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  • January 31st, 2019


By Joel M. Vance


In 1957 Jerry Lee Lewis warned us that there was “A whole lot of shakin’ goin’ on!” Ominously, Jerry Lee described himself as The Killer. Now, many years later, he should be designated the spokessinger for natural disaster, the minstrel for volcanologists and seismologists everywhere.


Most of us don’t realize and those who do mostly don’t think about the fact that we all are sitting on a ticking time bomb which also is a target for random chunks of rock from space that have the potential for blowing out our little candle of life.


A recent news story revealed that a meteorite is due to pass close to earth which, if it were to hit the Earth’s surface, might well have the effect that an historic meteorite did when it impacted the Earth and apparently caused the extinction of the dinosaurs. A concurrent news story said that within the preceding week three chunks of space junk had whizzed by planet Earth uncomfortably close by cosmic standards.


A wave of panic washed over me— the feeling you might get when your car stalls on the railroad track with the Fireball Limited bearing down on it and the car won’t start! And then I read further into the story which explained that the meteorite isn’t due in Earth’s neighborhood for 800 years plus and probably will miss by considerable margin anyway.


Whew! Disaster averted.


On the other hand you don’t see that many dinosaurs around anymore outside of the latest movie version of Jurassic Park. And that’s all done with computers. However, those big sauropods went somewhere for some reason and the best theory is that a hurtling meteorite targeted Earth millennia ago and zap! Bye-bye, the plant-eating sauropods, Tyrannosaurus, and other flesh eating dinosaurs.


Meteorites are a rare occurrence and not much to worry about but on the other hand, much of the earth is sitting on that aforementioned ticking time bomb and we all go about our daily lives not realizing that a few feet beneath us is enough explosive energy to send us sailing into time on the trail of the sauropods. I’ve seen the evidence firsthand of how nasty Mother Earth can be when she gets ticked off about something.


Some years back I went fishing at Reelfoot Lake in Tennessee. The fishing wasn’t very good and the highlight of the trip was a visit to Carl Perkin’s birthplace, a decrepit cabin that didn’t look fit enough to raise hogs in, much less a place to nurture one of rock ‘n roll’s pioneer giants. If Perkins had invited his rockabilly contemporary Jerry Lee home for a whole lotta shakin’, the place would have collapsed. Carl Perkins has followed Tyrannosaurus rex into the history books but Reelfoot Lake still is there, concrete evidence catastrophe lurked nearby.


The 15,000 acre Lake came into being after the 1811-12 New Madrid earthquake which temporarily reversed the flow of the Mississippi River and caused a vast area of Tennessee to subside into what today is called a “sag pond.” This series of earthquakes remains the most powerful to hit the contiguous United States east of the Rocky Mountains in recorded history. The only thing that saved the area from massive casualties was the fact that few people lived in the area.


That’s not the case today when the New Madrid fault which could cause a modern-day earthquake just about any time Mother Earth decides to shake things up threatens such major urban centers as Memphis and St. Louis. The so-called New Madrid seismic zone has contributed to more than 4000 minor earthquakes in recent times and seismologists estimate there is a 7 to 10% chance in the next 50 years of a repeat of the 1811-12 quake.


Such an event would play havoc with the numerous famous barbecue restaurants of both St. Louis and Memphis not to mention putting a serious shakeup in the daily lives of many thousands of the area’s urban dwellers.


Chances are a new New Madrid quake would do little if any damage to my mid-Missouri home, but who’s to say? About halfway between the two places is the Decaturville Dome between Camdenton and Lebanon adjacent to Highway Five where an estimated 300 million years ago give or take a few hundred thousand, a meteorite six kilometers in diameter crashed into the earth. Maybe that meteorite 800 years from now won’t miss after all— sometimes they don’t.


The dome is one of a series of impact craters, roughly along the 38th parallel and theories are that it is one of several historic meteorite strikes stretching from Kansas through Missouri— but an alternate theory is that at least one of them is the result of a volcanic explosion rather than a meteorite strike.


If you happen to be standing on one of these explosive spots when the unthinkable happens, it doesn’t much matter what the reason is. Nor did the reason matter to the more than two dozen campers buried by a landslide in 1959 when the Yellowstone National Park area shrugged its shoulders. The earthquake rippled the landscape and actually created a lake, appropriately named Quake Lake. I couldn’t repress a shudder when our jon boat drifted past the area on the Madison River some years back. It was like tiptoeing under a huge leaning tree that you know is going to fall one of these days and you hope it’s not this day.


But the 1959 earthquake would be no more than a hiccup if the Yellowstone caldera decides to blow its top. The cataclysmic effect is almost unimaginable. It only takes a visit to Yellowstone to glimpse the potential. The entire park is pockmarked with geysers and bubbling reminders that just beneath your feet Mom Nature has an uneasy stomach that at any moment could result in a planetary vomit that would dwarf anything ever experienced.


