Field of Science

Earthquake - myths: The Loch Ness Monster

Earthquakes have inspired legends in the past, but can they also account for mysterious modern monster myths?

On June 28, 2001 the Italian newspaper "La Repubblica" published a summary of the hypothesis that the Italian geologist Luigi Piccardi had proposed during the Earth Systems Processes meeting in Edinburgh regarding the monster of Loch Ness.
According to Piccardi the historic description of the appearance of the monsters - with great (earth)shakes and rumours - could be associated with gas bubbles emanating from the lake bottom and the seismic activity of the Great Glen fault system.

"There are various phenomena on the surface of the water that can be related to the activity of the fault..[] If we consider the Latin that Adamnano [a biographer that reported the legend of Saint Colombian] used, the beast appears with great shakes and when it disappears shacking. I think it's an obvious description what really happened…[] We know that this was a period [the 1920-1930 were a period with many reported apparitions of Nessie] with increased activity of the fault, who thought to have seen the monster in reality has seen the effects of the shakes of earth on the water."

POSTER ABSTRACT: "A multidisciplinary study reveals close correspondences between mythological descriptions, arrangement of the cult-sites and local active faults in ancient Greece. Chthonic dragons, mostly feminine polymorph creatures, were also indicated at many of these special sacred places, and their lairs are located directly above major active faults. The veneration of these places might have been a consequence of the observation of peculiar natural phenomena, such as gas and flames emissions, underground roaring, ground shaking and ground ruptures. Maybe this coincidence is simply circumstantial in the East Mediterranean due to the abundance of myths in such a highly seismic region. However, it can likewise be observed in areas less active seismically, and with different mythologies. Scotland, for example, is famous for its modern myth of the Loch Ness monster, affectionately called Nessie. Known to derive from a primitive cult of the water-horse, sacred to the Picts, its first written mention appears in Adomnan's ‘Life of St. Columba’ (7th century AD). In the original Latin description the dragon appears "cum ingenti fremitu" (with strong shaking), and disappears "tremefacta" (shaking herself), which seems to point to a telluric nature of the monster living in the lake. In fact, Loch Ness is positioned directly over the fault zone of the most seismic sector (for example the M=5 earthquake of 18.09.1901) of the Great Glen Fault, the major active fault in Scotland. In this light, many modern eyewitness reports attributed to Nessie may find a simple natural explanation."

According to the biography of Saint Colombian (Vita Sancti Columbae) compiled by Adamnano in 690, the scene described by Piccardi happened in 565.
Trying to cross the river Ness (not the lake itself), Colombian encounters a group of locals intent to bury a men, killed, so the legend, by a terrible beast. When Colombian orders one of his fellows to recuperate a boat from the other bank of the river suddenly the beast attacks, but Colombian request the protection of God and the beast withdraws.
The original text however is very vague and gives no detailed description of the appearance; it states only that it was an "unknown beast", and it approached with the throat open and a laud roar. The mention that the beast was of unknown origin makes think that this was an unique event, and no monster tradition surrounding the lake existed. More important is the act perpetuated by Colombian and the impression left by the Saint on the pagans.
This seems to enforce the interpretation that the passage describing this encounter was never intended as a real chronicle, but as depiction of Colombian of holy man with divine assistance.

Even if this chapter reported by Adamnano is granted for real, the vague description doesn't support any proposed interpretation, nether gas bubbles emanating from the river nor a presumed lake monster. The presence of Nessie in Loch Ness can more reasonable be explained by a combination of hoaxes, misinterpretations and publicity - a long tradition of research on the lake has never delivered even a hind for the possibility of the existence of a larger animal in the Loch.

From geological viewpoint there are various problems with the idea of Piccardi. The mean magnitude of earthquakes from the surroundings of the lake lay between 3 to 4, larger events are reported from 1816, 1888, 1890 and 1901. Despite the missing correlation of the activity of the fault system and phases of sight reports (mainly during 1933), even these registered tremors in the observed decade were to weak to cause any observable effects on the lake surface.

These observations shouldn't minimize the attempt of Piccardi - the hypothesis value however lays probably more in the stimulation of the fantasy of other researchers' then verifiable cryptogeology.


PICCARDI, L. (2001): Seismotectonic Origins of the Monster of Loch Ness. Poster Session G5. Earth System Processes - Global Meeting (June 24-28, 2001)

Online Ressources:

ALDEN, A. (2010): Phenomenon at Loch Ness. (Accessed 07.11.2010)
Fig.1. Probably the most famous of all Loch Ness Monster photos. It was submitted to the Daily Mail newspaper by Dr. Kenneth Wilson in April 1934 (also known as Surgeon photo), from Wikipedia.

1 comment:

  1. Loch Ness locals have something that looked like a large, partially submerged log, but the locals themselves s have never reported a Plesiosaur type “monster” (except as part of hoax. The photos depicting the typical long-necked beasties have largely been discredited or dismissed. Desperate logic (though ludicrous) dictates an extremely rare “fresh water” subspecies of the Greenland shark. These would have had to evolve from such sharks being trapped in the loch the last time it had a deep water connection to the sea, eons ago. Silly!


Markup Key:
- <b>bold</b> = bold
- <i>italic</i> = italic
- <a href="">FoS</a> = FoS