Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Virginia Earthquake: An Unexpected Visit from Mother Nature

So, yesterday I lived through my first earthquake experience and came through it unshaken, except, of course, the actual physical shaking. After working the graveyard shift last night, I was sound asleep in bed at home about 50 miles north of the epicenter when the quake struck around 2 PM Eastern Standard Time.  
I woke up briefly puzzled that the house seemed to be swaying from side to side. I quickly decided I had emerged from some Inception style dream within a dream and rolled back over. It wasn’t until later that afternoon that I was informed by my dad that an earthquake had struck. That was an earthquake? That was real? Yes, that was an earthquake. That was real.
By now, I’m sure you know that the strongest earthquake in recorded East Coast history took place yesterday, unless you are living under a rock. Then again, if you are actually living under a rock maybe you know about it better than anyone else. The magnitude 5.9 quake had tremors that were felt from Atlanta to Detroit. The damage in casualties and property appears to be so far slight. 
There are a number of odd things about this earthquake, besides the fact that it was the first one to be ignored by me. First, is that the thought of such an event taking place here would have seen ridiculous only a day ago. While Californians live with the specter of the big one on the horizon day to day, we only think of them on the East Coast when they happen somewhere else. I distinctly remember smirking through a few earthquake drills while in school. When will I ever use this?
This wasn’t just my own na├»ve perception. This was the biggest geological event to happen in the US east of the Rockies since at least 1897. The place where it occurred was in a region that the US Geological Survey deemed a low risk for potential earthquake damage. Furthermore, earthquakes usually happen near the boundaries of tectonic plates. This is because shallow earthquakes, like the one that shook up The Old Dominion, are caused by the release of stress that build up when two plates snag as they are moving past each other. However, the epicenter of our quake sits in the middle of the North American plate and far from any coast.
I can’t help but compare “The Great Virginia Shake” to the devastating earthquake/ tsunami that rocked Japan earlier this year. You may say that this is just because it was the last significant earthquake of memory and that is why it jumps to mind. The facts say that they were two separate events that are in no way linked. Still, I see several odd parallels.
The first connection is their unexpected arrival. While Japan as a whole has a long history of earthquakes, this one still took the people and scientists alike by surprise. Said Harold Tobin, a marine geophysicist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison,” This area has a long history of earthquakes, but [the Sendai earthquake] doesn’t fit the pattern.” ( The preparation for seismic events has mostly been concentrated on other areas of the country determined to be a higher risk based on historical and geological data. The March quake in Japan unleashed an amount of energy no one previously believed was possible from that area.
 Both events were also shallow earthquakes. While most of the earthquakes in Japan are produced by the Philippine plate moving north toward the island nation, the Sendai quake was caused by the Pacific Plate slipping by two others at a junction causing faults to rupture. The Japan and Virginia earthquakes were not the result of one plate dramatically going over another, like the other variety of quakes that originate deeper in the ground, but from the unleashing of great energy built up by underground stress and tension.
The third thing they have in common is their proximity to nuclear power plants. The epicenter of the Japan quake was about seventy five miles away from the two nuclear plants that were affected. Yesterday’s temblor was just seven miles away from the North Anna nuclear plant. In 2007, another shallow crustal earthquake struck just 15 miles away from the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa Nuclear Power Plant causing minor problems.
The fact that earthquakes are popping up in places that contain our most dangerous and a volatile tool is very troubling to me. It seems almost symbolic to me that Mother Nature is appearing in dramatic fashion at places where she’s not expected and wreaking havoc on areas near where we house the technology that could most easily kill Her. Most people would tell me this is only a coincidence.
I do not believe in coincidences. The word for ‘coincidence,’ as my master, Gordon has told me numerous times, when you break down the word just means two incidences happening together. There is nothing random or meaningless about this. Every encounter you have during the course of your day, even if it is just with an insect, is the product of thousands upon thousands of decisions and results that eventually led to the two of you being in the same spot at the same time despite the mind-numbingly low probability of such a chance meeting. It is only a coincidence if you can’t find the common root.
But what could that common root be? I don’t know. Maybe in places where an unnatural amount of energy is being produced in an unnatural way, it is felt in the Earth’s sensitivity and this can cause it to release a pulse of energy to restore balance and drain off excess. Maybe these shallow quakes are happening in the places where we cause our planet the most discomfort and the quakes are the equivalent of Mother Nature trying to flick a mosquito off Her arm. Maybe the production of nuclear power causes rifts in dimensions we are unable to see or detect and the quakes are due to instability in the Earth’s core and magnetic field caused by such dimensional tampering. I don’t know what the connection might be, but I believe there is one, however small, subtle and seemingly insignificant it might be.
Even if my ideas are paranoid, insane, conspiracy fantasies, there is a very real future danger in the event of a natural disaster crossing the path of a nuclear power plant. Nuclear energy is electricity that depends on electricity. What caused all the problems in Japan was not direct damage from the earthquake or tsunami, but the power failing. Without power, nuclear plants lose the cooling systems that remove the intense heat from the fission and decay. Take away the cooling and the reactor will melt down. With a meltdown you can expect radiation poisoning, birth defects, sky high cancer rates, and undrinkable water in the surrounding area. Imagine this happening in every nuclear plant in the country simultaneously. There are 138 of them in the USA.
Does it seem like a good idea to rely on this type of power in the coming future? If we ever have any kind of lasting country-wide blackout, meltdowns across the country will be delayed only as long as the back-up diesel generators can keep their cooling system powered. Such a power loss seems unlikely, but a sufficiently large solar flare pointed directly at us could wipe out the infrastructure of our electric grid. Looking at the long-term, every country and king eventually falls by the wayside of history and we can’t expect electric service to continue indefinitely, forever.
 If (when) our civilization fails, the whole planet will be poisoned. If on the other hand, people had their own solar panels or wind turbines, independent power, they will be able to have electricity and continue on with their lives even if all the major cities go dark. But by continuing on with nuclear energy, and fossil fuels as well to a lesser point, when we go, not only will the lights be out forever, but the Earth will uninhabitable for all but the most basic forms of life for a long, long time.  
The point is that we should not think of these earthquakes as coincidences, or accidents, or flukes. We should take them as a warning of Mother Nature’s awesomeness and a reminder of how precarious our lives, as well as our precious way of life, are. The world will continue to change. We can either change with it, or die.


