Cumberland Times-News

June 12, 2008

Planet continues to change; Big One on horizon?

Betty VanNewKirk, Columnist

In a year that is not yet half over, 2008 has already written itself into the record books for extremes of hot and cold, rain and drought, tornadoes and floods and earthquakes. Our planet Earth has been in a constant state of change.

Scientists tell us that there is much more turbulence to come. They talk of The Big One, telling us that worse weather conditions are ahead of us, though they don't know when. San Andreas Fault is usually mentioned as the great threat, but there is another fault in the Mississippi Valley that might at any time come to life, as it did in the winter of 1811-12.

The epicenter of that quake was near the town of New Madrid, Mo., where it woke the citizens at 2 a.m. on Dec. 15. There was a second shock before daybreak, and then a series of aftershocks that continued into April.

Rattling windows and broken china were reported from Savannah, Ga., and Toronto, Canada; church bells were jostled into sounding from New England to Arkansas. There is no way of knowing how many slight tremors went unrecorded.

There was, however, no loss of life, and very little structural damage. In 1812 there were no large cities in America's Midwest, and houses built of logs or sod could tolerate the shaking. Families could also leave the house and seek safety in a big, open field.

Now, with our crowded cities and towering masonry structures it is a different story. Earthquakes can, and do, occur anywhere, and scientists are concerned with trying to predict their occurrence and help people prepare for the problems they present.

There are widespread stories about animals that can sense when something is wrong; like the proverbial rats leaving a sinking ship, they escape from floods and tornadoes and earthquakes.

Scientists include these reports with their own observations of increased amounts of radar in local wells, or changes in direction for the subtle electric currents far under the Earth, in their attempt to find reliable predictors of imminent earthquakes.

We are quickly aware, of course, of the occurrence of modern disasters. TV brings us pictures of earthquakes in India and Turkey while they are still going on; it was a different story in 1812.

At that time there was no telegraph or telephone connection. Letters were carried long distances by people who happened to be traveling in that direction. Reports of the New Madrid earthquake trickled into the Maryland Gazette, published weekly in Annapolis, over a period of months.

Eye-witness accounts of glass breaking in Kansas, clocks being stopped abruptly on Long Island, a state house shaking in Milledgeville, Ga., gave information from which seismologists have mapped the course of the series of quakes and estimated their intensity in Richter-scale terms.

Our planet continues to change. The tectonic plates far under the Earth clash, and grind together, and move apart, spawning volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and tropical storms.

Seismologists agree that some time between now and the year 2050 there will be a Big One, but when and where it will occur is anyone's guess.

Betty VanNewkirk is the historian for the Frostburg Museum.