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Earthquake science at Explorit

This article appeared in the May 20, 2011 edition of the Davis Enterprise.

By Bob Tyzzer
Special to the Enterprise

California is well-known for its earthquakes.  They’ve played a major role in the history of our state, from the magnitude 7.8 San Francisco earthquake in 1906 that destroyed most of that city through the 1989 Loma Prieta “World Series” 7.1 earthquake.   Newspapers up and down the state regularly publish articles speculating about when and where “the next big one” will strike, and what people should do to be prepared.  The recent devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan have naturally increased this concern.

But what about earthquakes right here in Davis?   How do geologists assess the risk in our own city, and what is the local earthquake history?  The good news is that much of California’s central valley, including Davis, is at a much lower risk of a significant quake than the state average.  A large majority of the faults that can trigger earthquakes run in or west of the coastal mountains, including the San Andreas fault that stretches along two-thirds of the state, from the Imperial Valley east of San Diego to right under San Francisco. 

On the other hand, earthquakes do happen here.  Long-time residents may remember feeling the 6.2 magnitude Morgan Hill-San Jose earthquake in 1984, or the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.  And each year the nearby town of Winters has an Earthquake Street Festival recalling the magnitude 6.6 earthquake that leveled every brick building in the town and caused one death back in 1892.  How great is the danger here for a large, damaging earthquake?  Predicting earthquakes is a tricky and incomplete science, so you can find varying estimates, but it appears that the odds of an earthquake of magnitude 6.7 or greater in the next 30 years in the Sacramento/Davis area are 0.5% to 5.0%.  Similar estimates for Los Angeles and San Francisco are 67% and 63%, respectively!  To learn more visit the USGS website at http://earthquake.usgs.gov/.

This summer Explorit’s Summer Science Campers in several classes will be exploring earthquakes as one of the mysteries of science.  Research into earthquakes is often done using “shake tables.”  The largest ones can support and then shake full sized buildings, while small ones can be used by students to explore the effects of “earthquakes” on model buildings made of blocks.  You can see a video of such an experiment on Explorit’s website at www.explorit.org/video. Geologists know quite a bit about what causes earthquakes in general, but how to predict them remains a scientific mystery.  Prediction is important because it can help save lives in a large earthquake.  In the recent huge 9.0 earthquake in Japan, tens of thousands of injuries and perhaps lost lives were prevented by warnings of between a few and 60 seconds.  That small but critical warning is possible because the earthquake waves move out from the epicenter of the quake at about the speed of sound, but broadcast warning signals travel at close to the speed of light. 

Earthquakes are a fact of life for Californians, but at least here in Davis the risks are less than in many other places.

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Coming events:

Summer Camp, Jun 13-Aug 19: Several spaces are still available in the preK-K and 1st-2nd grade sections of Explorit’s Summer Science Camp.  To get information about openings, visit http://www.explorit.org/camp or call (530) 756-0191 Monday-Friday from 9-4:30. 

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Explorit Science Center’s 3141 5th St. site is the location for field trips, programs for groups, astronomy club meetings, and Summer Science Camp.  It is also the hub for Explorit’s traveling programs that reach an 18-county region.  The site is open to the public for special events and to groups by reservation. For more information call (530) 756-0191 or visit http://www.explorit.org.

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