Quak­ing’s in our roots

Winnipeg Free Press - Section H - - THE WEST - By Craig Childs

IWAITED out Chile’s re­cent earth­quakes and high­way-snap­ping af­ter­shocks deep in­side the coun­try, down along the ser­rated coast of Patag­o­nia. From my re­mote reaches I didn’t feel a thing. When I left from San­ti­ago’s air­port a cou­ple of weeks ago, I saw shat­tered win­dows boarded up with ply­wood. Most of the ter­mi­nals had been moved out­side into tents on the ramp be­side one of the run­ways.

I got back to the United States just in time for the fresh quakes rip­ping up the crotch of Baja. Is it just spring­time in the Amer­i­cas, earth­quakes in bloom?

Have you been notic­ing all the earth­quakes lately? The lo­cal ones seem enough, start­ing with Haiti’s dev­as­tat­ing 7.0 in Jan­uary. Then there was that su­perla­tive 8.8 in Chile a month later, a sin­gu­lar jolt es­ti­mated to have changed the length of the day by 1.26 mi­crosec­onds, shift­ing the planet’s axis by about three inches. Now we’ve got high sixs and low sev­ens hurl­ing like a bolt of lighting up the San An­dreas fault. Even res­i­dents of Phoenix are feel­ing it, a pal­pa­ble tem­blor rolling through the city at 3:40 p.m. on April 4. When an earth­quake gets the at­ten­tion of folks in Sun City, some­thing big must be afoot.

Is it pos­si­ble that earth­quakes in one place can trig­ger oth­ers some­where else, without nec­es­sar­ily be­ing har­bin­gers of doom? Ra­mon Ar­row­smith, a ge­ol­ogy pro­fes­sor at Ari­zona State Uni­ver­sity, says, “The pas­sage of the seis­mic waves through the crust can mo­men­tar­ily load up other faults, and vol­canic sys­tems, even at large dis­tances from the event.” So, yes, chain re­ac­tions can hap­pen. One ma­jor earth­quake af­ter the next might mean noth­ing more than us notic­ing what the Earth is up to. More im­por­tant, Ar­row­smith told me, “As the hu­man pop­u­la­tion of the Earth in­creases, we move into more and more haz­ardous re­gions, and with our in­creas­ingly con­nected world, we hear about and suf­fer from the events that much more.”

But what are we also hear­ing about th­ese quakes from the usual rab­ble? Ac­tor Danny Glover joined the Gaia crowd, blam­ing Haiti’s catas­tro­phe on an­thro­pogenic cli­mate change in his now in­fa­mous state­ment: “When we see what we did at the cli­mate sum­mit in Copen­hagen, this is the re­sponse, this is what hap­pens, you know what I’m sayin’?” Glover makes it sound as if we’ve been toy­ing with Zeus — and who am I to say, maybe we are.

Mean­while, the cus­tom­ary bib­li­cal voices have come forth, quot­ing from Scrip­ture, “And there will be ... earth­quakes in var­i­ous places” (Matthew 24:7). And tel­e­van­ge­list Pat Robert­son blamed the one that dropped Port-au-Prince on a Haitian pact with the devil.

So, is it true what the man car­ry­ing the ban­ner in the street says? Is the world ac­tu­ally com­ing to an end, and are th­ese cas­cades of earth­quakes the sign? Let’s ask the record-keep­ers. The U.S. Ge­o­log­i­cal Sur­vey es­ti­mates that sev­eral mil­lion earth­quakes hap­pen around the globe each year, many un­de­tected be­cause they are ei­ther re­mote or too small to reg­is­ter. About 50 earth­quakes are recorded ev­ery day. In one year, the av­er­age is 17 ma­jor earth­quakes (7.0 to 7.9) and one doozy (8.0 or higher). Our re­cent num­bers are on par, just an­other year on Earth.

This has been go­ing on as long as any­one can re­mem­ber. The ear­li­est his­tor­i­cally recorded earth­quake in Cal­i­for­nia was in 1769, when Gas­par de Por­tola was camp­ing about 30 miles south­east of mod­ern-day Los An­ge­les. Tak­ing the date back much fur­ther, earth­quakes have been dili­gently recorded in China since the Zhou dy­nasty in 780 BC.

Even check­ing the ge­o­logic record go­ing back more than 4.3 bil­lion years, all you see are mat­ters of great ge­o­logic up­heaval com­ing one af­ter the next, from an as­ter­oid bom­bard­ment that reliq­ue­fied most of the Earth’s sur­face late in the game to the mon­strous forces that sent the Andes and Hi­malayas sky­ward, twist­ing their base­ment rock into hot, meta­mor­phic taffy.

The sur­face of the Earth is con­stantly be­ing torn asunder, huge plates grind­ing against each other, putting down trenches, throw­ing up moun­tains. What this planet does par­tic­u­larly well is keep things mov­ing, stir­ring the at­mos­phere with cli­mate change, bump­ing the sur­face into moun­tains, rip­ping con­ti­nents end from end like mold­ing clay. Noth­ing stays the way it is for long.

Are th­ese the end times? Yes. And they have been this way since the beginning. Wel­come to planet Earth, a won­der­ful but not en­tirely sta­ble place to live.

As I holed up amid the earth­quakes in Chile, camp­ing in the tow­er­ing peaks of the Ay­sen re­gion, it seemed you wouldn’t even no­tice if the world some­how ended. Cities could fall around the globe and not much would change here. Hugged up against moun­tains en­cased in ice, four days and more than 100 miles from the near­est paved road, I felt about as far away from “the world” as one could get. No shat­tered glass, no buck­led as­phalt, no build­ings top­pled over each other.

Though I never ac­tu­ally felt any of those quakes, I would of­ten wake in the night to the sound of glacial ser­acs calv­ing off the moun­tain — huge, bright faces of ice break­ing free and col­laps­ing high above me. My eyes would crack open, see­ing noth­ing but the dark of my tent as I lis­tened to per­cus­sive thun­der, tens of thou­sands of tons of ice and rock fall­ing thou­sands of feet.

I would lie in my bag re­mind­ing my­self that the moun­tains were not crum­bling. The world was not end­ing. It was only a piece of the sky fall­ing.

— Los An­ge­les Times

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