Tuesday, June 21, 2005

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.")


At 9:45 AM, June 21, 2005, Blogger goesh said...

Frail were are in the throes of nature - tsunami, earthquake, hurricane, tornado, fire, flood, hail, drought, mudslides, even locusts. The wonders of our technology and the power of our self-image quickly dissipates when nature's awesome power manifests and we die like common bugs.

At 10:26 AM, June 21, 2005, Blogger Asher Abrams said...

Heh. Gotta love that spell check.

I lived in California for a number of years, and got pretty blase about quakes. But after last December's tsunami - which some seismologists say was the largest earthquake in modern history - I'm remembering to take them seriously.

Goesh left one out: volcanoes. Here in Oregon they're actually more of a factor than earthquakes. Fortunately science has a somewhat better handle on predicting volcanic eruptions than earthquakes; but some of the nightmare scenarios conjured up in the event of a really BIG eruption are enough to keep you up at night.

Well, one day at a time. What else can you do?

At 10:49 AM, June 21, 2005, Blogger Pancho said...

I went thru some rather large earthquakes when I live in Hawaii, but the rock being porous it generally was just a whole lota' shakin' goin' on without much damage.

The strangest quake I've been in was here in West Texas in about 1992. Almost a 5 point at it's place of origin in the mountains southwest of here, but strong enough to shake me awake.

At 11:54 AM, June 21, 2005, Blogger goesh said...

Indeed I did forget volcanoes and let's not forget avalanches while we are at it. Did someone mention poison ivy? Holy Toledo! what about all the killer snakes and spiders like the brown recluse whose bite can rot out harge hunks of flesh? Who could forget Jaws, eh? I'm getting morbid here. Nature is absolutely awesome. I just returned from a very short vacation in the Smoky Mountains and got to see 3 bears up close. It has been years since I have been that close to bears.

At 12:04 PM, June 21, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This reminds me of that scene in LA Story, where all the LA natives are casually talking at lunch during an earthquake while the British journallist is struggling to contain her panic.

At 12:51 PM, June 21, 2005, Blogger Alex said...

Do these two expert opinions seem equally valid to you guys? Because one of them (Walter) sounds distinctly nutty to me.

So earthquakes happen because the plates want to move but the surface is locked in place, so energy builds until it is enough to crack the surface and move all at once. (Otherwise there would just be a gentle, constant slide.) So there is always energy building, and that energy will be released sooner or later. If the energy is released in a series of small quakes, people feel a rumble but nothing bad happens. If it's released all at once, people die.

Catchings says it's bad the recent quakes weren't closer to the San Andreas because they could have "allowed it to release some stress." True enough. But Walters takes the very strange tack that it's a good thing it didn't disturb that San Andreas because "it's not going to unlock gently." Well of course it's not going to unlock gently! And the longer it goes undisturbed, the more un-gently it's going to unlock!

Everyone in California should be praying for a San Andreas quake tomorrow, because every day after tomorrow would be worse. And the best-case scenario would be a lot of little quakes, like these, on the San Andreas, gradually letting off the stress that's built up. Walter's approach seems to amount to hoping the dam breaks sometime after he's fled the state.

At 12:59 PM, June 21, 2005, Blogger Alex said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 4:23 PM, June 21, 2005, Blogger maryatexitzero said...

When I lived in California, I was plagued by tortilla chip nightmares.

In these dreams, the Northern California earth that I walked on was the consistency of Doritos, which would crumble under my feet as I tried to run to nonexistent solid ground. I'd always fall through the chips and drown in the muddy guacamole below.

At 9:09 PM, June 21, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

To alex: Yes, Walter doesn't seem to make sense, now that you mention it. One possibility, though, is that perhaps there hasn't been a whole lot of action on the San Andreas in enough time that they are assuming there has already been built up so much pent-up force that any action there would be likely to be big, not small. So they are hoping it just stays quiet, hopefully forever (not very realistic, I guess).

Or maybe they just haven't a clue how it all works--

At 10:19 PM, June 21, 2005, Blogger Alex said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 10:22 PM, June 21, 2005, Blogger Alex said...

Two points:

1. It is indeed true that the San Andreas has been quiet a long time, and that whatever movement happens next is likely to be big. However, the longer it goes the bigger it will be. So we should still hope for a sooner earthquake rather than a later more powerful one, even if such an earthquake now would take lives.

2. We know we just had some small earthquakes. It would be wonderful to then find out, ex post facto, that they were on the San Andreas! This would mean the San Andreas had released pressure without a catastrophe. Yet Walter, knowing they were small earthquakes, was still relieved to find they happened elsewhere. Crazy.

This is all hair-splitting, I know, but I'm a little shocked by how strange this guy Walter is when you really look at what he's saying.

BTW, you wrote, "I feel a bit of reminiscent fear and trembling myself."


ps. having some trouble with double-posting. sorry.

At 10:38 PM, June 21, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, indeed, that was a conscious reference to Kierkegaard.

I totally agree about Walter's POV.

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