Shakin’, Bakin’, And Earthquakin’

There was an earthquake in southern California last night.

The earthquake was a 5.1 in magnitude, causing merchandise to fall off the shelves of stores — and, no doubt, causing Californians to wonder whether it was the first little tremor in the Big One that every resident of the Golden State quietly fears may someday be coming. The precariously lodged tectonic plates of the San Andreas Fault shift, the ground moves, and as the world rumbles, for a cold split second, everyone wonders how long it will last and how bad it will be. Then it is over, and life goes on.

I’ve only felt an earthquake once, and it was small tremor that touched Columbus from a epicenter that was far away. I can’t imagine what it would be like to feel the ground slithering and grinding before my feet. It must be a strange sensation — and also one that you just come to accept as a risk of living in California or one of the other earthquake zones in the world. Some of the world’s most beautiful places pose risks of hurricanes, or mudslides, or earthquakes, or floods, or other natural disasters. If you live there, it’s part of the tradeoff.

If you go to the earthquake page of the U.S. Geological Service, you see that earthquakes and aftershocks are commonplaces in California. Each of those incidents would be deeply memorable, long-discussed events for those of us in the solid-grounded Midwest. How many of our friends in California even notice all of them?

Science Behind Bars

In Italy, failing to accurately predict an earthquake apparently is a crime.

Six scientists and a government official were convicted in an Italian court of multiple counts of manslaughter for giving a falsely reassuring statement about a possible earthquake and were sentenced to six years in prison.  The scientists were consulted after tremors were felt in L’Aquila.  At a meeting, they told officials that a major earthquake was not impossible, but it was not likely.  Unfortunately for the scientists, a few days later a massive earthquake struck, killing more than 300 people and leaving the area in ruins.  Prosecutors alleged that many of the casualties stayed in their homes due to the scientists’ advice and died when the buildings collapsed, whereas people who stayed outside survived the upheaval.

The astonishing verdict and sentence have been greeted with richly deserved outrage.  It also is an embarrassment for Italy, the home of the Renaissance and scientific pioneers like Galileo and Leonardo da Vinci.  It’s hard to imagine any modern, enlightened country concluding that scientists can be criminally punished for expressing their scientific opinion — particularly when it involves predicting something as obviously unpredictable as earthquakes.  What’s next for Italian prosecutors?  Criminal charges for inaccurate weather forecasters?

Quakin’ All Over

I was sitting at my desk this afternoon when suddenly everything started shaking.

It was a weird sensation.  I suddenly felt the building swaying, and the air pressure changed and affected my inner ears.  It felt like a wall of air was moving through the room, and I wondered if I was just imagining things.  And then, in a split-second, it was over.  We didn’t even have time to go outside.

A relatively modest  earthquake hit the east coast this afternoon, with trembling felt in Washington, D.C., New York, and Boston to the east and, at least, to Columbus to the west.  If it had occurred on the west coast, or in one of the more earthquake-prone parts of the world, it wouldn’t have been a big deal.  We aren’t used to earthquakes in the Midwest and on the east coast, however, so we get to be kind of wussy about it.  It was the first time I think I’ve ever felt an earthquake, and I can’t say I’d like to be in another one.

Horror In Honshu

The appalling devastation from the earthquake off the Japanese coast, and the resulting tsunami, is difficult to comprehend.  You look at before and after pictures, you see photographs of rescure workers crawling through enormous masses of wreckage, you read about the horror of hundreds of bodies washing ashore, and the mind just does not compute the scale of the disaster.  Boats tossed atop houses; cars massed together like toys kicked by an angry child, and entire areas wiped clean of buildings and people.  The effect is staggering.

It is interesting to me that, in the west, the focus seems to be more on the nuclear power plants rather than on the devastation to the people and the countryside.  I suppose that is because there is a certain fascination about nuclear power and its potential destructive force.  Yet the destructive force of the earthquake and tsunami has already been delivered, and it has killed thousands and ruined the lives of hundreds of thousands.  In view of that actual disaster, why should there be such interest in the potential disaster of a nuclear meltdown?

The nuclear power industry in America must be suicidal.  We had just about gotten to the point where people were ready to talk seriously about building nuclear power plants again — indeed, where nuclear power was even considered a form of “green energy.”  That time has now passed.  Now, no one is going to want to have a nuclear power plant in their backyard — even if it takes an earthquake and a tsumani to trigger a possible core meltdown scenario.  The news from Japan is just too raw, and too horrifying.