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Surprising Science

Deadly Earthquakes and Tsunamis

It is likely that, within our lifetime, we will see a big earthquake ravage a populated area, such as northern Los Angeles, San Francisco, Tokyo, or Istanbul, to name a few major cities. These are earthquakes waiting to happen. It is inevitable that we will see a big one in the United States. It’s not a matter of if; it’s a matter of when. But it’s black magic to predict precisely when such an event will happen, as earthquake prediction is still an infant science.

How powerful was the Chilean earthquake? It packed 500 to 700 more energy than the Haitian earthquake. When you go from a 7 to 8 on the Richter scale for earthquakes, the energy goes up by 32 times. So, going from 7.0 to 8.8, you find an increase in energy of about 500 to 700 times!

Why were so many more people killed in Haiti? Many reasons. First, earthquakes do not kill people; buildings and structures kill people. Chile has a long history of monster earthquakes – the 1960 earthquake was the largest recorded in modern history and hence a longer history of enforcing building codes. The last major Haitian earthquake was two centuries ago, so building codes were routinely ignored. Second, there are other factors (proximity, population density, warning time, etc.)

Are we seeing more earthquakes? Not really. Okinawa registered a 7.0 earthquake, comparable to the Haitian earthquake, just before the Chilean earthquake, but got no coverage. The point is that the media only focuses on earthquakes which hurt and kill people, not the ones which pack the most energy.In 1811 and again in 1812, a huge earthquake hit the Tennessee-Kentucky area when the New Madrid fault gave way. It was so huge that the Mississippi River even ran backwards. Back then, population densities were very low, and national media did not exist, so most people have never heard of it.If it happened today, the damage could be incalculable.

In 1964, the Great Alaskan Earthquake hit the US with a magnitude of 9.2, making it the second largest earthquake ever recorded. But again, population was low and the media did not carry the story. The San Andreas fault, running 800 miles through California, is unstable. It last erupted in 1857 and again in 1906. My grandfather was in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. According to the US Geological Survey, there is a 62% chance of a big 7.0 earthquake hitting San Francisco in the next 30 years. A 7.0 earthquake would kill 7,000 to 18,000 people in Los Angeles, according to the USGS. Property damage could run upwards of $250 billion, depending on precisely where the earthquake hit. If the 1906 earthquake were to re-strike the San Francisco area, it would kill an estimated 5,800 people.

Because of budget cuts, California is vulnerable, despite spending on reinforcing its infrastructure. According to the USGS, a big earthquake would destroy all freeways in the San Francisco or Los Angeles area. Also, the Port of Los Angeles would be closed, causing an estimated $36 billion dollars damage to the economy. In 2002, a study found that 2100 out of 9600 schools were not guaranteed to hold up in case of an earthquake, according to the state’s architect’s office.

What causes a tsunami? A violent sinking of the earth’s crust along a fracture under the ocean causes massive water waves. These waves can travel hundreds of miles per hour, like a jet liner. The waves themselves are only a few inches tall, but very, very deep. So an ocean liner may not even know that it was hit by this wave.

Why are tsunami waves so tall when they hit land and kill potentially hundreds of thousands? When a wave hits land, the wave grows drastically in height, from a few inches to many, many feet. This is because when the wave hits a beach, the bottom of the wave slows down faster than the top of the wave. The excess energy spills over into increasing the height of the wave.

How is the US affected? Hawaii has to worry about tsunamis that originate from Alaska, South America, etc. that travel across the Pacific. Hilo has suffered great damage in the past from such earthquakes. Also, off the coast of Seattle, there is a huge fault line which can not only destroy much of the American Northwest, but also trigger monster tsunamis which can kill people in Japan, as happened centuries ago.

What can be done? More buoys can be placed in the oceans to monitor tsunamis and early warning systems can be increased. More warnings from satellites and telecommunications are necessary. More bluntly, more nations have to reinforce their building codes because the world’s population has exploded in the past 50 years, the danger is quite severe in many countries.

In closing – There is nothing unusual happening with the earth’s interior, so it is an illusion that some new force is suddenly creating these huge earthquakes. There has been a slight uptick in earthquake activity in the last 15 years, but is minor. I guess we can only hope that humanity doesn’t have to experience another one anytime soon…


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