Tuesday, February 21, 2012

I Want to Get Quaked

Did you feel the earthquake today? If you live in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, or Wisconsin, were awake at 4:58 AM EST (3:58AM Central), and were standing entirely still without any audible background noise, you probably did.

A magnitude 4.0 earthquake occurred at the New Madrid Fault between St. Louis, Missouri and Memphis, Tennessee at that moment. Yes, a 4 on the Richter scale isn't particularly impressive, but this earthquake was relatively shallow—3.1 miles deep, specifically. That's probably the only reason it was felt in 13 states.

By comparison, the 2010 Haiti earthquake that killed 316,000 people had an epicenter 8.1 miles deep and was a 7.0 on the Richter scale. A mere 3 miles deep is shallow enough for even the weakest earthquake to be noticeable.

I didn't feel it because eastern U.S. earthquakes are apparently nocturnal by nature and I slept right through it. Of course, being 350 miles from the origin of the quake, it probably supplied less of a boom than the thunderstorms I regularly sleep through. And even if I had felt it, I probably would have assumed it was some early morning activity at the loading dock to the flooring warehouse in my backyard.

Location of this morning's earthquake on the New Madrid Fault

There's almost no way to tell when an earthquake is about to strike, so it's pretty much impossible to listen for it. For people like myself who have always lived far from an active fault, we'd probably never know it was happening. Seismologists can look for foreshocks, but the problem with foreshocks is that they're only classified as such after a more powerful quake happens shortly afterward. With that logic, a 7.0 quake that crumbled thousands of homes could just be a foreshock to an 8.3 that happens just days later.

Further complicating the matter is that earthquakes are happening constantly. In fact, in the 24 hours before today's New Madrid Fault quake happened, there were 25 earthquakes worldwide, 18 of which were more powerful than 4.0. Many of these numerous daily quakes happen in the Pacific Ocean or elsewhere on the Ring of Fire, and most of them at a depth of more than 10 miles. I guess if you lived in the Ring of Fire you could predict that an earthquake would happen any day with relative certainty, but it would still be impossible to pinpoint a small window of time to expect it.

I missed my last chance to feel an earthquake in Georgia when I slept through a shallow one on April 29, 2003. It was a significantly stronger 4.9, and a mere 72 miles away, but it also happened just before 5 AM.

A geologist friend of mine later told me about how incredibly excited he was, jumping out of bed and yelling, "I think that was an earthquake!" Many other Georgia residents were talking about it all day.

"I thought it was a bomb!"

"It knocked a picture off my wall!"

"My dog knew it was coming and pooped on the floor right before it happened!"

I don't know why all these people were up so early. I suspect some of them were trying to make me jealous. Well, it worked.

I want to feel that earthquake. I've been in several tornadoes, and while their power is nothing to scoff at, there's just something more exciting about the planet below you groaning and rearranging itself on a massive scale. Let me clarify something, though: I don't envy those in major disasters, nor do I want to be in their situation. It's just that an earthquake in Georgia is pretty much guaranteed to be nothing more dangerous than a firework being set off in the parking lot outside of your apartment window; a natural disaster worth experiencing. By comparison, a tornado can hit you in the face with a cow.

I've seen floods. I've been on the receiving end of the dying arms of a hurricane's spiral many times. I've driven through half a dozen tornadoes. I could take a vacation to see an erupting volcano as soon as I have the money. Once, just once, I want to feel an earthquake.


  1. I felt my first earthquake in August, here in NC. It was centered in Virginia. It was pretty awesome. You're missing out.

  2. Was that the freak earthquake that happened immediately after the freak hurricane? That must have been an interesting week.