Powerful earthquakes not unusual in context

With Asia suffering one of the strongest earthquakes in recorded history so soon after a quake of our own (magnitude 6.8, 14 December), some people in the Cayman Islands are wondering if unusual events are underway here on planet Earth. Is the world cracking up? Are these supernatural hints that our time is nearly up?

The earthquake and tsunamis that hit Asia this week were horrifying and tragic but there is nothing to indicate anything unusual is going on. In the geological perspective, earthquakes are not rare (millions occur each year, with more than a 100 or so strong enough to cause damage) and very strong ones have hit regularly throughout history. We are all prone to over-dramatize them. We see earthquakes as something more than natural events partly because of our extremely narrow field of view. We think our lives span huge amounts of time. By the Earth’s timeframe, however, a human lifetime is less than the blink of an eye. Consider that the Asian quake is the fourth-biggest since 1899. Some may take this as a sign that strange events are unfolding, but if this is number four, that means there have been three stronger earthquakes just in the last century. In the geological perspective, then, powerful earthquakes qualify as regular occurrences.

Furthermore, there was no reliable and accurate way to record and measure earthquakes prior to the 20th century, so anyone who says earthquakes are stronger and more frequent today than in the past is making a claim they can’t back up with facts.

History shows that major earthquakes and tsunamis are nothing new. In the year 365, for example, an earthquake -generated wave hit Alexandria, Egypt and killed thousands. Some 40,000 were killed in 1782 by a tsunami after an earthquake in the South China Sea. An 1896 earthquake caused a 70-foot tsunami that killed more than 20,000 people in Japan. More recently, a 1998 tsunami hit Papua-New Guinea and killed a couple of thousand people. Here in the Caribbean, 37 verified tsunamis over the last 500 years have killed nearly 10,000 people, according to National Geographic.

Our world is never still. Many people mistakenly think of the Earth as a fixed, stagnate ball of solid rock. It is not. We live on a thin fragile crust that floats atop vast oceans of swirling melted rock. Volcanoes, earthquakes, landslides and mudslides constantly reshape our home. Entire continents are in constant motion.

Earthquakes have been shaking up the world for billions of years. And while we should prepare for their inevitable occurrence and seek to understand them better, there is no reason to believe that they are anything other than one more manifestation of our ever-changing home.

World News editor Guy P. Harrison is at [email protected].