Terra infirma in California
I lived in Los Angeles for a year in the 70s, and I still have a bunch of friends and relatives there that I visit there periodically. So when I read in the NY Times about the recent spate of small quakes there, I feel a bit of reminiscent fear and trembling myself.
There's quite a lot of that going around in California. Can you blame them? If you've ever been in an earthquake (and I've been in several, fortunately relatively minor, although a couple of them didn't feel that way at the time), you may understand the feeling. People are jittery and want to know what's going to happen next.
Scientists don't lack for opinions about what's going on, but it's hard (actually, impossible) to know who's right:
Like those who visit the doctor when a familiar ailment acts up, Californians pained by earthquakes turned to seismologists on Friday for answers and a little comfort...But just as medicine can produce differing opinions, seismology is not always as precise as some might hope...Steve Walter, a seismologist, and Rufus Catchings, a research geophysicist, looked at data on one of this week's earthquakes, a 4.9-magnitude temblor on Thursday in Yucaipa, and reached opposite conclusions about what it might mean for the San Andreas fault, the most notorious and dreaded in the state.
Mr. Walter said it was a good sign that the Yucaipa quake appeared to have struck closer to another fault, the Banning, because it indicated that the San Andreas, which has been more or less locked in place since the middle of the 19th century, remained inactive. "That's good," Mr. Walter said. "It's not going to unlock gently."
But Dr. Catchings shook his head with concern as he examined a map of fault lines, suggesting that it would have been better if the Yucaipa quake had struck closer to the San Andreas and allowed it to release some stress.
"That means stress is still building, building, building and building," Dr. Catchings said. "And it's overdue for a really big one."....
Well, that's what happens when you get a second opinion; it doesn't always agree with the first. But there is agreement on one point:
The four quakes since Sunday, two off the northern coast and two in the southern desert, caused minor damage and no deaths. Scientists generally concurred that there was no relationship between those in the north and those in the south, which was one of the biggest worries.
As with so many things, people's reactions depend partly on what they're used to. Some seem blase:
Having lived in Los Angeles for more than four decades, Joe Malkin said he considered earthquakes as much a part of life as breathing. He felt the Yucaipa temblor on Thursday afternoon, but only for a couple of seconds.
"I couldn't understand what all the hullabaloo was about," said Mr. Malkin, 83, a retired computer programmer.
But those for whom a shaking earth is very much a novelty have a very different attitude:
Steve and Laura Dayan were visiting Santa Barbara this week from Chappaqua, N.Y., with their sons, Ari, 7, and Ian, 4. The family was watching a baseball game on television in a waterfront hotel when the tsunami warning flashed on the screen Tuesday night. "My mom was going berserk," Ari said. "She kept saying, 'We've got to get out of here!' "
Nothing like a berserk mom. I went through a period when my son was very small when, several years in a row, we experienced a noticeable earthquake within twelve hours of our arrival in LA. The first time it happened, he was sleeping on a pullout couch in his grandparents' house. There were shelves all around the room above the bed, laden with heavy books and even a life-sized plaster head of some sort, as well as a very large wall clock. When the quake began, at least half of these items tumbled down onto the bed, very fortunately missing my son's tiny two-year old frame. Carefully hiding my considerable berserkness, I took every one of the remaining objects off those shelves, immediately.
The next year, we had arrived late the night before and he was in a small bed in the same room in which I was sleeping. The temblor hit at about 5 AM. I sprang out of bed and a sharp jolt threw me off balance, almost to the floor, so that I couldn't seem to cross the room to get to my son. I still remember seeing his startled face, so near and yet so impossibly far, and the wordless, animal fear I felt as the quake went on and on, seeming to stop and then start again, even more violently, about twenty seconds of motion before it stopped for good.
Twenty seconds doesn't sound like much, but it can be an exceptionally long time when you are across the room from your three-year-old son in an earthquake. It's an overwhelming feeling of shock (they don't call them "aftershocks" for nothing) and powerlessness. And, even though I knew that my visits had nothing to do with the forces by which eathquakes come to happen, the timing of it all very much spooked me.
(ADDENDUM: By the way, the ever-helpful Spellcheck wanted desperately for me to replace the word "Yucaipa" with the word "yeshiva.")