Friday, January 30, 2015

We Need A Cooler Earthquake Scale

You know what?  I think natural disasters are cool.  They can undoubtedly be tragic, too, and there’s nothing that I find inherently awesome about scores of people dying.  All the same, I love learning about natural disasters of any kind.  Growing up, documentaries about them were as much of a must-watch for me as those about nasty sea creatures.  This leads me to the topic of this post:

I think earthquakes need a new system of measurement.  Why?  Because the Richter scale, which is the source of the magnitude number you hear reporters give on the news, really undersells them.  There’s much more of a difference between say… a magnitude 4.7 earthquake and a 4.8 than you may realize.  You see, the Richter scale is logarithmic.  Every integer on the scale actually indicates an amount 10 times greater than the previous integer.  As a kid, I would have thought two earthquakes that measured only .1 apart on the Richter scale would have been almost the same thing.  Eventually I learned that the scale is logarithmic, and that was cool.  Much more recently, I learned that even if you know that the Richter scale is logarithmic, it’s still selling earthquakes short if you want an idea of how powerful they actually are.  This website talks about it in detail.  Basically, the logarithmic Richter scale is actually just a measure of how big the waves on a seismogram are.  In terms of power, a 2.0 earthquake is actually roughly 32 times as strong as a 1.0!  Damn!!!

All this time, I had a tendency to view two perhaps magnitude 5-something earthquakes as comparable, and that may not be the case at all.  We need a linear scale.  It would be so much cooler-sounding.  Of course, that means we need a unit of measurement.  Scientists can keep using the Richter scale; that’s just fine.  As for the rest of us: well, in the grand American tradition of clinging to stupid scales, I propose the “Northridge.”  One Northridge will be equal to the strength of the Northridge, California Earthquake of 1994. 

My reasoning for this one is pretty arbitrary (like other old-school systems of measurement):  I remember this quake better than most.  On January 17th, 1994, I was sitting at home eating ramen noodles during a snow day.  Then I saw on TV that there had been an earthquake in California.  Guess what I had just been watching:  A documentary that we’d recently taped… about earthquakes!  To my 8 year old self, that seemed like the coincidence of the century.  I’m not trying to make light of the event, people died during the Northridge Quake, but I’ll always remember it more than the other, bigger quakes that have happened in history.  I still hear Sisko (the documentary was narrated by Avery Brooks) talking all ominously about the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake in my head.  Weirdly, exactly a year later on January 17, 1995, the Great Hanshin Earthquake happened in Kobe, Japan. 

That website I linked earlier also has a calculator, so now, to illustrate what earthquakes in a linear scale would look like, I give you a number of famous earthquakes measured in Northridges:

1994 Northridge Earthquake (6.7):               1 Northridge (duh…)
1995 Kobe Earthquake (6.8):                       1.4 Northridges
1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake (6.9):             2 Northridges
1906 San Francisco Earthquake (7.8):          45 Northridges
1985 Mexico City Earthquake (8.3):             251 Northridges
2011 Japan Earthquake (9.0):                       2,818 Northridges
1964 Anchorage Earthquake (9.2):               5,623 Northridges
2004 Indian Ocean Earthquake (9.3):           7,943 Northridges
1960 Chile Earthquake (9.5):                       15,848 Northridges
( ^ strongest earthquake ever recorded)

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