Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Earthquakes and the East Coast

As you've probably heard by now, there was a 5.8 earthquake that struck in rural Virginia, southwest of Washington DC, on August 23rd. You can read more details about the event here, via Yahoo! News.

Here in California, a 5.8 might only be cause for some dinner conversation. Back East, though, earthquakes work a little differently....

Naturally, we see a lot more earthquakes through California than they see elsewhere in the country. This is because we sit astride the San Andreas fault system, one of the largest and most active tectonic boundaries in the world. That doesnt mean that other parts of the country are "earthquake-free", though. Fault systems of various sizes exist pretty much throughout the United States. In the Midwest, for example, the New Madrid fault system runs through southern Missouri, and had a major earthquake in the early 19th century.

Many fault systems run along the eastern seaboard. Though not as active today as the faults along the West Coast, hundreds of millions of years ago these faults were created when what is now Africa collided with North America, pushing up the Appalachian mountains, which at the time may have rivaled the Himalays in height. Though those mountains have eroded over time to the modest heights they have today, some of those faults created still remain, and do still occasionally trigger earthquakes.

When an earthquake occurs along the East Coast, it moves through the ground differently than it does here. The ground in California is riddled with fault lines of all sizes, cracked like a broken windshield. The bedrock along the East Coast is much less broken-up, with time and heat and pressure sealing many old fault lines and annealing the bedrock together.

When a vibration, like an earthquake, travels through the ground in California, it's like trying to ring a cracked bell; the vibration doesnt travel very well, or very far. Along the East Coast, however, the bedrock is more like a solid bell, and when an earthquake "rings" that bell, the vibration can travel much farther, which is why such a relatively small quake was still felt from Georgia to Toronto.

The Easter quake of 2010 near El Centro (magnitude 7.2) released about 25 times as much energy as yesterday's Virginia quake. The Japanese quake (9.0) released over 1500 times as much energy. Fortunately, though, it looks like the most that the Virginia quake did was rattle the nerves of some Easterners who arent used to a little temblor now and then :)

Friday, March 11, 2011

Earthquake and Tsunami Facts

Last night, a magnitude 8.9 earthquake hit off the northeast coast of Japan, causing widespread damage and triggering a tsunami reported up to 23 feet in height. You can read more about the earthquake and its effects on Japan in this article from Yahoo! News.

While California seems to have avoided any significant tsunami threat from this earthquake, you may be wondering if something like this could ever happen somewhere near us. Here are some common questions about earthquakes and tsunamis that you might like to know:

What is a tsunami?
Tsunami is japanese for "Harbor Wave". Tsunami is the preferred term over "tidal wave", as tsunamis have nothing to do with the daily cycle of tides. However, while many people might still envision a tsunami as a giant, cresting breaker crashing onto the shore, when it hits land it behaves much more like a very high "tide", where the water level rises significantly and rushes inland, then ebbs back out. Tsunamis are also immediately preceded by an extreme drop in the ocean level, much like a very low "tide".

Tsunamis are caused when the sea floor shifts upwards, like during an earthquake, and raises up all the water above it. This "bump" of water spreads outwards in all directions and becomes a tsunami. Normal waves are caused by wind and only flow a few dozen feet deep, while tsunamis move through the entire depth of the ocean. They may only be a few inches in height in the open ocean, but as they approach shore and the ocean shallows, the energy gets concentrated and the height of the wave increases.

How do tsunami detectors work?
Since only tsunami waves can be felt at the bottom of the ocean, tsunami sensors are sunk down to the sea floor. Any time they notice a change in pressure, they send a signal to monitoring centers. If it's just a fish swimming too close, then no other sensors will go off - but if many sensors all start detecting the same thing, the tsunami can be tracked as it progresses through the ocean.

Tsunamis can travel very fast through the open water, as fast as a commercial jetliner flies. Seismologists tracking a tsunami can make fairly accurate predictions as to when it will hit land at any given point, but predicting the intensity of a tsunami is less accurate, since many factors such as the shape and topography of the coastline can play a role in tsunami behavior once it hits land.

