying that all conspiracy theories are false: conspiracies do occasionally happen, and, very rarely, they even succeed. But most of the conspiracy theories bandied around today (and in the past) involve implausible numbers of participants, magical technology, elaborate means of secrecy, and motivations that make no sense at all. If we could stop wasting time on conspiracy theories that are obviously false, maybe we could do something about the real ones. (A very fine way to conceal a conspiracy is to spread rumors about lots of other ones, distracting those who might otherwise be able to track down the one that’s actually underway.)

      1. It actually does make sense. You saying that all conspiracies are dangerous and threaten democracy is not only quotes from major news stations, but you’re telling people not to look at conspiracies.

        Telling people to not look at conspiracies is a conspiracy to hide the truth.

        You have all the names of a shill

  14. The Canary Islands are volcanic. Teide on Tenerife is a live volcano. Scrape aside a thin layer of ash in its crater and it is literally red hot underneath. Lanzarote has a big dried lava field from a “recent” eruption.

  15. I find it very likely that coordinates are often rounded and earthquakes are probably purely natural so far. But like all sensible people who haven’t had their heads in the sand in the recent years, and especially the recent 1 year,. I am much more terrified by the conspiracy facts – the “conspiracy theories” that were proven to be true (like the lab origin of coronaviruses funded by the US, or multi-year lockdowns and Nazi-style segregation) – than the alleged excess of “conspiratorial thinking”. And I think that this text of yours is just a hardcore denialism of these terrifying conspiracy facts. You are trying to mock the horrifying events and to find some gullible readers and tell them “there is nothing to be seen here”.

    1. I went to the EMSC website last Sunday night and saw this grid pattern, then checked close up on other areas with significant activity and I did not see a pattern, they were all random, contrary to the author’s comment. I then checked my earthquake app and it also showed this grid pattern. Within a couple of hours the EMSC website had changed to a random pattern but my earthquake app still shows the grid pattern today, Tuesday. I just checked the EMSC website again and it now shows a partially random pattern of considerably less earthquakes but I can see 5 of them line up with the original grid pattern. Very suspicious indeed.

      1. Cathi, I have just updated the website to show activity in Hawaii *and* activity in Greece. You only see patterns where there have been enough earthquakes in the last 48 hours, because a grid with just one or two points on it doesn’t look like a grid, and if you only can see the grid at high magnification, as when you look closely at La Palma. If you look at the two pictures added to the post, you will see a grid on Hawaii near that Kilauea volcano, and another from a swarm of earthquakes on the island of Crete, where the earthquakes show up on a vertical line and a horizontal line. Keep watching for other swarms of earthquakes, which happen a few times a week around the globe; the emsc website will always show a grid (unless they learn from this mistake and start plotting the earthquakes properly!)

        1. This makes zero sense. You’re saying it takes enough earthquakes to show a grid, yet there are places on earth with just as many earthquakes that don’t show a grid pattern. None. Only La Palma. La Palma has 20-30 earthquakes that show no randomness. Why would they round a plot for one area and none of the others. Keep your head in the dirt bud, it’s working for you. You’re on the wrong side of humanity shilling the way you are.

          1. Maybe you can’t read a plot, but other readers can.

            By the way, how is your incessant abusive trolling here helping anyone else take your ideas seriously? More tragedy is that instead of heeding the observation that conspiracy theory “threatens democracy, human health, and world peace” – have actually killed people, see the pandemic vaccination problems for instance – you think criticizing the phenomena is somehow ‘wrong’.

    2. What “lab origin” is fact!?

      Are you by any chance referring to the US limited idea that SARS-Cov2 which by evolutionary analysis is a natural and decades old split from similar bat strains is not evolved?

      I think – I may be wrong – there has been two attempts to test that idea so far, and bot has failed to show conclusive evidence for a lab origin.

      You also Godwinned your analysis. So – having no other argument left – there is literary nothing to be seen here.

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