October 18 – A Hint Of Basel

Today’s factismal: The strongest recorded earthquake in the Europe took place in 1356; it was as strong as the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake!

If you ask the typical person where we have earthquakes, odds are that they’ll say “California” and leave it at that. But the truth is that California just gets all of the press (and bad movies); earthquakes happen all over the world, anywhere that there are two parts of the crust moving against each other. In fact, only about 4,100 (5%) of the 28,000 earthquakes that are recorded each year happen in California!

And earthquakes have been a problem since the world first formed, even if we’ve only been recording them for a few thousand years. One of the most notable “early” earthquakes happened in Switzerland nearly a thousand years ago. Switzerland’s famous Alps exist because the European plate was the victim of a hit and run by the African plate; the mountain range is the “dents” caused by the collision. Over time, the mountains have eroded down and are slowly settling. As they do so, they release a little energy from time time time; this is why Switzerland averages one earthquake a month. And in 1356, Switzerland had its biggest earthquake ever

The 7.1M earthquake destroyed the town of Basel and leveled the churches and villages in the thirty miles surrounding it. It was strong enough to be felt in France and to crack chimneys in Zurich. More than 300 people died in the main shock; many more were frightened out of their wits and out of the area by the year-long series of aftershocks that plagued the region.

What is most interesting about the earthquake is how we learned about it. Because the recording seismometer hadn’t been invented yet, seismologists have had to pore over old records and traveler’s accounts to identify the damage that was done and estimate the strength of the earthquake from that. But they need your help in calibrating their work.

If you experience an earthquake, then head over to the USGS “Did you feel it?” website and tell them what you felt. That will help them map out faults and improve our understanding of how earthquakes cause damage so that historical data like this can be used to predict future events.

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