How big was the quake?
The magnitude is currently being reported at 8.9, which places it among the top 5 magnitude earthquakes since 1900. The magnitude measures the amount of energy released by an earthquake, similar to how we measure atomic blasts. Each full point on the scale represents a tenfold increase in the energy of an earthquake. The energy of the Japanese quake was over 100 times that of the Northridge quake, measured at magnitude 6.8.

Many people commonly believe that the magnitude given is measured on the Richter scale, but this is no longer true; sesimologists now use the similar but more accurate moment magnitude scale. The Richter scale becomes less accurate when measuring extremely powerful earthquakes like the one experienced in Japan.

Can we have a similar earthquake in California?
Based on our current understanding of seismology, the biggest quake we ever expect along the San Andreas and related faults is somewhere in the low 8 magnitude range, significantly less energetic than the Japanese quake. California's fault system is a strike-slip system, where two tectonic plates move side-by-side. Japan, and other areas like the west coast of South America and Indonesia, lie over subduction zone systems, where one plate lies on top of another. This "double-stacked" arrangement of tectonic plates places much more weight and pressure along the faultline, allowing much deeper and more powerful earthquakes to build up.

Strike-slip systems also have a lower risk of triggering catastrophic tsunamis. Since the plates are moving side-to-side, not up-and-down, submarine earthquakes will disturb the ocean less.

The biggest earthquakes ever recorded - 9.5 in Chile, 9.3 in Sumatra, 9.2 in Alaska, and other similar earthquakes - all occur within subduction zone systems.

What happens when a big earthquake does hit us?
Despite the death and destruction this earthquake and tsunami did cause along the Japanese coastline, things could have been a lot worse. Japan is one of the most densely populated areas of the world, over 3.5 times as densely populated as California. The current death toll numbers being reported are over 10,000; compare this to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunamis that claimed over 200,000 lives, or the 2010 Haiti earthquake that claimed over 300,000. Sadly, the greatest danger from major seismic events, it turns out, is poverty and ignorance.

Building codes in developed countries such as Japan, the US or Mexico ensure that buildings can safely withstand most earthquakes they might experience. These codes and standards are updated with new knowledge gained in every major quake, and have led to a general decrease in the fatality rate for every major earthquake, from over 3000 in the 1906 San Francisco quake to just 4 in the 2010 Easter Sunday quake. Countries without well-enforced building codes, such as Haiti or Indonesia, suffer much greater loss of property and life.

Tsunamis - incredibly destructive and impossible to stop - are much more dangerous due to the dual threat of flooding and physical damage. Much like a tornado, most of the damage is not caused by the water itself, but by all the churning debris it carries. Loose objects such as cars, or weak buildings like sheds and garages, can be easily swept up, but stronger buildings with good foundations can withstand the tsunami. The destruction is limited to the height of the tsunami, so anyone caught in it can make it to safety just by getting above the top of the flood, by heading for high ground or to the second or third floor of a building.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Helloooo Dolly!

The Western Science Center strutted and swayed their way to 2nd place for the 2nd year in a row at the Annual Soboba Casino Lip Sync Contest! The Western Science Center brought home the $1,500 2nd place award with a rousing and hilarious performance of a scene from Barbara Streisand's classic musical Hello Dolly played by staff members, Peter Klienpass, Sue Tatosian, and Jethro Brown, as well as museum volunteers Tom and Jo Jones, and Amy Ledbetter.

With representatives from organizations such as Our Nicholas Foundation, The American Cancer Society, San Jacinto Education Foundation and the Veterans Alliance Group, this annual competition presented by Soboba Casino supports local Nonprofit Organizations in a fun and fabulous way!

We're already planning for next year!

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Wildlife Runs Wild at WSC!

Summer is here, and at the WSC, the wildlife is active all day long. Our location along the edge of the Southwestern Riverside County Multi-Species Preserve means we enjoy all the benefits - and drawbacks - of having Nature as our next-door neighbor!

While we do have to endure the occasional invasion of the museum by the likes of the Chapparal Whipsnake or Wolf Spider, we also get to enjoy the many species of birds and mammals that call the DVL area their home. In the dawn or sunset hours, visitors might see a family of Desert Cottontails or a Black-tailed Jack Rabbit. Many ground-nesting birds have settled down in the bushes near the WSC, including Mourning Doves and several families of California Quail, and their distinctive calls can be clearly heard in the morningtime. The nearby lake attracts waterfowl like Killdeer, and even bald eagles have been reportedly seen nearby, though they've likely flown north until cooler weather returns later this year.

