Tracking Quakes



At a little before midnight on Oct. 20, 2012, a 5.3 magnitude earthquake, centered near King City on the San Andreas Fault, shook hard enough to be felt in Fresno, some 130 miles away. It was the first earthquake felt in Fresno in over 25 years. And I missed the whole thing. Slept right through it. I felt nothing. In fact I only knew about it the next morning thanks in large part to what might be called the “social networking seismometer.” As the quake sent its P-waves and S-waves out, they were echoed by the waves of response on Facebook and Twitter. I logged in when I woke up and tracked the ripples of impact. I could not only pinpoint the time but also the distance, direction, and destruction caused in the immediate aftermath of the quake. Some posts mentioned the shaking while others talked of strange rumbling and crashing sounds that earthquakes often produce. If I’d had more Facebook friends closer to the epicenter in the Salinas Valley I know my status feed would have been markedly different, more dominated by the quake. In all, the networked stream provided an interesting anecdotal record of the quake and I wondered if seismologists pay attention to such real-time stories of the fissure and fallout. I read the accounts from friends and felt a sense of loss or failure. I felt depressed. I’d lived in California for over six years and still hadn’t experienced a quintessential California quake, still hadn’t come close to what Schopenhauer might call the “dynamic sublime,” the encounter with something powerful enough to destroy you. The greater the threat, he believed, the greater the experience of the sublime. I wanted to rewind the night, sit up for a while longer, and feel the surprise and confusion, the unpredictable shaking of the quake, but I knew I’d missed my chance. Something else I noticed in the social seismology of the quake was that some people never felt a thing while others couldn’t miss the movement. It seemed that, on some level, you had to be tuned into the temblor, had to be paying attention, but even then those responses were mediated first through the senses, then memory and intelligence, and finally through language; and I started to wonder if, had I been awake, I would’ve felt the quake at all, if I even had the instincts to understand what was happening or the language to capture it.


On Jan. 9, 2010 Sophie the dog knew something was wrong. She was listening, practicing a kind of instinctual auscultation and she sensed the danger before anyone else had a clue. In the video, you can tell the moment she realizes it. She’s lounging on the newsroom floor all dog-like and calm—the kind of beatific calm that, every time I watched her, made me jealous in a deep an existential way. In the office, file cabinets line one wall and an old computer sits on a desk next to what looks like a microfiche machine. A wall calendar hangs on a pillar in the foreground. You can count about a dozen boxes of files and spot a towering stack of newsprint, several cluttered desks, along with a couple of empty swivel chairs in the background,

At first, there are no humans in sight–only Sophie lying on the floor in the apparently windowless room of the Times-Standard newspaper in Eureka, California. She’s panting and appears relaxed, clearly at home in her environment. She seems to know this place and it’s rhythms. She could be like a favorite coworker and the sort of benevolent presence that makes everyone’s day a little brighter.

In the video you notice, at first, Sophie’s ears relaxed, hanging loose. Then as the first, faster P-wave, or push-wave of a 6.5 magnitude undersea earthquake ripples out from the epicenter several miles beneath the surface along the Mendocino Fault, Sophie’s ears spring up, straight and wide-open, the ends curling down a bit. She points her nose at one spot on the floor and seems to follow the movement of something with her eyes, almost as if she’s tracking an invisible rodent or a ghost. Suddenly she jumps to her feet, and sprints out of the room, out of the picture.

A split-second later the more destructive S-wave hits Eureka with its vertical amplitude and the newsroom walls begin to wiggle and shake, sending papers and boxes toppling. A man appears from the back of the room and walks to a spot not far from where Sophie had been. He stands there for a moment as the walls move around him, looking utterly confused and terrified. It seems to take a moment for his survival instinct to kick in, but he eventually runs out of the room after Sophie. Soon the lights go out and the security camera screen fills with a strange snow of cascading white bugs.

Sophie is not the only one, of course. She’s just the one dog I couldn’t stop watching and thinking about during this time in my life. Dogs are of course both social, pack animals and particularly devoted to their human companions. Many people have reported strange reactions from their pets just before an earthquake hits. They describe barking, howling, and running in circles. It seemed clear that the dogs and other animals were trying to tell us something, trying to warn us, but lacking the language to do so. Dogs can smell cancer, hear your heart arrhythmia, and find lost children. Among the many things they do better than us, some dogs also appeared to sense the seismic shifts in the earth’s tectonic plates.

Some dogs could warn us of the inevitable end or simply teach us how to pay attention to ourselves and to the world. They seemed to feel the rifts rising up from miles beneath our feet as we dumbly waited–or foolishly sought to be shaken. I admit it. I wanted to feel an earthquake, wanted to understand them, to witness the collision of geological time and human time, but I’m not sure I could explain the reasons behind this desire. Perhaps I simply wanted an unmediated experience, one not conditioned by metaphor or memory, an experience less rational and more instinctual, more animal.


When I asked USGS geophysicist, Andy Michael if anyone has studied the connection between animals and earthquake prediction along the San Andreas Fault, he didn’t dismiss me as a crackpot as quickly as I expected. As it turned out, Michael had also seen the YouTube footage of Sophie and thought we could learn something from studying it more closely. He explained that P-waves, or horizontal “push” waves are longer and faster and are the first waves to ripple out from the epicenter of an earthquake. They are shallow and less destructive, sort of like a warning shot. Right behind them, though, moving a little slower, come the S-waves with vertical amplitude, and it’s these that cause most surface destruction or tsunamis during a big quake.

