28 February 2011

Nisqually...10 Years On

Headline from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, March 1, 2001.

Earthquake occurrences in the past seven days.
(Screen grab from www.usgs.gov)

A quick glance at the USGS' running tally of recent earthquakes in the U.S. (right) reminds us of the country's most tectonically active areas .  It's pretty clear: California and Alaska, followed by several other geographic pockets of notable activity.  For residents of one of those pockets--Seattle and the greater Puget Sound area--the February 28 dateline on the map at right carries special significance.

Today is the 10th anniversary of the magnitude 6.8 Nisqually earthquake, which struck the area at 10:54 a.m. local time on Wednesday, February 28, 2001.  Although it ranks as only the 82nd largest earthquake by magnitude (by my count) in the U.S., it is the third largest on record and the most recent significant quake in Washington state.

The quake originated at a depth of 52 km in the subsurface Juan de Fuca plate, which is subducting under the North American plate in the Cascadia subduction zone.  The epicenter (47.15N 122.72W) was located toward the southern end of Puget Sound, 17.6 km northeast of Olympia, WA and 57.5 km south southwest of Seattle.

27 February 2011

Critique my writing, please

In the spirit of inviting folks to interact with my blog and hopefully improving my writing, I'm going to step out of my comfort zone and try something new.

Below, I've posted my first-ever official attempt at science writing that I prepared last fall as a journalism class assignment.  I'd like to invite readers to provide their critical review.  What do you like or dislike?  How is the lead? The structure? The quotes?  Does it keep your attention?  Does it provide sufficient and/or appropriate detail?  Etc. etc.

While this is partially a self-serving attempt to generate feedback, I hope the article (which wasn't published elsewhere) makes for interesting and useful reading.

But first, a little background...

The idea for this experiment struck me after reading a post by Anne Jefferson over at Highly Allochthonous (which I thoroughly enjoyed) about what scientists and journalists can learn from each other regarding how to write effectively about science for a broader, not-necessarily-expert audience.  The inspiration for her post, in turn, was the publication of two news pieces* in a recent issue of Nature that discussed two just-published studies** (in the same issue of Nature) linking a greater probability of extreme weather, specifically above-average rainfall and flooding, to anthropogenically-induced climate change.

21 February 2011

Bogged Down by the 2012 Science Budget

State of the Union addresses rarely stick with me.  Within a few days I’ve typically forgotten everything that was said, no matter how much I like or dislike the president at the time.  All that’s left afterward are vague recollections of vacuous promises about restoring America’s greatness and ensuring our future.  (Oh, and clapping, lots of clapping.)  I don’t know, does that make me a bad citizen?  Or is just that that’s what State of the Union addresses are—pep rallies, in effect, to briefly lift people’s spirits?

But boy, did President Obama catch my ear when he started talking about renewing national interest and investment in scientific research and innovation during last month’s speech.  I especially liked his line that, “It’s not just the winner of the Super Bowl who deserves to be celebrated, but the winner of the science fair.”  My geek heart skipped a beat when I heard that.  Now that’s the way to restore America’s greatness and ensure our future, I thought.  (Full disclosure: I also celebrated when Green Bay won the Super Bowl.)

16 February 2011

Road Trip Photo Appendix

Thought I'd slap up a few of my shots that didn't make the initial road trip post...some science(ish), some just for fun.

Keeping Portland Weird: OMSI, i.e., Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (0.000000002 astronomical units ≈ 300 m if I got the conversion right)

15 February 2011

The Joy of Road Tripping…with Geologists

Anyone who has ever willingly embarked on a road trip is no doubt aware that the enjoyment is more in the journey than in reaching your destination.  Or however the adage goes.  For history buffs, the joy might come from touring Civil War battlefields or traversing Route 66 in search of Americana.  For foodies, maybe its stopping off at a roadside diner for a taste of regional cuisine or seeking out the freshest farm-raised ingredients that does the trick. 

For geologists, professional and amateur alike, it’s simple.  It’s the rock below our feet and the rock towering over our heads.  It’s the physical and chemical processes that gave these rocks their distinct textures and flavors, and the tremendous forces that shape(d) them.  The biotic veneer that selectively coats the crust is fascinating and often beautiful in its own right, but for a geologist, it’s all about what’s underneath that counts.

My apologies for waxing philosophic.  I’ve got all this on the brain after returning from a long weekend of road tripping through the Cascades with two close friends—one a structural geologist and the other a seismologist.  What better way to see the mountains, right?  It’s like having a backstage pass: you get the insider’s scoop, far more interesting than the average self-guided tour.  Okay, so my friends aren’t the world’s foremost experts on the Cascades.  Nor are they park rangers who could sneak us up close and personal to the steaming vents of Mt. St. Helens.  Nonetheless, they are very bright, and they know a whole lot more than I do about these things (I was, after all, only a biogeochemist, as they jokingly remind me on occasion).

06 February 2011

An Abbreviated Numerical History of the Great New Madrid Earthquakes

200: Years since a series of massive earthquakes, originating in the subsurface New Madrid fault system of southeastern Missouri and northeastern Arkansas, began in 1811.  The quakes are some of the largest in U.S. history and are the largest ever (recorded) to occur east of the Rocky Mountains.

(Image courtesy of USGS)

4: Number of principal quakes that occurred during the series.  The first major quake occurred at 2:15 am local time on December 16, 1811, followed by the second five hours later.  The third occurred on January 23, 1812 and the fourth on February 7, 1812.  The second quake is sometimes regarded as an aftershock rather than a principal quake, because it was smaller and occurred so soon after the first.  About 200 aftershocks of magnitude 4.0 or greater were also recorded, along with numerous smaller quakes.

7.0: Minimum estimated magnitude (on the Richter scale) of each of the principal quakes according to the United States Geological Service.  Seismographs were not in use at the time in North America, so the magnitudes have been estimated by later researchers based on accounts of the earthquakes.  The USGS has estimated the magnitudes, in chronological order, as 7.7, 7.0, 7.5, and 7.7., although other estimates suggest that several of them were magnitude 8.0 or higher.  The largest earthquake ever recorded in the U.S. was magnitude 9.2, which occurred in Alaska on March 3, 1964.