Earthquake: So, Whose Fault Is It?

Now that there’s been an earthquake on the East Coast, they’re finally news. Earthquakes, I mean. And, since most of the media are scrambling to find “experts” a hilarious laff riot of absurd, ridiculous and wrongheaded “advice” and “information” is sure to follow.

Since most media, government and population are still clustered on the Atlantic seaboard, it stands to reason.

Click for the animation of the prior week, leading to the DC quake

All right: there are no “I told you so’s” here, because I pointedly didn’t make any quake predictions*. (“Earthquake Weather in California” 11 AUG and “More Earthquake Weather” 14 AUG) :

But be warned: any large event tends to crash the server. 

will not comment, but you might want to take a look at the national map animation this week, which covers the same time span …

[* There is no faster track to lack of credibility than making earthquake predictions. It is legitimate to note increased activity; not legitimate to “predict” future when-and-wheres.]

My prediction was slightly flawed, however. The USGS server, with short exceptions, took the additional traffic of every geek who felt it — from Toronto to Michigan to Ohio to Boston and New York City all the way down to South Carolina — jumping online to find the U.S. Geological Service Earthquake Center and (formerly) crash the server. The same thing thing happened to NASA when the first Mars Rover landed several Fourth of Julys ago.

Bravo, USGS. And, take a moment to thank your Government and your Tax Dollars in action: think of the chaos, fear, panic, etc. if there were no USGS, and nobody knew for hours or days afterwards how widespread and what magnitude quake it was. (And ditto the Weather service — from which ALL weather channels and reports get their information, charts, photos, etc … for FREE.)

Alas, the stampede HAS crashed most of the raw seismograph servers (where you get images like this), so while USGS could handle the traffic, their affiliated servers couldn’t.

Canada’s servers were up, though

Another little point: earthquake magnitudes are invariably altered over the course of the following week or so, as new data comes in from world seismic sites. Sometimes magnitudes go up, and sometimes they go down, but the ballpark figure is accurate enough for private AND government work.

I did notice a profound uptick in West Coast (and, not pictured) in the Isthmus of Panama region with a series of medium-large quakes.

Now, perhaps, I understand the 3.3  magnitude Pierre, South Dakota quake on August 9th, ANOTHER quake in a place that doesn’t usually get quakes.

Click to see historical seismicity

I remember two quotes from the reporting on that one.

There, with such bucolic headlines as Cropduster Crash In South Dakota Kills Pilot, this:

Earthquake Felt In Pierre, Fort Pierre
by KDLT News
August 09, 2011 3:26 PM

Officials with the U.S. Geological Survey confirm a loud “boom” heard and felt in the capital city Tuesday afternoon was an earthquake.

USGS reports the rumble felt by residents around 2:45 p.m. was a magnitude 3.4 earthquake centered on LaFramboise Island, which sits between Pierre and Fort Pierre. Reports indicate the earthquake could be felt for several miles away in all directions.

No damage has been reported, but people in the city reported hearing multiple booms. The USGS says the last earthquake recorded in South Dakota was on Feb. 7, 2007, when a 3.1 magnitude quake hit 15 miles west-northwest of Wall.

And this one:

Pierre Mayor Laurie Gill and Fort Pierre Mayor Sam Tidball tell KCCR radio that staff in both of the neighboring cities checked the levees and other flood protection infrastructure after Tuesday’s 3.4-magnitude quake. Both mayors say no major problems were found.

Julie Dutton with the U.S. Geological Survey also tells the radio station that it’s unlikely that Missouri River flooding had anything to do with the quake.

Ah, the first error of factual reporting: the instantaneous assumption of “causes” and effects. Earthquake? Check the levees (they’re in flood conditions or were). Now: Flooding = Natural Disaster, Earthquake = Natural Disaster, therefore, FLOODING caused EARTHQUAKE.

We see this already in the reporting on the Washington D.C. and Colorado/New Mexico quake of this morning and last night, respectively.

And, in classic Obama Derangement Syndrome, some strange causal relationship has been drawn between the President’s vacation and the seismic upheaval, which classifies, alas, as fundamentally crazy. (To which ought to be added THIS gem: “Scared Monkeys: 5.8 Magnitude Earthquake Rocks Washington, DC, President Barack Obama Playing Golf at the Time …”).

Let’s go back to those “booms” and an equally sort of clueless remark made by an early reporter on the South Dakota earthquake, whom I shall not embarrass by identifying here. What was said was that “pretty much by definition you’re on a fault line if there’s a quake.”

Several witnesses who were closest TO the quake right on the river in Pierre, South Dakota, reported a giant “crack.”

NOW it’s a fault. The stresses building up from the movement of the earth’s deeper regions manifest on the tissue-thin crust as cracks … as “faults.”

the surface of the earth, Mercator projection, ocean and vegetation subtracted

That “crack” they heard was probably a huge block of the surface “bedrock” literally snapping. Because, while “rocks” are hard and dense to us, what we live on are the lightest elements of the planet. It’s the Styrofoam floating on the water, as far as the planet’s dynamics are concerned. We know that the continents have floated together and apart at least TWICE — as partially confirmed by the discovery last month that portions of Texas and Antarctica were connected BEFORE the last super-continent.