Just more than 2 million years ago there was a Yellowstone eruption that produced 2500 times as much ash as the 1980 Mount St. Helens eruption which happened within the memory of most people today. Ash from Mount Saint Helens settled on our deck in mid-Missouri and ash from a super volcanic eruption in Yellowstone would coat the entire United States with ash, not to mention probably obliterating any town or city for a considerable distance from the epicenter. The estimates are that such an eruption would blanket the states of Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, and Colorado with three feet of volcanic ash and would cover the Midwest with far more than a mere coating on our deck. But take heart— the chances of such an eruption in the lifetime of anyone on the planet today are minimal. In fact there might never be another eruption on the magnitude of the three recorded in history, the last one 664,000 years ago.


Let’s face it— the Earth’s crust is an explosive device waiting to happen. I’ve never heard of it but in 1505 there was a magnitude 8.7 earthquake in the Himalayan Mountains, the highest on earth, and a 2018 study estimates that if a magnitude 8.7 earthquake struck the same area now it would kill nearly 600,000 people and injure more than one million. We think of the Himalayas as Mount Everest and K2 and other destinations for the world’s most intrepid mountain climbers. But apparently they are far more than great big knobs sticking out of the ground to give mountain climbers something to write books about— or get killed trying to get to the top.


And isn’t it time we quit referring to Mother Earth or Mother Nature as if the world we live in has a feminine aspect and natural disaster is the result of some cosmic female pique? That may be the ultimate expression of misogyny. This sexist attitude is even reflected in our advertising— remember the 1970s series of commercials for Chiffon margarine which warned you “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature” after which there was a flash of lightning and a peal of thunder. Fortunately, the Chiffon folks didn’t feel it necessary to punctuate their stupid commercial with a volcanic eruption or a devastating earthquake. They just told you it was preferable to use margarine rather than real butter. So let’s just do away with the comparison of natural disaster to female pique. Nature is what it is and let’s leave the ladies out of it.


Our two newest states both have been victimized by nature’s hiccups. In 1964 on Good Friday (which didn’t seem that good to religious and nonreligious Alaskans alike) a magnitude 9.2 earthquake shook the state and caused a comparatively minor 139 deaths. Alaska is part of an earthquake prone rim around the Pacific Ocean and is never more than a few days or maybe hours from an earthquake. Seismologists registered more than 55,000 earthquakes in 2018. And there have been more than 3000 already in 2019.


In 1866,  Mark Twain visited the Hawaiian Islands and climbed Mount Kilauea and called it “a vision of hell and its angels.” And in 2018, the same volcano erupted and we saw firsthand rivers of lava, spilling down the side of the mountain into the sea, threatening life and causing $800 million in damages. Which proves that not much has changed in a century and a half, except the value of the dollar.


So what can you do to avoid being shaken, rattled, and rolled (to invoke another classic rock ‘n roll ballad) by an earthquake, or to be incinerated by a volcanic eruption? The answer probably is to book a berth on the first Martian settlement rocket.


While science has gotten far better at predicting the probability of both earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, the science still can’t do a whole lot more than to caution that trouble is brewing. There was no warning that we know of before historic eruptions of Italy’s Mount Etna and Mount Vesuvius. One at Mount Etna may have killed as many as 20,000 people and an eruption in 79 A.D. by Vesuvius is well known for having incinerated more than 1000 people some of whom to this day are being discovered in charcoal form.


There was plenty of warning well ahead of time that Mount Pelee on the island of Martinique was going to explode in 1902 but most people ignored the ominous signs and 30,000 of them died as a result.


Natural disasters are a fact of life (or death). Volcanic eruptions and earthquakes are not necessarily the worst of the potential catastrophes that nature periodically visits on the Earth’s citizens. In 1900 after a hurricane devastated Galveston, Texas, an estimated 8000 -12,000 people died. Storm forecasting was primitive in those days but even so southern coastal residents had about two weeks warning. It wasn’t nearly enough. Katrina in 2005 took 1200 lives. There have been many other disastrous hurricanes as well.


The 1871 Peshtigo forest fire swept across northern Wisconsin and wiped out as many as 2500 people— ironically it occurred the same day as the Chicago fire which made more news because it burned much of the city and killed about 300 people. Ten times as many died in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. And, as anyone in California, will tell you San Francisco and the rest of the state is overdue for one or more similar quakes that could make the Frisco tremor comparatively minor.


So, given the Earth’s propensity for upsetting humanity’s tentative grasp on life and property, the best alternative to wasting time worrying about being hit by a meteorite, is to plug in Jayree Lee, turn up the volume, and boogie on “Come on over, baby! Whole lot of shakin’ going on!”







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