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Friday, April 15, 2011

Earthquakes in Philadelphia: STAR Column

Not long after the almost 9 point quake in Japan a friend of mine commented, “Say what you will about Philadelphia, but at least we don’t have any problems like that.”
This is something we’ve all heard before. Our region may be susceptible to blizzards, high humidity in summer, hurricanes and Northeasterners, but we rarely if ever get earth tremors, and a tsunami is definitely out of the question.

This is far from the truth, according to Prof. Simon Day of University College London. Day and a number of his colleagues at University College point to active volcanic activity in the Canary Islands as having a very direct and possibly devastating influence on cities like Washington D.C. and Philadelphia. A so called volcanic collapse in the Canaries (that’s when a volcano aborts and explodes underwater) would have the ripple effect of a rock being thrown into a pool of water only in this case there would be tons of rock sliding into the sea to form a mega “ripple” tsunami. Day says that based on global test results and geological studies, volcanic activity like this occurs during very warm weather cycles.

A volcanic collapse in the Canaries could then result in a 2,000 foot high mega tsunami that would make Philadelphia especially vulnerable because of the flat Chesapeake Bay inlets. A wave like this has the potential to move up the Delaware, causing fatalities in the millions, Day says.

Since there’s not much high ground in Philadelphia (with the exception of Manayunk), moving to the mountains, in advance of a natural disaster, is probably the only solution. This doesn’t seem to bode well for the Riverwards.
We’ve been lucky, disaster-wise, in Philadelphia, but history tells a different story. On December 10, 1968 a 2.5 quake shook Philadelphia and the suburbs. The quake, according to The Earthquake Information Bulletin by Carl A. von Hake, broke windows in New Jersey and shook the toll booths on the Ben Franklin and Walt Whitman Bridges. And just a few years earlier, on December 27, 1961, a small tremor lasting about ten seconds affected Harrisburg, Reading, Philadelphia, and York. “Bridges shook, dishes rattled and other objects were disturbed,” von Hake writes.

I was in grammar school at the time and remember the rumbling sound that seemed to cover our house like an imploding freight train. It was as if the earth itself had decided to cough up its insides.

Historically, the Philadelphia region has been vulnerable to both quakes and huge Delaware River swells caused by earth tremors. In 1884, “The Landmark,” a newspaper in Stalesville, North Carolina, reported on the Great East Coast Quake of the same year.

“In Philadelphia, the shock was very perceptible….the strongest buildings in the city were shaken, rickety chimneys toppled over on the roofs and bricks tumbled down upon the pavement in all parts of the city….Nervous people were frightened to such an extent that many thought the destruction of the world was at hand.

“Huge waves,” the report continues, “backed up by the rising tide, overflowed many of the wharves, and considerable property was flooded.”

The last quake to hit Philly was in October of 2009. Philadelphia, in fact, is one of the ten most earthquake endangered cities of the world. Number one is San Francisco; Philly is number nine, coming before Osaka, Japan.

Japan, of course, has also had to deal with the defective General Electric Mark 1 boiling water nuclear reactors that may cause a major radioactive meltdown. For decades since this type of reactor was built in the 1970s, experts have questioned the Mark 1 containment system. Many experts also warned that this type of reactor was subject to rupture.

There are twenty-three GE Mark 1 reactors in the United States, and one is located in Delta, Pennsylvania. The reactors at Limerick, Pennsylvania and in Salem Township are of the Mark II or III design. Both reactors are not far from Philadelphia.

While we should not opt to live in fear, we still cannot say with any certainly that what happened in Japan cannot happen here.
“Boast not for tomorrow,” as Proverbs cautions us, “For thou knowest not what the day to come may bring forth.”

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