  1. I like the connection you made between Mother Nature and her role in the earthquake. My only contention is, that if MN created an event that would take down a nuclear power plant, wouldn't the resulting fallout be worse than the original cancer? Ms. Nature would be cutting off her nose to spite her face, if you will. Enjoyed reading your post, keep up the good work!

  2. Thats a good point, Dave. But if you think of nature not as a sentient being that is making a conscious decision to destroy us, but just as the assortment of natural laws that govern the Earth and the universe, then its not a problem. I meant that its not Mother Nature actively punishing us, but that our actions will produce natural reactions from the Earth.

  3. Without power, a nuclear power plant drops the lead walls between the radioactive material, thus arresting any nuclear reaction that might be occurring. The cooling water is run over the nuclear material to cool it down while it is actively decaying and thus super heating the water, making it steam to turn the turbines. It is only by direct negligence of human interaction that can cause nuclear power plants to actually have a meltdown. If the signs are ignored, and the computer is told not to drop the lead plates, the radioactive materials can melt through the concrete floor and once it hits ground water, thats when a nuclear explosion transpires.

    Although, I do feel the unsettling energy from all the latest natural disasters.

  4. And Nuclear fallout is seemingly much less of a problem that was once thought. There are herds of wild animals, from deer, wolves, mice and birds covering the area where cheranobyl(spelling??) was once thought to lay waste. MN recovers at speeds and in ways that astounds scientists. In the immortal words of Dr Ian Malcolm: Life finds a way.

  5. Chuangtzu said immortally pretty much the same thing thousands of years before Malcolm; life transforms itself to adapt to its changing surroundings. The area around Chernobyl, the worlds largest nuclear accident ever, has recovered faster than expected but there are still sky high rates among the people for types of cancer and chromosonal irregularities, among other health problems.
    There are, of course, safeguards in place at the nuclear facilities to prevent meltdowns. But the events in Japan showed that a natural disaster of great intensity can overcome the precautions we have taken.