How strong is an earthquake? When you stand in a hallway and the shaking begins, some people may lose their balance and fall, while others simply walk away - albeit with a very heavy Texas swagger. Or, in a different temblor, while some buildings might just suffer cracks in the plaster, others will lose their chimneys or hop off their foundations. These examples show that looking at the effects of earthquakes is certainly not an objective way to measure the strength of a temblor. But how do you go about determining the size of a quake if everything around you is shaken as badly as you are?
Seismometers are the tools of choice. They swing in their own rhythm in reaction to vibrations of the ground. And because their response to different kinds of shaking can be described exactly with mathematical formulas, the output of a seismometer is a good way to determine the strength of the shaking. But there is the crux of the matter: How does the strength of the shaking relate to the size of an earthquake? A medium sized earthquake close by can cause the gound to shake more severely than a stronger temblor farther away. Therefore, the distance between the focus of a quake and the location of the seismometer plays an important role in measuring the strength of a quake.
It was almost 75 years ago that two seismologists found a way to overcome these problems. Charles Richter and German-born Beno Gutenberg were both working at Caltech in Pasadena, and their engineers had set up a unique network of identical seismometers in Southern California. They equipped each site with a device called a Wood-Anderson Seismograph. When Richter and Gutenberg looked at one earthquake which was registered at several sites, they could see how the amplitude of a seismic wave decayed with distance from the earthquake source.
After giving their findings some thought, they came up with a simple definition: If an earthquake caused their seismographs to wiggle 1 millimeter (about 1/25th of an inch) and the temblor was 100 km (60 miles) away, then it had a strength of "three." A wiggle ten times that size was called "four," and a "five" was 100 times as strong as a "three," generating wiggles about 4 inches tall. Because Richter was inspired by the astronomers' scheme to classify the brightness of stars, he called his units magnitude, hence the phrase "magnitude on the Richter Scale." In a future blog, we will explore the limits of this logarithmic scale. (hra018)
|Tectonic setting of the earthquake that generated the devastating December 2004 tsunami. Click to view larger image. (Image courtesey of the USGS)|
It took a disaster of almost biblical proportions, but finally the Indian Ocean got its own tsunami warning system. Earlier this week, when Indonesia's President Yudhoyono pressed a button in the offices of the Meteorological and Geophysical Survey in Jakarta, he inaugurated a system which will be used to warn people in the coastal communities of Indonesia about the menacing monster waves. While for decades several such systems have existed in the Pacific (i.e in Hawaii, Alaska and Japan), there was no way to warn the people along the coast of the Indian Ocean when the biggest earthquake in forty years struck the area in December 2004. A magnitude 9.2 quake off the coast of the Indonesian island of Sumatra created the largest tsunami the world has seen in historical times. Even thousands of miles away from the epicenter, entire coastal communities were swept away by the killer wave. In the end, the death toll reached more than 230,000 and the physical damage to buildings and infrastructure could hardly be measured.
|German Indonesian Tsunami Early Warning System (Image from www.gitews.org)|
In the aftermath of the disaster, many nations generously donated aid to cover the immediate needs of the people affected by the wave. The German government, however, took a different approach. Besides the first aid, it promised the Indonesian government a complete tsunami warning system. Many experts laughed at this proposal, as German science was not known for its expertise in studying these waves. But Berlin put its researchers and engineers to work anyway. At a cost of almost 60 million dollars, a total of 125 scientists put together a complete system in less than four years: they set-up earthquake and GPS stations remote parts of Indonesia. Together with local engineers, they installed tidal gauges and ocean bouys to measure wave heights. In addition, they linked all their sensors to the data center in Jakarta and wrote the programs which calculate the run time and amplitude of a potential tsunami. Finally, they trained local scientists to operate and maintain the system.
Germans and Indonesians tested the system together in many simulated sessions, and most international experts agree that its warnings will be valid. Once it's fully funtional, the system will be upgraded to cover the whole Indian Ocean basin. See a detailed description of the system. (hra017)
Can something that happens in Bombay Beach, that tiny hamlet at one end of the San Andreas Fault (see blog Nov 4, 2008), have an impact on the bustling megacity of Los Angeles more than 150 miles away? A sandstorm, perhaps? Or a flood in the Salton Sea? Well, if you believe more than a dozen seismologists from the Southland, when certain things happen in Bombay Beach, Tinseltown and all its suburbs will be shaken up rather badly. Coordinated by Lucille Jones from the US Geological Survey's Pasadena office, these scientists have looked at the most likely scenario for a really big earthquake in Southern California. They found that the San Andreas Fault could start breaking at its southern end near Bombay Beach. So much tectonic energy is currently stored in this section of the fault that once the rupture starts it might not stop for more than 2 minutes. During that time, the rupture front of the earthquake will travel at the incredible speed of 2 miles per second, emitting seismic waves all along the way. Destructive waves in front of the rupture's head will build up like the bow wave of a boat.
When the rupture finally stops, the ground in the immediate vicinity of a 120 mile long stretch of the San Andreas Fault will have shifted by up to 44 feet. Dozens of freeways, railway lines and utility tunnels will be destroyed where they are offset. All over the Southland, the strong shaking associated with the seismic waves of this magnitude 7.8 earthquake will have done more than just rattle the 22 million people living in the region. Countless houses, overpasses and dams will have be badly damaged or destroyed. Power and water will be out for weeks. Without a doubt, this earthquake will be the deadliest and costliest natural disaster ever to hit the United States.
