So Many Earthquakes

Dec 5, 2005 3:44pm

Monday afternoon

The U.S. Geological Survey sends out automatic emails whenever there’s a sizable earthquake anywhere on the planet.  This morning I got another:

2005/12/05 12:19 M 6.8 LAKE TANGANYIKA REGION Z= 10km 6.21S 29.60E
Translation: There’s been a big, very violent quake in Africa–6.8 on the Richter scale.  It’s near the eastern boder of Congo, in a desperately poor part of the world where communications are poor. 

So far there’s very little on-the-ground information; the most the AP can report is that the quake "toppled dozens of homes and buried children in rubble in eastern Congo, killing at least three people…."

The question came up around here as to whether something unusual was happening–has the number of earthquakes been unusually high, and are they linked?  Unfortunately, the answer is mostly no.  The USGS [http://earthquake.usgs.gov/] posts a map of earthquakes in the last seven days, and it’s always busy.

Their Earthquake Hazards Site tells you other things—for instance, that 2005 has been a bad year for earthquake deaths, but not a record-setter, even after the October disaster in Pakistan killed more than 86,000 people.  2004 was off the charts, mainly because of the Indian Ocean tsunami—284,010 killed.  Other years have sounded quieter–there were 231 deaths reported in 2000—but that has more to do with where the tremors were than how many or how strong. 

Last month a Berkeley scientist named Richard Allen made a suggestion.  We’re having lousy luck predicting earthquakes, he said, but we may be able to give people the crucial seconds they need to duck under a table, and utilities the time they need to cut off gas mains and prevent fires.  Place electronic sensors along the San Andreas fault, for instance, and they can tell you, before an earthquake has spread, how bad it is.  And the signals from the sensors will reach urban areas  before the actual vibrations do.

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If you haven’t seen it yet elsewhere, Elizabeth Vargas and Bob Woodruff have gotten the nod as the new permanent anchors of World News Tonight.  Bob’s office is down the hall from mine; I haven’t seen Elizabeth yet today.  Godspeed to them. 

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