Several weeks ago, over a calm, leisurely dinner with my family, I watched with increasing horror as my pre-spring break lull was broken by images of violently toppling bookshelves, swaying buildings, and homes and vehicles being swept away on TV. I was finally witnessing the nightmarish 8.9 magnitude earthquake that had occurred earlier that day on the east coast of Japan, and the even deadlier tsunami that followed. NBC nightly news anchor Brian Williams had decided to devote the entire half hour of coverage to reporting on various aspects of the quake. And so for 30 minutes, I relived the hell that consumed so many Japanese citizens as they watched their homes, belongings, and loved ones being claimed by these formidable forces of nature.
Interspersed with horrific images of the earthquake and tsunami’s inexorable paths were interviews with geologists and seismologists about the fickle nature of tectonic plates. Japan lies at the intersection of three plates, the Pacific, Eurasian, and Philippine Plates. Whenever these plates shift, and in the specific case of this quake, force one plate beneath another in what is called a subversion, massive vibration is generation on the surface of the earth, massive waves are generated at sea, creating apocalyptic tsunamis. While Japan is renowned for being one of the most prepared nations for earthquakes–their buildings have extra fortification that were largely responsible for their remarkable performance during this recent earthquake, as very few toppled in the cities–the ensuing tsunami proved more deadly as it uprooted and washed away houses, cars, and people near the shore. Moreover, the mysterious forces of nature created another troublesome physical phenomena, massive whirlpools that sucked boats and ships into the gaping jaws of its vortex.
Even as experts analyzed the details of the earthquake in Japan, many grew increasingly concerned about the safety of California, which lies along the tempestuous San Andreas fault. Seismologists predict that within the next 30 years, an earthquake of magnitude 7-8 will jar the Californians out of their current state of calm. And while Japan has an excellent system of earthquake warning communication and precaution measures, Californian state officials report themselves to be sadly under-prepared. An earthquake, should it strike, would cost billions of dollars in damage. Although California is unlikely to experience a disaster of a similar magnitude to Japan’s, the consequences would still be tremendously costly.
Fortunately for Californians, the segments of the San Andreas fault are cushioned by a so-called Hollister-Parkfield segment, filled with brittle rock that has been compared to lubricating talcum powder, producing a “steady creeping motion that acts to relieve the constant buildup of stress within the fault that otherwise could trigger a major temblor along the entire length of the fault,” according to USGS geophysicist Ross Stein.