In Earthquake Storms: The Fascinating History and Volatile Future of the San Andreas Fault, scientist John Dvorak, examines the study of earthquakes, focusing on that most famous American earthquake zone, the San Andreas fault. He reveals that over the course of millions of years, this fault will eventually break major portions of what is now California from the mainland and send these islands drifting northward in the Pacific.
Earthquake Storms begins with Clarence Judson’s experience of the Great Quake of 1906. Judson is having a swim at the time and when he finally manages to get out of the water he discovers that his footprints in the sand gave off an “incandescent” glow. What is your reaction to the recently reported explanation of these and other earthquake lights?
It is a promising explanation, that the rapid compression of rock by the passage of a seismic wave generates a strong local electric field by creating microfractures in minerals. The difficulty with testing the explanation is that there are so few reports of earthquakes lights. Of all the earthquakes that have occurred since 1600, there are only 65 that have credible reports of earthquake lights.
In the ‘97 disaster movie “Volcano”, a new volcano erupts in Los Angeles, which makes for a thrilling scenario. Is there any significant correlation between earthquake faults and vulcanism beyond the creative minds of Hollywood?
There is a very close correlation between the location of earthquake faults and active volcanoes. Most of the active faults and active volcanoes occur either around the rim of the Pacific or along a broad region that crosses through southern Asia and the Mediterranean. But there is almost no correlation between the occurrence of major earthquakes and individual eruptions.
And, speaking of “Volcano”, what is your favorite earth science disaster movie?
“Volcano” was the most thrilling, but my favorite is “Bird of Paradise,” released in 1932. It is one of the first feature films shot on a tropical island—at Kilauea volcano in Hawaii.
What is your favorite earthquake movie?
“Earthquake,” made in1974, is my second favorite because it was made with “Sensurround,” a sound effect to simulate earthquake vibrations. My favorite is “San Francisco” starring Clark Gable, Jeanette McDonald and Spencer Tracy. Besides the impressive cast, it has a surprisingly accurate earthquake scene that lasts just a bit longer than the 1906 earthquake did.
Your book concentrates on the San Andreas Fault but mentions other faults and earthquakes across the U.S. Are there other faults that have any likelihood of damaging activity?
Of major concern is the Cascadia fault that lies off the coast of the Pacific Northwest and runs from Vancouver Island to Cape Mendocino in California. This fault has not ruptured since 1700, even though recent geologic history shows it should have a major earthquake every 120 years or so. It has the potential for an earthquake comparable to what struck Sumatra in 2004. Another is a system of active faults that lie under New Madrid, Missouri. Major earthquakes occurred here in 1812. Future activity will cause strong shaking in Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi and Arkansas.
Readers will be relieved that a single earthquake won’t send California sliding into the ocean. Do you feel that there are steps that individuals, organizations or governmental bodies should be taking to prepare beyond current earthquake readiness measures?
A system should be emplaced in California to alert people that a major earthquake has occurred and that a seismic wave is approaching. Such a system is in use in Japan and saved countless lives and prevented many injuries during the 2011 Tohoku earthquake. That was the earthquake that disabled the Fukushima nuclear reactor.
Are there other topics that you would like to cover in a book length treatment?
My current project is to write about the early scientific studies of volcanoes by following the career of Thomas Jaggar, a former Harvard professor who started the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory in 1912, the second such institution in the world—the first was established at Vesuvius in 1848. Jaggar’s story is especially poignant because while he was studying eruptions he also found what most people are looking for—true love. She was Isabel Maydwell, a widowed schoolteacher who had come to the Hawaiian Islands to start a new life. Together, they ran the observatory, she becoming an astute an observer of volcanic activity.
What sparked your interest in earthquakes?
I felt my first earthquake at age 11 and it surprised me for two reasons. First, I was stunned that the ground could shake suddenly and wildly and without warning. I was equally stunned when, after the shaking stopped, my mother said calmly and in a matter-of-fact tone, “Oh, that was an earthquake.”
What is the greatest misunderstanding that the public has about earthquakes?
That animals can predict earthquakes. They cannot. This misunderstanding has come about because after an earthquake many people recall seeing unusual behavior in animals before the earthquake. Cats are of particular interest. From my own experience, I have noticed that my cat does about a dozen unusual things every day.
What question would scientists most like to answer about earthquakes?
The most crucial question is what triggers a large earthquake? Earthquakes are popping off all the time. If a large earthquake is just a small earthquake that grows into a large one, then earthquake prediction will forever be impossible. If, however, the beginning of a large earthquake requires the simultaneous sliding of a large section of a fault, then there is hope that earthquakes will eventually be predicted.