San Francisco Earthquake

Key Lecture Points

  • The 100th anniversary of the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake was April 18, 2006. The quake measured 7.8 on the Richter scale. Foreshocks and the main quake occurred at about 5:12am along the San Andreas Fault, with an epicenter close to the city. Its violent shocks were felt from Oregon to Los Angeles, and inland as far as central Nevada. The earthquake and fire would go down as one of the worst natural disasters to hit a major city in United States history. Part of the earthquake’s notoriety resulted from the fact that it was the first natural disaster to be captured by photographers. Furthermore, seismology as a scientific field was just getting started in the early 1900s. The research done on the San Francisco earthquake provided scientists and engineers with the tools necessary to protect people from later quakes. As is often the case with the “science of disaster”, the data and research required to prepare for the disaster is often only in hand after the disaster has already occurred.
  • The Great Earthquake provided the new field of seismology with the data required to ensure that Californians would be better prepared for future quakes. For example, the research done in the years following 1906 would enable for the mapping of earthquake zones such that “seismic zoning” could be employed to ensure the safe building of schools, hospitals, homes and nuclear power plants; this research also enabled engineers to develop building materials and designs that would enable structures to withstand the earth’s vibrations.
  • More recent disasters have also furthered “disaster science”, enabling for better preparedness and response in the future. The eruption of Mt. St. Helen’s in 1980 led the US Geological Survey to set up volcano monitoring systems all around the Pacific Northwest. The Asian Tsunami of 2004 allowed for scientists to collect previously elusive data on the movement of tsunami waves in deep water; it is hoped that this research will lead to an effective Tsunami Early Warning System in the Indian Ocean, and perhaps improve the early warning system already in use in the Pacific Ocean.
  • In the context of Hurricane Katrina, the National Weather Service is one of the only federal agencies to emerge from the disaster relatively unscathed—they knew it was coming and warned us about it. This perhaps speaks to the success of hurricane research since the National Weather Service started monitoring hurricanes in 1898. Furthermore, it has been suggested that “levy science” will be greatly improved in coming years, as scientists and engineers study the failure of the levies in the New Orleans area.

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