Shake, Rattle & Roll!

Our Science Department holds a series of monthly sessions in which outside scientists come in to talk about their careers and activities, the better to humanize the field of science for our students and perhaps excite a few of them to consider a career in this direction. This past Friday we had a scientist from the U.S. Geological Survey office in Menlo Park come in to talk about that sexiest of topics for we locals, being earthquakes, of course. While these sessions usually draw about 15 or so kids, this one drew about 30 kids, not to mention a handful of faculty and even a parent or two. Yes, this shit draws our attention. Our campus itself is all of about 500 yards from the rough beast that is the San Andreas fault.

The presenter was a wonderful dweeb who had the wherewithal to backstop his scientific droning with a series of wildly compelling videos and slides. I mean, where else are you going to find the very best simulation videos of how earthquakes operate locally than the USGS? It was the anticipation of these that had me opting to stick around on a Friday afternoon after school was out, which is an occurrence about as frequent for me as are >6.0 earthquakes themselves.

Here is my attempt to distill some of what I heard in semi-interesting language.

Earthquakes typically happen when there is slippage between two adjoining sections of tectonic plates (“semi-interesting”? Try harder, McWright) This then unleashes a series of seismic waves that render all of the damage that can occur. I learned more than I need to know about the different kinds of seismic waves—primary, secondary, Rayleigh, Love waves (which are of course poorly named, as there is no love in the language of earthquakes). Each kind of wave operates differently—some are on the surface, some stay below ground, some oscillate in the direction they’re heading, some do so perpendicular to that direction. The net effect of all these waves is essentially a clusterfuck of motion that turns the normally stable earth’s surface into Satan’s own version of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.

How your little patch of the stuff will behave depends on a number of things, not the least of which is what composes the earth below you. Moving to the bay area? Here’s a tip: AVOID CUPERTINO! The place sits on what is essentially a submerged sand bar, thus will do the earthquake shimmy sham WAY MORE aggressively than will, say, Menlo Park, which sits on one big, dumb, solid rock, as faithful to its masters above as is an old dog’s brain. (Sorry, Calvin, you good boy, you.)

The simulated videos the guy showed of the infamous 1906 earthquake out here (Richter: 7.8), as well as the “World Series” Loma Prieta earthquake in ’89 (6.9) and the most recent biggie, Napa’s 2014 shakedown (6.0), they all made you feel nauseous as you see literally how much movement occurs to the surface of the earth with these beasts. Solid ground essentially turns into liquid and lurches hither and yon in a way that clusterfuck translates directly into mindfuck (apologies, Ma, for the potty talk). “Terra firma”? Terra bullshit-a, I say.

Of course the question that must to a scientist like this guy be the equivalent of everyone telling me last night’s dream: when next? I’d love to say his answer was, “In about 30 minutes,” at which point the adults in the room sought out their final fornication partner (FFP)(© pending), but of course, guys like this only answer in probabilities. “The likelihood of a 6.0 or greater earthquake in the bay area is 70% in the next 40 years.” Dude, really? That doesn’t do shit in helping me to decide whether I might as well spend my kids’ college savings on a ’67 Pontiac GTO. How about a little fine tuning, buster?

One had to be struck by the genuine zeal Dr. Earthlurch showed on the matter of early warning systems. He’ll have you to know they’ve gotten much—MUCH—better at this. For instance, during the last big one, up in Napa? That sucker was BAGGED AND TAGGED by the system a full 15 SECONDS in San Jose before it actually hit there! Wait: 15…seconds? That’s, what, about through “as we forgive those who trespass against us” before the roof and floor conspire to turn me into a baloney sandwich? If this is what state of the art currently is, my friends, we all need to be HIGHLY PROFICIENT where that final fornication thing is concerned. Just saying.

My last takeaway was what will surely be a favorite metaphor going forward: the Modified Mercalli Scale (I think technically it’s the Modified Mercalli Intensity Scale, but if the insiders drop the Intensity, then surely I will too to maintain my street cred in the dweeb bars around here). This is a ten point scale that depicts the degree of physical anarchy uncaged by a ‘quake. For example, 1 is “not felt except by a very few under especially favorable conditions” (think: consequences for your airplane seatmates of your just having eaten spicy food), to 5 being “felt by nearly everyone, many awakened, some dishes and windows broken, unstable objects overturned (think: “Mom, Dad just drove into the garage drunk again.”) to the unholy 10, which actually is depicted with the relatively bloodless, “some well-built wooden structures destroyed; most masonry and frame structures destroyed; rails bent.” In other words, the description of 10 just blows right past the understood impact on all the flimsily constructed, soft entities that are oxygen dependent like you, me, and Calvin, and cuts to the chase: rails bent. I’ve had a few of those nights.

And that’s to what I referred by a favorite metaphor. Hey, what else is a psychologist to do with something like the Modified Mecalli Scale than to apply it to personalities? Especially when those personalities are getting their party on, right? I myself had pretty good legs under me, so at my worst when I was “going Mercalli” I was a 3: Felt quite noticeably by persons indoors; standing motor cars may rock slightly. On the other hand, a good buddy of mine (no names, of course) was a reliable 6: Some heavy furniture moved, a few instances of fallen plaster. Felt by many, many frightened. You know who you are.

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