On August 23rd, 2011 the East Coast was hit with an earthquake that measured at 5.8 on the Richter scale. We sat down with Ryan Mathur, associate professor of geology, to learn more about what happened.
Q. What is it that causes earthquakes?
A. There are plates that move around and when the plates interact with one another there is usually some amount of energy that is released when the rock layers collide and break. When they break, that’s the earthquake.
Q. What made the East Coast earthquake unique?
A. The unique thing about the earthquake that was in Virginia is that in a tectonic sense, where these plates move around, is that it was not on a boundary. Usually all the energy is released on the boundaries of these plates. You always hear about earthquakes in California, which sits on the edge of a plate. What’s interesting is that we still have smaller earthquakes on the East Coast because this boundary used to be very active.
Q. So why did we have an earthquake?
A. The reason we had an earthquake here is that there’s actually stored stress. If you think about the energy of when these mountains were made, there is still some energy stored underneath that is just getting released. There’s still residual stress from when these mountains were built millions of years ago.
Q. Are we able to predict when an earthquake is going to happen?
A. We can’t predict it like we predict the weather. We have probability that earthquakes will happen in five-to-10 year intervals. We can see that the earth is changing and straining and piling up. Eventually all that strain is going to be released along an earthquake fault boundary and things will snap back to the way they are.
Q. Is there anything else that we should know regarding this earthquake?
B. The reason it’s very significant on the East Coast is that no one on the East Coast has a building that can withstand a 6 or 7 on the Richter scale. That level of an earthquake would be destructive here because we’re not prepared, where as in California they build for that. We teach a course here called Death and Destruction, and there’s a saying that “it’s not the earthquakes that kill people. It’s the buildings that fall.” That’s what makes the earthquake that happened here significant.
Dan Endres ’13, Juniata Online Journalist