If we think of an earthquake as a car accident, there is often a moment, a split-second long enough to flinch when you can see the impact coming, when you fling your arm out to protect your passenger, jerk the steering wheel, or slam on the brake. It only lasts a fraction of a second, this warning ripple in time and space, and this is sort of like a P-wave coming in shallow and fast, followed quickly, suddenly, violently and, in the case of earthquakes, inevitably by the devastating S-wave impact.

“The dog probably just felt the P-wave,” Michael said, looking over his glasses at me.

Michael had a bit of East Coast intellectualism and the remnants of a New York accent mixed with a cultivated California hippie-cool. He wore sandals and jeans, but he tucked his t-shirt into his jeans. He was a Columbia-trained scientist who played his trombone over sound recordings of earthquakes as part of what he called his “Earthquake Quartet.” I’d listened to his music online and found it difficult to understand. But I’d also listened to the original sound recordings of quakes that Michael used in his musical compositions and found them oddly compelling. They sounded a little like thunder and breaking shale.

Though he’s a hard-core scientist with all the credentials, Michael still pays attention to anecdotal and artistic interpretations of earthquakes; and when I visited him he told me that he’d compared the video of Sophie the dog with real-time seismographic data from the quake. Michael thought he could synchronize the video footage with the data to show where the dog feels the P-wave and then the exact moment a second or two later when the first S-wave hits.

“Watch,” he said, “You can see it. The wall calendar swings out sideways like a pendulum.”

Sophie the dog felt the first push, the flinch, and she jumped and ran before the S-wave hit, shaking everything. I told Michael that I thought this was a pretty impressive display of instinct and intellect and wondered why there weren’t “earthquake dogs” in all buildings threatened by seismic activity. But Michael reminded me that aside from their unreliability (not ALL dogs sense earthquakes) the main problem with using some kind of P-wave monitor or, in my mind, a designated Earthquake Dog, for early earthquake warning is that the gap between P-waves and the more destructive S-waves gets wider the further you move away from the epicenter.

Thus the more advance warning you have from a P-wave monitor, or an earthquake sensing dog like Sophie, the less you need it. Such a monitoring system would only be effective in places where the damage and destruction would be minimal. Closer to the epicenter, those S-waves are coming in so fast behind the P-Waves that there’s often no discernible interval between them, no opportunity for a dog to sense the trembling and save us.

“If dogs could reliably sense earthquakes,” Michael said, “the best the thing to do would be to build a machine that replicates that sensing.”

Another USGS official had told me, “What we do is sort of like meteorology.” And it’s true. Seismologists try to predict the unpredictable. They try to understand the chaotic nature of large-scale systems on this planet, systems that obey different laws of time and probability. Andy Michael was perhaps more blunt in his assessment of the challenges facing seismologists.

“You can see a storm coming. You can evacuate people,” he said, throwing his arms up behind his head. “Probably the best we can do right now with earthquake prediction is give a 10 year window.”

I mentioned a recent news story that narrowed the window down even more and claimed a big quake was due any day now. Maybe tomorrow. Michael quickly dismissed the article as essentially the equivalent of scientific hearsay, one reporter’s overhearing and exaggerating a theoretical conversation between seismologists; but he also explained that the point really was that you could write such a story any day about the San Andreas or any fault zone and it wouldn’t do anyone any good.

Why, I wondered then, do we cling to these predictions of a mythically huge quake happening tomorrow? Why do we think we can see the end coming?

Michael settled into his chair a bit and told me he thought some of our focus on prediction, our desire for answers comes from the unsettling realization that the ground beneath our feet is constantly trembling. Part of it has to do with the ability of a seismic event to affect huge populations of people and to cause destruction to infrastructure—roads, utilities, public transportation, and security—that can’t be absorbed into the economy and can have disastrous long-term consequences.

“But honestly,” he said, “most of it has to do with the inevitability and unpredictability of earthquakes. They’re happening all the time; and though the chances are slim, a big one could actually happen any minute, could have already happened at the San Andreas a few miles away from here,” he said and pointed out his window,  “and we wouldn’t know it yet, wouldn’t know until it hits us.”

We both looked out the window.

“It sounds so existential,” I said.

“It is,” he said, grinning and shoving his glasses up his nose.

In 1985 one hundred and twenty-two thousand households in the seismically active Parkfield, California region received a brochure from the USGS warning them of a quake sometime in the next eight years. I wondered how many people in Parkfield marked 1993 with a special calendar, checking off each day they didn’t feel a big one. How long did that brochure stay tacked to the refrigerator? How long did people wait, living with the possibility of disaster.

I wanted to believe this knowledge of the simultaneous inevitability and unpredictability of disaster could comfort me, that perhaps I could always live in the in-between spaces, the liminal zones between warning and impact.


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Rumpus original art by Annie Daly.

Steven Church is the author of The Guinness Book of Me: a Memoir of Record, Theoretical Killings: Essays and Accidents, and The Day After The Day After: My Atomic Angst. His essays have been published or are forthcoming in Fourth Genre, Creative Nonfiction, Prairie Schooner, AGNI, The Pedestrian, River Teeth, The North American Review, Brevity, Colorado Review and many others. His essay, "Auscultation" was selected by Edwidge Danticat for the 2011 Best American Essays. He's a founding editor of the literary magazine, The Normal School, and teaches in the MFA Program at Fresno State. More from this author →