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Musings on Earthquakes

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What A Mess...

Planet Earth is rather less quiet than many people would think. Even when it seems to be at its quietest, it is likely unleashing havoc (or failing that, at least mild inconvenience) somewhere else on its surface. Earthquakes are one of the ways our planet manifests its true restlessness. They can be caused by a variety of things, including volcanoes, human activity, and most commonly by movement at geologic faults in the Earth’s crust.

Roughly half a million detectable earthquakes take place every year worldwide. About one fifth of these are strong enough to be felt by people. About ninety percent take place in the geologically very active “Ring of Fire” surrounding the Pacific Ocean. The majority of really strong quakes take place in this area as well. Despite this, earthquakes may happen anywhere in the world, even in places where one wouldn’t immediately think of them occurring, like Europe or Middle America.

Most quakes are felt on the surface as a horizontal shaking. From my own experience, it is an occurrence that is comparable with sitting in a car that is being rocked and forth, laying on a mattress that one’s roommate is pushing with their foot, or suddenly and inexplicably finding oneself on a boat. This shaking isn’t violent or jerky, but a much smoother, more rolling sensation. I’ve only been aware of a few earthquakes and none of them were particularly violent, despite one of them being the recent 5.6 earthquake in central Oklahoma, which happened to be the largest in state history.

Though most quakes don’t cause much more damage than a few cracks in the ground and the odd broken plate, some can have disastrous effects. Often it isn’t only the quake itself that causes the worst of the damage or claims the most lives. If gas lines or electrical networks are compromised during a quake as they were in the 1905 San Francisco earthquake, fires can break out in the affected area. If water lines were also damaged in the quake, stopping these fires can be nearly impossible. Damage caused by earthquakes to things like nuclear reactors as in the case of the 2011 earthquake in Japan can also be potentially catastrophic and require immediate action by authorities to prevent the problem from spiraling out of control.

Earthquakes can also spark tsunamis, like the ones that followed the 2004 earthquake in the Indian Ocean and the 2011 earthquake in Japan. These tsunamis can not only kill hundreds of people quite effortlessly, but also obliterate buildings and infrastructure. They can also travel across the affected body of water, striking locations thousands of miles from the areas initially affected by them.

Earthquakes also may have foreshocks and aftershocks preceding and following them, which may or may not be of considerable strength in their own right. The aftershocks of a big quake may cause further damage and hamper search and rescue efforts or the distribution of aid to those affected by the initial quake.

All in all, the damage caused by earthquakes and their aftereffects can be staggering, with thousands of casualties and millions of dollars’ worth of damage. Even small quakes can rack up more than a few bills with broken or damaged household goods, cracked foundations in buildings, and damage to roads and infrastructure.

Despite all of this destructive potential, I’ve always found earthquakes and other violent acts of nature quite fascinating. Seeing the true power of the planet we live on is both humbling and inspiring for me. Try as we might to control our environment, all it takes is for something to give just a little in the right place for everything we’ve worked to build in that area to be annihilated in a matter of minutes. And depending on the circumstances, all we’ve built might even contribute to the death and suffering of people in that area, as in the 1905 earthquake in California. Many people might have survived both the quake and its aftermath had San Francisco’s gas mains not been built yet.

While most people might find the thought of all the damage that can be inflicted on hapless human beings within a matter of minutes or hours to be incredibly morbid and horrific, I think it’s just one more reason why we should strive to enjoy what we have while we have it. That’s not to say that the unpredictability of nature and the ability for everything we know to be turned upside down should not color our lives, but it should not fill us with fear and dread. It should be acknowledged and understood as a possibility, but living one’s life in constant terror of what may never come to pass is no way to live. One must also take into consideration that the vast majority of earthquakes are not like a violent geological temper tantrum, but more like a gentle stretch, and do not do much damage.

When the recent 5.6 quake struck Oklahoma, I was not alarmed. In fact, it took me a few seconds to figure out that I was actually experiencing an earthquake. The shaking was definite and did displace a few objects, but I was more interested by the fact that I was actually experiencing an earthquake fully conscious for the first time in my life than by how my ceiling lamp was swaying. The last time I’d been in a sizable earthquake I’d been completely asleep, and the time before that I’d been half-conscious, having been awakened by the shaking. My first immediate emotion was happiness that I would finally have a clear memory of an interesting geologic event.

My poor roommate, on the other hand, was pretty freaked out by the whole thing- in fact, it was the first time I’d ever seen her use profanity in an online chat conversation before. While I could understand feeling frightened by the planet’s display of power, nothing was broken and nobody was hurt, so panicking didn’t seem like a logical course of action to me, despite my own inexperience with earthquakes.

Terrifying as the effects of the planet’s natural processes might be, they are just that: natural processes. They are not acts of vengeance or hatred directed toward the human race. They are just part of what living on a planet with an active geology entails. Pulling one’s hair and screaming at the heavens will not alter the Earth’s course. All we can do is sit back and enjoy the ride as long as we are able to.

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About Ellen P. Petri

  • The largest known earthquake disaster was in Shaanxi, China on January 24, 1556. Nearly 830,000 people died. The San Madrid fault runs from Missouri to the Gulf. A huge earthquake hit that area in the vicinity of 1812. The earth shook for nearly 54 days with the initial shock and frequent aftershocks in many states in the USA.

  • I take Storms and other displays of natural power much the same way. My thoughts are, “it’s either going to kill me or be a hell of a show.” either way it’ll be over soon enough. 😛