Historically, the right instruments have not been in place to tell what happens just before an earthquake strikes, thus revealing whatever precursors might come just ahead of the quake. One of the most disappointing experiments in recent history underlies just how difficult that is.
A few decades ago scientists discovered that one segment of California's infamous San Andreas Fault erupted at relatively precise intervals, about every 20 to 25 years. That suggested the fault should produce an earthquake of about magnitude 6 sometime in the 1980s.
Dozens of scientists rushed to the sleepy community of Parkfield, Calif., to set up their instruments in hopes of catching the earthquake in the act.
But the quake didn't come in the 1980s. Or the 1990s. When it did finally come, in 2004, those instruments provided a lot of data, but not the silver bullet that scientists had hoped to see.
"There was nothing we could tell that was predictable about the earthquake," research scientist Mike Blanpied of the geological survey said in a recorded statement. "The earth gave no indication that an earthquake was about to begin."
Scientists haven't given up, of course, but we are still a long way from predicting earthquakes, if indeed that is even possible.
One thing is reasonably certain, however. Earthquakes don't pay attention to the calendar.
So, when it comes to hazards of all sorts, is August really any worse than any other month? Well, yes and no, based on my non-scientific research. I checked the various lists of disasters in my 2005 issue of the World Almanac.
Of the 62 "noted hurricanes, typhoons, blizzards and other storms" since 1888, eight occurred in the month of August, well above the average of five for all months.
Of the 63 "notable floods, tidal waves," 12 occurred in August, way above the average of five.
But when it came to earthquakes, August was only average, with 12 out of 140.
And August was way below average for shipwrecks, tornadoes and mine disasters.
By the way, the almanac regards an event as a disaster only if the loss of human life is high. So this really isn't a scientific finding, because the largest earthquake in the world in the entire year of 2002 didn't even make the list. That 7.9 quake hit in central Alaska, in an area so sparsely populated that not a single person was seriously injured.
Fortunately, the quake struck in November. If it had hit in August, when all those motor homes are plowing along the narrow highways of Alaska, the story might have been different.
By the way, the expression "dog days of summer" has a new meaning now. It usually refers to the American stock market's slow period, when a lot of stocks become dogs.
In my business, it has an entirely different meaning. The dog days of August is a time when it seems that practically nothing is happening, so we have to dig up weird stuff to write about.