Why East Coast earthquakes travel so far

August 23, 2011 by Kerry Sheridan
Tourists and government employees fill the National Mall after a 5.9 magnitude earthquake struck the east coast in Washington, DC. The quake that struck mid-afternoon near Richmond, Virginia was the strongest in the state since 1897, and shook the eastern seaboard for some 30 seconds, sparking a wave of panic among residents.

A rare 5.8 earthquake that rattled the eastern United States on Tuesday was felt over a wide area from Toronto, Canada down to Georgia due to the hard, brittle quality of the ground, experts said.

The quake that struck mid-afternoon near Richmond, Virginia was the strongest in the state since 1897, and shook the eastern seaboard for some 30 seconds, sparking a wave of panic among residents.

"Earthquakes of this magnitude are unusual in your area, but the fact that you shook so hard and the event was actually some distance from you is not unusual," Thomas Jordan, director of Southern California Earthquake Center based at the University of Southern California, told AFP by phone.

The outer rocky shell of the Earth, known as the lithosphere, is colder on the East Coast than in California, which is well known for experiencing frequent earthquakes.

"So when something shakes, it is like hitting a bar of steel, it rings pretty well. Whereas on the West Coast, the rocks are higher temperature and it is more like hitting something quite a bit softer," he said.

Lucy Jones, a USGS spokeswoman, said the West Coast crust is broken up by active faults so it "doesn't do as good of a job of transmitting the energy."

"On the East Coast, you have this old, hard, cold crust that does a lovely job of transmitting the waves like a solid bell," she said on CNN, so that an earthquake "can definitely be felt hundreds of miles away."

The US East Coast has plenty of fault lines, but they are ancient, and are inside a creaky plate that is under pressure from being jostled and pushed by other plates, experts said.

Occasionally, pressure builds up and stresses will be released in earthquakes, like the one on Tuesday.

"They are faults that used to be very active faults hundreds of millions of years ago, unlike the faults on the West Coast... (that) are active today," Jordan said.

Jack Boatwright, a seismologist with USGS, told AFP that one aftershock of 2.8 magnitude was recorded in the hour following the quake.

Other parts of the world that are similar to the US East Coast in terms of earthquake dynamics would include India, as well as some parts of Russia and Australia, he added.

"In India, that large triangle is relatively old, so we think that it conducts energy similarly," he said.

Other differences between East and West Coast quakes are the sounds they make -- residents of California are less likely to hear banging associated with a big quake unless they are very near the epicenter, he said.

"On the East Coast you might hear it many kilometers (miles) away, so don't distrust the people who said they heard it," Boatwright said.

Jordan added that the likelihood of a bigger quake in the near future was minimal.

"There is a small probability that this could be the first of a set of earthquakes and there could a larger earthquake coming, but the chances of that are small, about three to five percent."

On the US East Coast, where brick and wood buildings are not typically built to withstand shaking, a local official in Virginia said they were investigating calls of structural damage.

Washington's National Cathedral reported "significant damage," with parts of three of the central tower's four pinnacles, its uppermost spires, having fallen off. No one was injured by the falling debris.

"On the East Coast you have a lot of structures that, since they haven't been built to withstand earthquakes, don't do a very good job if they are actually shaking," said Jordan.

Any damage that occurs is typically close to the epicenter in such quakes, and the area where the quake struck was not a heavily populated town center.

Explore further: Ill. earthquake a wake-up call

Related Stories

Ill. earthquake a wake-up call

April 20, 2008

A U.S. seismologist said the earthquake that jolted the Midwest Friday is a reminder of the risks seismic events pose outside familiar quake areas.

Chile quake in 'elite class' like 2004 Asian quake

February 28, 2010

(AP) -- The huge earthquake that struck off the coast of Chile belongs to an "elite class" of mega earthquakes, experts said, and is similar to the 2004 Indian Ocean temblor that triggered deadly tsunami waves.

Recommended for you

Heavy nitrogen molecules reveal planetary-scale tug-of-war

November 17, 2017

Nature whispers its stories in a faint molecular language, and Rice University scientist Laurence Yeung and colleagues can finally tell one of those stories this week, thanks to a one-of-a-kind instrument that allowed them ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

3.2 / 5 (9) Aug 23, 2011
Nah, this, and the hurricane, droughts, fires etc. throughout the south are god's punishment against the southern republicans for leaving congress in session to prevent any out-of-session appointments and for not passing a jobs bill since they were elected on just that promise last year.
OK, ok this is off topic and superfluous...but I just couldn't stop myself.
3.7 / 5 (3) Aug 23, 2011
NEWSFLASH - Yakuza claims near-miss attack on DC with vacuum energy weapon - Will destroy Tokyo unless Emperor kisses their ass on live tv-

NEWS UPDATE - Black hole devouring earths core - Fermilab admits 'slight miscalculation'-
2 / 5 (4) Aug 23, 2011
Jordan added that the likelihood of a bigger quake in the near future was minimal.

Unfortunately, we seem to have little or no understanding of earthquakes.

With kind regards,
Oliver K. Manuel
Former NASA Principal
Investigator for Apollo

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.