A 5.8 Earthquake Jolts the East Coast—and Reminds Us That Tremors Are More Common Than We Think

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Office workers gather outside Washington office buildings following a 5.8 quake. Credit: Mandel Ngan/AFP

Personally, I was in the bathroom in TIME’s midtown Manhattan office building, and I didn’t feel a thing—until I got on Twitter. The news moved faster digitally than it did geologically: southwestern Virginia had suffered a 5.8-magnitude earthquake, one apparently strong enough to be felt from Georgia up to Ontario. [Update: USGS downgraded quake to 5.8, updated through post.] While West Coasters might sniff at a 5.8-quake—and there have been no immediate reports of major problems—it’s still strong enough to cause damage to poorly designed buildings. It also may be the second-strongest quake in Virginia history—a 5.9-magnitude temblor struck near the Virginia town of Lynchburg in 1897. But it’s difficult to compare today to the 1897 quake, which occurred before the development of widespread seismology and the Internet, which might magnify our reaction just a tad.

You can read more about the—not terribly exciting—earthquake history of Virginia at this page from the U.S. Geological Survey. Virginia doesn’t sit on any major faults—it’s miles from the nearest tectonic plate boundaries in the center of the Atlantic Ocean and in the Caribbean. But that doesn’t mean the ground is perfectly safe—there are small faults throughout the state’s bedrock, many of them unknown and unmapped. Nor are small quakes that unusual—there have been hundreds since Virginia became a state.

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Indeed, small quakes occur all the time around the world, including in areas we assume are seismically safe. Indeed, just this morning a 2.2-magnitude temblor struck upstate New York near Albany—though it barely registered on seismographs or on Twitter. The planet feels stable–solid as rock—but every minute of every day, it’s moving beneath our feet. I’m reminded of the old quote from the writer Will Durant:

Civilization exists by geological consent, subject to change without notice.

But while the Virginia quake made bigger waves in the media than it did beneath ground—probably because D.C. is home to more reporters per capita than anywhere else on the planet—it’s an important reminder that quakes can strike in places we don’t expect. And that combination—a sudden temblor and an unprepared population—can multiply the human damage, as we saw in Haiti. The Bay Area may be subject to the dangerous whims of the San Andreas Fault, but that experience means that citizens there know how to respond to quakes, and structures are built to resist collapse. In New York City—or in the towns and suburbs of the Southeast or Midwest—I suspect we’d be less ready.

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That’s not good. Some of the largest earthquakes in the recorded history of the U.S. occurred in 1811 and 1812 between Missouri and Mississippi. The quakes—which erupted over the New Madrid fault zone—were as strong as 8 on the Richter scale, up to 10 times more powerful than the 1906 quake that leveled San Francisco. Damage was recorded over 600,000 sq. km, and the shaking was felt as far away as Washington, DC. Fortunately the Midwest was still lightly populated in the early 19th century, reducing any loss of life. But that’s no longer the case, and seismologists worry that another massive quake will happen again in the near future. Of course, there’s no way of knowing when or even if that will happen—and some scientists believe the risk is overstated—but that’s life on a geologically uncertain planet. We get warnings all the time—like the one we just experienced today. It’d be smart to heed them.

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Bryan Walsh is a senior writer at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bryanrwalsh. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME