Is August Dangerous?

We can all rest a little easier now. The dog days of summer, or at least of August, are almost over.

Legend has it that this is an "evil time when the seas boil, wine turns sour, dogs grow mad, and all creatures become languid, causing burning fevers, hysterics and frenzies." Fortunately, that's just legend. Or is it?

The good folks who are behind the International Year of Planet Earth, a joint initiative by the United Nations (UNESCO) and the International Union of Geological Sciences, looked back through history to see if there really is anything particularly sinister about the month of August.

If their findings hold up to further scrutiny, we can thank our lucky stars, including Canis (as in dog) Major and Canis Minor, that we can soon kiss this month goodbye. At least for this year.

Here's part of what they found:

"Anniversaries marked this month include the eruption of Mount Vesuvius that buried Pompeii in 79 A.D., and the monstrous 1883 eruption of Krakatoa in Indonesia that affected Earth's climate for years afterwards. Most recently, on Aug. 25, 2005, Hurricane Katrina devastated the city of New Orleans and other areas along the U.S. Gulf Coast." The list goes on, but you get the picture.

Scientists are bringing all that to our attention now because of a super-sized earthquake drill called the Great Southern California Shake-Out, to be held Nov. 12-16. It is being billed as the largest earthquake drill in U.S. history, involving "tens of thousands of participants" in shaky southern California.

"We wanted to use this opportunity to talk about hazards in general," Linda Gundersen, chief scientist for geology at the U.S. Geological Survey in Renton, Va., said in a telephone interview.

She noted that August does seem to be a particularly bad month, at least for seasonal events like hurricanes, monsoons, floods and sultry days that can contribute to all sorts of mischief.

But she readily admits that generality doesn't necessarily apply to geological hazards.

"For earthquakes and volcanoes, it's really related to what the plate tectonics are doing at the time," she said. Weather, including the dog days of summer, is not thought to play much of a role in triggering earthquakes. But when such an event happens in August, it coincides with the enormous problems brought on by hurricanes and other seasonal disturbances, thus piling one disaster on top of another.

Scientists have made considerable progress in tracking major storm systems, thus giving us some warning when lightning is about to strike, but the geological sciences have had far less luck in predicting what lies immediately ahead.

"We're better at volcanoes" than earthquakes, Gundersen said. Most volcanoes are preceded by seismic activity and other clues that give scientists a basis for predicting when the mountain is most likely to blow. To do that, however, the volcano must be adequately instrumented, and that is not always the case.

But predicting earthquakes has humbled some of the best minds in the earth sciences. They have sharpened their ability to forecast the probability of an earthquake occurring within a specific region sometime in the next 20 to 30 years, but they haven't figured out yet how to tell us if it's going to be next week.

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