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Rock doc: Earth’s fragile surface

By
August 29, 2011 |

E. Kirsten Peters mug

Peters

My friend Sharon Rogers lives in suburban Virginia. On Tuesday she and her husband were leaving their house to go to a late lunch when she felt something like thunder sweeping over the neighborhood.

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“I thought it was a military jet going over too low,” she told me on the telephone. “I said to myself, ‘It’s another damn general being buried in Arlington.’”

It was no jet, but a Richter 5.9 earthquake that struck near Mineral, Va.

Why, you may ask, should there have been an earthquake in what is supposed to be the seismically placid East Coast?

Allow me to answer by way of an analogy.

I think of the Earth as being like a raw egg. The core is made of distinctive stuff — the yolk of the egg corresponding to the metal-rich core of the Earth. Around the core is a squishy, liquid-like material — the white of the egg or Earth’s middle layer of material that allows the tectonic plates to move.

Then there is the dicey, topmost layer, and therein lies the trouble for us. We live on that top layer of the Earth, corresponding to the brittle eggshell. The rocks right under our feet are always under stress and, like an eggshell, sometimes they break.

Americans from North Carolina to Maine were reminded what living on an eggshell can be like on Tuesday. Thousands of office workers fled buildings in Washington, D.C. — and even more distant New York — after the Virginia earthquake rattled nerves. Most of the damage appears to have been psychological, although according to the New York Times, the National Cathedral lost some of its pinnacles due to the shaking.

Those of us on the Left Coast may sneer a bit about people thrown off their stride by a quake that didn’t even reach a Richter magnitude of 6, but the sober truth is that all earthquakes rattle a person’s sense of what should be assured and solid. In addition, Virginia’s quake was shallow, making it much more noticeable than earthquakes under places like western South America — where the active part of the temblors can be 30 times deeper.

It’s high time we Americans wake up to the fact that large quakes are assured to be part of our future. We geologists firmly predict major quakes not just along the West Coast, but also all across southern Alaska. And there are staggering seismic risks in the central part of the country, namely everywhere near where Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky and Tennessee come together on the map. South Carolina is another hot-spot of risk. Earthquakes have been felt in most of our 50 states, very much including quakes large enough to do real damage.

This past spring’s mega-quake and tsunami in Japan helped the man in the street understand just how powerful seismic events can be. The video images of shaking in Tokyo offices and the breathtaking video of the tsunami sweeping ashore kept us glued to screens for a couple of days straight. But while we mourned for the thousands dead in Japan, and the thousands more displaced and traumatized by the earthquake and tsunami, we didn’t seem to fully understand we, too, are at risk for seismic destruction on an almost Biblical scale. Maybe Tuesday’s event, because it affected Washington D.C., can be a wake-up call for us all via our government.

This aging Rock Doc has written in the past about how unprepared we are as a society for the next major quake. By comparison, Japan was and is well prepared —  yet obviously it suffered terribly. There is much we can do to prepare for quakes from California to Alaska to Illinois, and from my native Washington State to South Carolina and, yes, Virginia.

If our governmental leaders learn from Tuesday’s quake, we could start down the road toward preparedness. Getting ready for earthquakes means everything from substantially tightening our building codes to having personal and family disaster plans in place before seismic emergencies strike.

Nope, it’s no fun getting ready for an earthquake. All the dimensions of preparedness take time, emotional energy, and plenty of money. But living through quakes surely ain’t no picnic, either.

Yet surviving quakes is surely preferable to perishing in them.

Dr. E. Kirsten Peters, a native of the rural Northwest, was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard. This column is a service of the College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University. Peters can be reached at epeters@wsu.edu.

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