The WSC is also playing host to a small flock of Cliff Swallows, who have made themselves at home under the alcove at the south end of the building. San Juan Capistrano can eat its heart out, because you can come view this active swallow colony right here in the Inland Empire! These fascinating birds build nests out of mud that attach to cliffs and overhangs, and they're constantly active around them, moving in and out and around - it's amazing to see their aerial agility. Below are some pictures of the nests, courtesy of Larry Knoepfel at the DVL Visitor's Center. If you're here to visit anytime soon, make sure to take a stroll south down the path towards the Simulated Dig Site, and tell these red-throated beauties hello!


Thursday, June 3, 2010

Space Spot!

We are back with a bang. A Big Bang! The Space Spot, the latest exhibition at the Western Science Center, opened May 28! The Space Spot allows visitors to discover astronomy with fun interactive exhibits that bring the stars, constellations and planets down into your hands! This fantastic exhibit was put together by the Pacific Science Center in Seattle Washington, and they traveled down to help us with the install.

Trucks arrived from Georgia at 7:00 am to unload the traveling exhibit. With in a few hours we were unpacked and placing the stations in thier new spots. We were quickly able to see how exciting this exhibit was really going to be! After a long day of extension cords and finishing touches we turned on the stars, inflated the planetarium, and opened The Space Spot!


Wednesday, March 31, 2010

New developments in Ice Age climate research

Mega-flood Triggered Cooling 13,000 Years Ago
From Yahoo! News

There's been an interesting development in our understanding of the changes in the climate at the end of the Pleistocene era; more evidence to point to the draining of a massive Canadian lake at the end of the Ice Age, which triggered a short but sharp global cold period called the Younger Dryas.

This cooling event was critically important, as the period that immediately followed - the Holocene - marked the development and spread of modern humans. Some anthropologists have speculated that the environmental stresses of the Younger Dryas, which led to cooler, drier conditions globally, forced previously nomadic hunter-gatherer societies to settle and develop agriculture, one of the key milestones in the development of civilization.

What caused this unusual centuries-long cold snap has been debated in the scientific community. One theory, that this study has found physical evidence to support, is that a massive lake in North America drained into the Atlantic, flooding it with fresh water and shutting down the "thermohaline convection belt" (thermo- meaning heat, -haline meaning salt). This is an ocean current that carries warm water from the Equator along the surface to the North Atlantic, where it freezes into freshwater ice. The remaining cold water, laden with excess salt, sinks to the bottom and returns south to the Equator. This convection circuit is very important for Europe, as it carries heat from the tropics that keeps Europe warmer than other landmasses at the same latitude.

What could stop a whole ocean from circulating? It would take a lot of fresh water to dilute the entire North Atlantic enough to halt thermohaline convection. Lake Agassiz, a huge inland lake formed by the melting of the North American ice sheets towards the end of the Ice Age, had an awful lot of fresh water. Take a look (from UCAR):

It's hard to imagine lakes as big as the ones that can form only after a global ice age. Agassiz was a lake that could submerge the entire United Kingdom. It held more fresh water alone than all the current lakes in the world put together. And, around 11,000 years ago, this new study shows, that fresh water drained from central Canada to the ocean, shutting down thermohaline convection and chilling the world's climate.

What's even more interesting is that this study discovers a new twist: the water didnt drain down the St. Lawrence Seaway, which heads through the Great Lakes and down the St Lawrence River to its mouth north of Maine, as first thought, but rather down the Mackenzie River, north to Canada's Arctic Sea coast near Alaska.

One can hardly imagine the cataclysm that must have occurred in Northwest Canada, millenia ago, when this "mega-flood" first roared down the Mackenzie to the sea.


Friday, March 5, 2010

The Simulated Dig Site

With help from our friend Justin Jones at Watermoore Imagery and the students of MSJC's Anthropology 205, the Western Science Center's Simulated Dig Site makes its video premiere!


The dig site education project is supported in part by the Institute of Museum and Library Services