To us, it seems very thick, but even the deepest quakes, at 800 kilometers (very close to 500 miles) only represent the upper level of the mantle.  Here’s a chart from the Wikipedia entry on Earth:

Component Layer Density
0–60 Lithosphere[note 8]
0–35 Crust[note 9] 2.2–2.9
35–60 Upper mantle 3.4–4.4
  35–2890 Mantle 3.4–5.6
100–700 Asthenosphere
2890–5100 Outer core 9.9–12.2
5100–6378 Inner core 12.8–13.1

Here’s a slightly edited version of the pertinent information:

The interior of the Earth is divided into layers by their chemical or physical properties [and] has a distinct outer and inner core. The outer layer of the Earth is a chemically distinct silicate solid crust, which is underlain by a highly viscous solid mantle. The crust is separated from the mantle by the Mohorovi?i? discontinuity, and the thickness of the crust varies: averaging 6 km under the oceans and 30–50 km on the continents. The crust and the cold, rigid, top of the upper mantle are collectively known as the lithosphere, and it is of the lithosphere that the tectonic plates are comprised. Beneath the lithosphere is the asthenosphere, a relatively low-viscosity layer on which the lithosphere rides. Important changes in crystal structure within the mantle occur at 410 and 660 kilometers below the surface, spanning a transition zone that separates the upper and lower mantle. Beneath the mantle, an extremely low viscosity liquid outer core lies above a solid inner core.

Notice also in that chart, above, how the density increases with deeper depths. The crust (where we find our “faults) is just the Styrofoam riding on top of this bucket of mercury.

Anyway, I thought it was interesting that this giant “boom” in the middle of downtown Pierre, South Dakota didn’t “ring” on that great drumskin of the East of the Rockies. The biggest earthquake recorded in the lower 48 states, the 1812  New Madrid earthquake, at New Madrid, Missouri,  caused church bells to ring as far away as Boston.

It was felt strongly over an area of 50,000 square miles and moderately over one MILLION square miles.

How the Eastern ‘drumskin’ spreads the effect of earthquakes

The Eastern portion of the US is one plate of rock, likened  to a “drumskin” because it transmits the seismic/acoustic waves of an earthquake over long distances.

So, the widespread reports of today’s Virginia quake are not as surprising as the quake itself. Some deep pressure was released. There will certainly be consequences.

The religious and apocalyptic will undoubtedly fasten on the damage to three towers at the National Cathedral.

Is there a link between the excited movement of the West Coast faultlines and the Virginia quake? Is there a link between the Colorado/New Mexico quake (an area that’s been active for a couple of weeks) and the Virginia quake?


But, promise, there will be those uneducated and ignorant who will openly speculate on just that.

It is a complex system, whose mechanics we are only beginning to understand, but, remember, Plate Tectonics only was generally accepted in the mid-60s and the explosion in our understanding of the earth (and her satellite and solar neighbors) has advanced our knowledge immeasurably.

Heck, if you’re a REAL earthquake geek, you can access the USGS seismogram images from all over the world (usually a 15-day cache).

But I wouldn’t suggest that you try it right now. The servers may stay down for a day or two.

But remember, it isn’t anybody’s “fault.” Those are convenient cracks in the crust that follow the movements of the mantle. And the mantle seems to be roiling this year.

“Seems to be” because science is based on observation, first.  Conclusions result from dispassionate and persistent study.

But I think that I CAN state authoritatively that President Obama’s golf or bicycling (there seems some confusion on the issue) had nothing whatsoever to do with the earthquake.

And, therefore, it clearly isn’t his fault.



A writer, published author, novelist, literary critic and political observer for a quarter of a quarter-century more than a quarter-century, Hart Williams has lived in the American West for his entire life. Having grown up in Wyoming, Kansas and New Mexico, a survivor of Texas and a veteran of Hollywood, Mr. Williams currently lives in Oregon, along with an astonishing amount of pollen. He has a lively blog His Vorpal Sword. This is cross-posted from his blog.

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About Hart Williams

Mr. Williams grew up in Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas and New Mexico. He lived in Hollywood, California for many years. He has been published in The Washington Post, The Kansas City Star, The Santa Fe Sun, The Los Angeles Free Press, Oui Magazine, New West, and many, many more. A published novelist and a filmed screenwriter, Mr. Williams eschews the decadence of Hollywood for the simple, wholesome goodness of the plain, honest people of the land. He enjoys Luis Buñuel documentaries immensely.

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5 Responses to Earthquake: So, Whose Fault Is It?

  1. I’ve always had the USGS website bookmarked my computer. It’s fascinating to check the real time maps.

  2. I’m glad their server didn’t crash when the news hit. I was on it (as you can see, within minutes) and there were a FEW slowdowns and “try laters” but for the most part, it held up — which is important in an emergency.

    The Japan quake was not at all the same story. Very tough to get through. So somebody learned something, perhaps.

  3. they must have huge servers. not many after shocks, especially compared to west coast quakes that size. interesting.

  4. Well, NASA has fought with the problem for years, so they may have advised USGS on solutions. Either way, it worked.

  5. Now the fun can be had in tracking Irene. We’re east of the path as of now, by about 30 miles I think. Of course we’re also on the coast and at the mouth of the Merrimack River. As of right now it is looking like a tropical storm for us, which be no worse than a strong nor’easter but a lot warmer!