The great earthquake on Friday struck just north of Anchorage at 8:30 a.m., with dawn more than an hour away. Its magnitude 7.2 tremor lasted only 30 seconds, but triggered more than 190 aftershocks as large as magnitude 5.8 over the next 24 hours. The quake swarm damaged buildings, cut off electricity to thousands, and tore roads apart; but according to early reports it neither killed nor severely injured anyone.
A large earthquake is an awe-inspiring experience. It shows you how the material things we trade years of our lives for, such as a home, can be shaken to pieces in an instant. It teaches you how to survive in a land where the very earth you stand upon is not reliably stable.
Alaska survived last Friday by being prepared. Some remembered its Good Friday quake – March 28, 1964 – when streets in Anchorage instantly fell by 10 feet as the land beneath them moved and ripped open. Whole houses were swallowed as the land convulsed for more than four minutes to a top magnitude of 9.2, one of the strongest quakes ever recorded. It unleashed the energy of 50,000 Hiroshima-size atomic bombs.
The 1964 quake likely killed 139 people – 15 from the earthquake, and 124 from the tsunami it unleashed down America’s west coast, which killed 106 people in Alaska, five in Oregon and 13 in California. Last Friday’s quake caused no tsunami.
Many believe American earthquakes happen almost entirely in Alaska or California, but in recent centuries 49 of the 50 United States (minus only North Dakota) have experienced quakes of magnitude 5 or greater, caused by various conditions.
California and Alaska quakes happen because, 1800 miles or less under your feet, the world is molten, rock and metal in liquid state blazing at 6,740oF and under 1.4 million times more pressure than our air at sea level.
We stand on one of approximately 20 rafts floating on this hellish sea, and these tectonic plates are colliding with or sliding under one another. Thus the Pacific Plate slides northwest by 1.5 inches per year as it presses against the Continental Plate – a process that creates California’s San Andreas Fault. This creates immense energy bursts we experience as earthquakes, and the pressure of one plate diving under another creates volcanoes, whose deep lava throats cough up diamonds and gold.
Could a killer earthquake strike where you live? The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that the Juan de Fuca tectonic plate off Seattle is a spring wound with 25 times the force set off in Alaska’s Good Friday quake, and that it could create a cataclysm in and around Seattle and the volcano Mt. Rainier.
In 1812 in New Madrid, Missouri, south of St. Louis, two magnitude 8+ quakes changed the course of the Mississippi River and within seconds created Tennessee’s Reelfoot rift lake. A similar quake today could kill an estimated 5,000 people.
In 1886 a monster earthquake struck Charlestown, South Carolina, killing at least 60 people as it shook down 14,000 chimneys. This quake sent people screaming into the streets of cities from Boston to Havana, as had the New Madrid quakes.
The now-weathered mountains along America’s East Coast were once as tall as the Himalayas are today, and the dense rock layer they created is very efficient at transmitting the shockwaves of earthquakes.
In New York City, an earthquake fault runs along 125th Street. Scientists put the odds of the Big Apple getting a Magnitude 5 quake at one per century, and a magnitude 6 quake at once every 1,000 years. Because of all the objects that could fall from tall buildings, a magnitude 6 quake could potentially kill 100,000 New Yorkers.
Roughly 36 miles outside New York City is the Indian Point nuclear complex, where reactors were built directly atop a known earthquake fault line. Scientists believed that fault to be completely dormant, but studies of the fault system in New England now suggest that this powerful ancient source of earthquakes is reawakening.
We and our civilization have been built on the assumption that many things are stable and can be relied upon – a political system that was supposed to remain honest and moderate; a money system based on politicians limiting how much paper currency they printed to empower themselves; an economy that assumed people would pay more in taxes than they took in welfare.
Now we find cracks forming around our feet, and we feel the earth shaking. We need quickly to restore America’s foundations.
Lowell Ponte is a former Reader’s Digest Roving Editor. His latest book co-authored with Craig R. Smith, “Money, Morality & the Machine,” reveals how bad money drives good morals out of society and how you can protect your family from the future of “Star Trekonomics.” For a free, postpaid copy, call toll-free 800-630-1492.