A scenario like this is more than just an academic exercise. The probablity that a temblor of this magnitude will happen in Southern California in the next 30 years is calculated to be almost 100 percent. And what is being done to deal with the inevitable? This Thursday at exactly 10 am PST, hundreds of government agencies, schools, private businesses, hospitals, nursing homes, and many residents will join the biggest earthquake drill this country has ever seen. While thousands of people "duck, cover and hold on" as part of "The Great Southern California ShakeOut", the state's Office of Emergency Services and other public and private entities will practice their response to a scenario based on the M 7.8 earthquake described above. The lessons learned down south will not only apply to Southern California. Although a big earthquake in the Bay Area is currently considered to be less likely than in LA (see blog Oct 10, 2008), our region will - without a doubt - someday be shaken at least as badly. While such an earthquake is inevitable, damage to you and your family is not. Learn about how to protect yourself and your home by following the tips on the ShakeOut website. (hra016)
|Mud pots like this may define the southern end of the San Andreas Fault (Photo: Horst Rademacher)|
For 800 miles - give or take a few - the San Andreas Fault runs through almost the whole length of our Golden State. On the one end, it stops at Cape Mendocino, where the Gorda Plate prohibits its extension to the north (see Seismo Blog from October 27, 2008). The other end is also exactly known: All geologic evidence for the fault trace at the surface vanishes about 2.5 miles northwest of Bombay Beach, an isolated hamlet with a population of less than 400 on the east shore of the Salton Sea in Imperial County. To the northwest of this point, the fault is not only visible on the surface, but also defined by thousands of microearthquakes at depth. Southeast of the vanishing point, however, the seismicity along the strike of the San Andreas Fault stops abruptly, only to jump several miles west to the Imperial Fault, which connects California tectonically south to the Sea of Cortez.
|The southern end of the San Andreas Fault system. MP marks the location of the mud pots in the Imperial Wildlife Area. SAF - San Andreas Fault; BSZ - Brawley Seismic Zone; IF - Imperial Fault. Map adapted from SCEC|
That at least was the generally accepted view until a few months ago, when two earth scientists from the US Geological Survey office in Pasadena published their study on a very murky subject. For several years, David Lynch and Kenneth Hudnut had endured the sizzling heat and the choking sand storms in the desolate Imperial Wildlife Area along the southeastern shore of the Salton Sea, way south of Bombay Beach. This place is probably most famous among bird watchers, who flock here when migratory waterfowl use the region as a resting place on their Pacific flyway. But the area also contains hundreds of circular holes in the ground, none of which is man made. Instead, gases from the Earth's interior, mostly carbon dioxide and water vapor, hiss from the center of the holes or bubble through pits filled with muddy ground water. Mud pots or mud volcanoes, as these features are known in geologic terms, are in fact so abundant in this out of the way place that the CO2 eminating from them was once captured industrially for the production of dry ice.
The two researchers took a detailed inventory of all mud pots in the wildlife area, recorded their gases, and observed the way they bubbled and ejected their gas-filled liquid mud. They also measured the exact location of each mud pot with a GPS receiver. When Lynch and Hudnut finally plotted all their mud pots on a map, they noticed something peculiar: Most of them lined up as straight as a ruler. Their alignment was also exactly an extension of the San Andreas Fault, whose currently known end lies almost 20 miles to the northwest of the wildlife area. It may very well be, concluded the researchers, that the most famous earthquake fault in the world ends unspectacularly in a field of bubbly mud, too weak to generate any significant temblors in that area. (hra015)
In the middle of the 18th century, Lisbon was one of the five largest cities in Europe. As a harbor town, Portugal's capital was an important hub in the trade between the Old World and its colonies. The 275,000 inhabitants of this proud and extremely wealthy city were devoutly Catholic. No wonder, that all of the 40 cathedrals and churches in town were filled to the brim on All Saints Day 1755 - 253 years ago today. During mass, exactly at 9:40am, the city was suddenly violently shaken by seismic waves generated during the biggest earthquake the European continent has seen in historic times. Thirty churches, many palaces and countless houses collapsed. Those people who were not killed outright or trapped in the rubble, ran down to the quays along the Tejo River - only to be swept away by one of the largest tsunamis ever generated in the Atlantic Ocean. Its 20 foot waves destroyed everything in the lower part of the city; fires consumed what was left standing on the hillsides. The casualties of this quake and its aftermaths were never counted, but at least 60,000 people lost their lives. Today we know that this quake had a magnitude of almost 9, stronger than any temblor California has experienced since Spanish settlers arrived here.
Given the strong religious beliefs of the population, it was easy for the survivors to assume God had struck the city with his wrath. Why else would a devastating earthquake occur exactly during mass time on All Saints Day? Only one explanation fit the moral compass of the time: God punished Lisbon for the sinful and immoral lifestyle of its inhabitants. That was indeed the way all natural disasters were explained two and a half centuries ago.
|Immanuel Kant's compendium on the great Lisbon earthquake.|
But the Lisbon quake was about to change that fundamentally. Voltaire, one of the most brilliant figures of the European Period of Enlightment, was shocked by so much devastation. He wrote a poem "Poème sur le désastre de Lisbonne," in which he argued that forces other than God must have been responsible for such a disaster. Within a year, Germany's foremost philosopher, Immanuel Kant, had collected all available accounts of the quake and its effects and published them, together with his comments and conclusions. In his comprehensive report, written in German, he concluded that the source of the earthquake lay in cracks and caverns in the Atlantic Ocean. This impressive scientific compendium (small picture) is considered by many the beginning of the systematic observation of natural phenomena and the start of modern seismological research. Kant was truely the first Seismo Blogger. (hra014)