Sunday, March 20, 2011

Earthquake Chain Reaction?

Warning: this post involves some serious rambling. I was just interested in the topic, and I've been wondering about the safety of Americans after watching the events in Japan. No better reason than that. If you're seriously adverse to hand wringing, this might not be the post for you.

In talking about this recent Japanese earthquake with friends and colleagues at work, several times the conversation has turned to the number of recent earthquakes around the world and their seriousness. In recent memory, we've had major earthquakes in Haiti, Chile, New Zealand, and now Japan.
I really know nothing about geology, but this doesn't seem good. The little bit of geology that I've been exposed to came mainly from an oceanography class at Trinity, and although I've forgotten most of the detail, I remember the whole tectonic plate thing, with its accompanying ideas of subduction zones and tectonic plate grinding and sliding under under one another. And one of the main points that I remember taking away from Dr. Kroeger's class was the idea that when tectonic plates move, pressure gets relieved in one place, but it usually (or at least often) results in the shifting of pressure to a different place. (speaking of Kroeger's views on earthquakes and tsunamis, I just came across this article where he talks about such things. Apparently he's still preaching and teaching about the dangers of earthquakes and tsunamis. In the linked article, Kroeger even says that the occurrence of a major quake along the American West Coast should be considered not in terms of "if" but "when".)
And now yesterday I was reading Newsweek and I came across this sort of troubling article by Simon Winchester called The Scariest Earthquake is Yet to Come. Winchester talks about a growing concern in the geology community that the significant earthquakes occurring around the Pacific Ring of Fire (the area of tectonic plate activity and geological activity around the Pacific rim) might be foreshadowing a major quake at California's San Andreas fault.
Now it sounds like the threat of a tsunami might be lower in California than in Japan (with the San Andreas fault line lying below dry land as opposed to under the ocean, where tremendous amounts of water can become displaced by a major quake), although apparently some geophysics researchers at UT Austin have recently begun to explain that the risk of tsunamis in places like California might be greater than originally believed.

Anyway, all of this just sort of makes me wonder whether there's any sort of planning being put in place along the American West Coast that might help people to prepare for a major quake or tsunami, or even whether such emergency preparations are really feasible in any sort of practical sense at all. It kind of amazed me that Japan suffered an 8.9 magnitude earthquake and that Tokyo suffered as little damage as it did. I know that there are building codes in California that are meant to safeguard against earthquakes, but I'm not sure how we would fair if an 8.9 hit a major population center in California.
I'm not sure what I'm saying. It just seems like people out west ought to be training or drilling or preparing or something so that we're a little more ready if one of these really big earthquakes hits.
But I'm not sure what can be done.
It just feels weird that geologists are starting to get worried about the very real possibility of an imminent quake in the U.S., but it doesn't seem like we're doing a whole lot publicly which might address that possibility event.
Maybe we're more prepared than I realize. Or maybe (and this is more frightening) we just can't do much, and the authorities just want to keep people calm and peaceful.
Anyway, Glenn Kroeger's oceanography class taught me not only about imminent earthquakes, but also about global warming and its general effects on global climate systems. That man was a prophet of doom, but a good teacher).

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