We live on shaky ground

We live on shaky ground

November 13th, 2012 in Opinion Times

A small earthquake that occurred in Eastern Kentucky on Saturday was felt as far south as Atlanta, as far north as Ohio and prompted many calls to public safety officials in the tristate region and nearby states. Though the 4.3 magnitude quake caused no reported damage, it is a useful reminder of the elemental forces at play below the surface of the planet we call home.

The earthquake, which took place shortly after noon, was centered more than half a mile underground and about eight miles west of the town of Whitesburg, was by traditional measures a minor one. Many people, in fact, did not notice it, but some near the epicenter and as far as 300 miles away did. Such mixed reaction, seismologists say, is not unusual.

Earthquakes in Kentucky are not uncommon, though more occur in the western part of the state along the New Madrid fault zone than in the east. The same geography applies in Tennessee and Georgia. Several quakes occur in each state over the course of a year, but most go unnoticed. If they are noticed, a quick shake or bump is the most common feeling.

Still even a minor quake can cause a stirring of concern or fear, especially to those who are not familiar with the earth-shaking event. The initial shock, of course, is the primary worry, but often a small quake triggers concern that a larger one is to follow. Experts say that usually is not true.

Most quakes in this region are similar to the one on Saturday. They are usually a single event. Indeed, seismologists add, it is rare for major or even noticeable or aftershocks to follow the initial event.

That's reassuring, no doubt, but residents in this region should not put earthquakes out of their minds. Seismologists agree that it is impossible to predict with any accuracy when and where a quake will take place. And while earthquakes occur more often in western Kentucky and Tennessee than in the eastern sections of those states, strong temblors have taken place in this region.

One of the more recent was a 4.9 magnitude quake near Fort Payne, Ala., in 2003 along a fault that extends from Guntersville, Ala., toward nearby Jasper, Tenn. That quake did cause some damage and was felt in Chattanooga and nearby communities. It was -- and is -- a reminder of the realities of our physical world.

There are similar faults in the tristate region. One, for example, runs from Chatsworth to near Cartersville in Georgia. Another crosses northwest Atlanta. Still, the experts say, earthquake activity is low in the region despite such faults, and it is limited to a relative handful of mostly unfelt tremors annually.

Slightly shaken residents of this part of the country no doubt wish that continues to be true. Saturday's quake, though, is another reminder that the land on which we live is not as solid and unshakable as we might hope and believe.