Quaking’s in our roots
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