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6 january 2017

After I entered the smartphone era a couple of years ago, one of the first apps I got was an earthquake map. There are several good apps that take public seismic data and translate it graphically into a continuously-developing picture of the earth's surface in action. Around the time I got the app, a string of small earthquakes, probably attributable to fracking for natural gas, hit the Dallas/Ft. Worth region where I live. I didn't feel any of them. The app did, though, so I looked on fascinated at a phenomenon beneath my sensory threshold.

I remember being in just one earthquake, and it was nothing to write home about, even if I'd been away from home at the time. I had to look it up to make sure it happened: the 2.7-magnitude quake in Washington Township, New Jersey, on 10 December 1968 – about seven miles from where we lived. 2.7 quakes are at the low end of what people usually feel, even as close as that, but as Andrew Robinson notes in his book Earthquake, it's possible to feel weaker ones or ignore stronger; intensity is subjective and not directly related to the absolute scale of magnitude. I apparently lived through a 3.5-magnitude quake in another nearby place called Carneys Point, NJ in 1973 without any memory of it.

Basically I've just been lucky to live far from seismic zones most of my life, and to pass through the few I've visited (California, Iceland, Italy) at quiet moments. Though if a quake is strong enough, you can feel it many hundreds of miles away. In August 2011 I was on the phone to my father, who lived then in a retirement home in New Jersey. All of a sudden he said "I think I'm having a stroke." After a beat: "No, a picture just fell off the wall. That wouldn't have happened if I'd had a stroke." Another beat. "Still, I'd better go downstairs and check with the nurse to see if I had a stroke."

What knocked the picture off the wall, of course, was an earthquake many times more violent than the native Jersey variety: a quake registering 5.8, located in central Virginia, felt up and down the Eastern seaboard. The epicenter was remote; nobody was seriously hurt; and damage was in the "mere" hundreds of millions of dollars. But a force that can swat frames off the walls 200 miles away is nothing to take lightly.

Yet despite their enormity, earthquakes, Robinson argues, are culturally far less impressive than great storms, volcanoes, and other natural disasters. They're over quickly and they're spaced too far apart to make an impression on the scales of human lifetimes. "There hasn't been any earthquake," a civic booster is reported to have said not long after the 1906 quake in San Francisco (175). Absurd as that sounds, after a little patching up, it might as well be true for cultural purposes.

Earthquakes are also too random and unpredictable, too capricious. You may live your whole life in a seismically risky zone and never feel a big one. When you do, all the precautions of modern technology may prove pointless. In this they're more like tornadoes than hurricanes: in each case you know you're living in their accustomed path, but hurricanes can be managed and provided for, and their effects are relentless. Earthquakes are sharp, localized, and almost whimsical.

Robinson's primary example is the 1755 Lisbon earthquake, a memorably destructive event. Yet the city was quickly rebuilt, and the disaster oddly left more traces in cultural memory abroad (in France, Germany, and England; Robinson cites Voltaire, Kleist, and Dickens) than it did in Portugal. "There hasn't been any earthquake" seemed to be the order of the day then too: rebuild, replace, repress. Coming as it did mid-Enlightenment, the Lisbon quake constituted a break between earlier moralistic dispensations and latter-day mechanistic ones. Both moralism and mechanism can entail fatalism, but they at least put the observer in much different affective positions re: fatality.

Robinson alternates chapters between famous earthquakes and advances in earthquake science. The Lisbon event is important here too as spurring the first methodical collections of earthquake data. By the time of the horrific 1923 quake in Tokyo, seismic science was well-developed – though more in the direction of description than explanation. One of Robinson's themes is that we still have no very good explanation even of what happens in an earthquake, let alone why.

Other topics are plate tectonics, the San Andreas fault and the great California earthquakes, and urban design intended to mitigate the effects of quaking. It's a copiously illustrated volume, like all of Reaktion's series efforts. Robinson is remarkably informative and remarkably candid about the limits of his information.

Robinson, Andrew. Earthquake: Nature and Culture. London: Reaktion, 2012.