Earthquakes through Time

Randall Stephens

When I was on a fellowship in San Diego last summer, I became very familiar with the USGS’s “Recent Earthquakes” page. The aftershocks from the Easter Mexicali earthquake continued to rumble through southern California. Having never been in an earthquake before, even minor ones like we were having, the whole experience was bizarre and a little frightening. The US Geological Survey has another helpful page that lists “Earthquakes with 50,000 or More Deaths:
Most Destructive Known Earthquakes on Record in the World.”
I include a selection from that below. Note the words “on Record.” It has been 1,200 years since Japan suffered an earthquake as destructive as the one that shook the island nation on Friday afternoon.

Year: Place, death toll, magnitude

856: Iran, Damghan, 200,000, unknown

1667: Caucasia, Shemakha, 80,000, unknown

1693: Italy, Sicily, 60,000, 7.5

1727: Iran, Tabriz, 77,000, unknown

1755: Portugal, Lisbon 70,000, 8.7

1923: Kanto (Kwanto), Japan, 142,800, 7.9

1970, Chimbote, Peru, 70,000, 7.9

1976: Tangshan, China, 255,000, 7.5

2005: Pakistan, 86,000, 7.6

2010: Haiti region, 222,570, 7.0

Men and woman have always tried to understand why earthquakes happen when and where they do. After the 1755 Lisbon quake, felt in Africa and across Europe, Europeans were eager for on-the-ground intelligence and desperately sought to make sense of the whole thing.

Social critic Walter Benjamin, oddly, delivered a 1931 radio address to children on the effects of the 1755 Lisbon earthquake. He ably demonstrated its scope and terror . . . for kids, nonetheless! He also spoke about how it changed the ways Europeans thought about their world:

There is a further, special reason that helps to explain why this event affected people's minds so powerfully--why countless pamphlets passed from hand to hand, and indeed why new descriptions continued to make their appearance almost a century later. The reason is that the earthquake was the most powerful on record. Its impact was felt throughout Europe and as far away as Africa. It has been calculated that, together with its most distant tremors, it affected two and a quarter million square kilometers--a huge area. Its most powerful shocks extended from the Moroccan coast to the shores of Andalusia and France. (Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings: vol 2, part 2, 1931-1934, eds. Marcus Paul Bullock, Michael William Jennings [Harvard University Press, 2005], 537.)

Benjamin goes on to site some original accounts of the quake, including one by the Englishman Rev. Charles Davy:

It was on the morning of this fatal day, between the hours of nine and ten, that I was set down in my apartment, just finishing a letter, when the papers and table I was writing on began to tremble with a gentle motion, which rather surprised me, as I could not perceive a breath of wind stirring. Whilst I was reflecting with myself what this could be owing to, but without having the least apprehension of the real cause, the whole house began to shake from the very foundation, which at first I imputed to the rattling of several coaches in the main street, which usually passed that way, at this time, from Belem to the palace; but on hearkening more attentively, I was soon undeceived, as I found it was owing to a strange frightful kind of noise under ground, resembling the hollow distant rumbling of thunder. All this passed in less than a minute, and I must confess I now began to be alarmed, as it naturally occurred to me that this noise might possibly be the forerunner of an earthquake, as one I remembered, which had happened about six or seven years ago, in the island of Madeira, commenced in the same manner, though it did little or no damage. . . .

Perhaps you may think the present doleful subject here concluded; but alas! the horrors of the 1st of November are sufficient to fill a volume. As soon as it grew dark, another scene presented itself little less shocking than those already described: the whole city appeared in a blaze, which was so bright that I could easily see to read by it. It may be said without exaggeration, it was on fire at least in a hundred different places at once, and thus continued burning for six days together, without intermission, or the least attempt being made to stop its progress.

It went on consuming everything the earthquake had spared, and the people were so dejected and terrified that few or none had courage enough to venture down to save any part of their substance; every one had his eyes turned towards the flames, and stood looking on with silent grief, which was only interrupted by the cries and shrieks of women and children calling on the saints and angels for succor, whenever the earth began to tremble, which was so often this night, and indeed I may say ever since, that the tremors, more or less, did not cease for a quarter of an hour together. I could never learn that this terrible fire was owing to any subterranean eruption, as some reported, but to three causes, which all concurring at the same time, will naturally account for the prodigious havoc it made. (Modern History Sourcebook, Fordham Univ.)

As of now, there is no telling what the long-term implications of the 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami will be. What sort of additional reports will be relayed from those who survived it? How will we understand it differently in days and years to come, after considerable reflection and after the damage is assessed? How will victims make sense of it? What will be it's global impact?