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Steven Church on Tracking Quakes

Steven Church on Tracking Quakes

Church goes looking for the spaces between warning and impact @ The Rumpus
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.

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