The coming earthquake won't be no great shakes
Let's take a walk down hypothetical avenue: You are sleeping soundly in your bedroom in the spacious and surprisingly unaffordable new Downtown lofts. Suddenly your cocker spaniel begins to paw at you and whine. As you wake, you think, “That’s strange, Buster usually doesn’t bother me at this hour. Is there a midnight prowler outside?”
It's then that you feel the rumbling under your feet. Your nightstand begins to dance like R2D2, and the mirror on your wall crashes to the floor, shattering into hundreds of jagged shards, each of them reflecting your horrified image back to you. That’s seven years bad luck, starting this second.
“The Rail Runner doesn’t run this late,” you realize. "It barely even runs at all." Your mind races to explain this wholly unfamiliar sensation as you get out of bed to look out your large picture window. What could it be?
At that moment, the window shakes out of its frame, fracturing into 20 dagger-like fragments that plunge into your pajama-covered body, slicing your skin, your muscles, your organs.
Bleeding, disoriented and in terrible pain, you stumble away from the now empty window frame. The cool midnight air enters your loft, a strangely welcome sensation. In the distance, you can hear a chorus of car and fire alarms. You collapse on your back, near your bookcase, and then everything goes black. Next you wake to the sound of screaming. Your blurry vision clears to reveal your unanchored heavy bookcase has fallen on your legs. A sick sensation washes over you as you realize that the screaming is coming from you! As you drift back into unconsciousness, you whisper regretfully to yourself, “If only … I’d been … more … prepared … for … the earthquake.”
Do you know what to do when the earthquake hits our city? The best weapon with which to arm yourself is knowledge, and we'll get to that, but let's back up a bit: Is there really any reason to believe that a destructive event like this would actually happen in Albuquerque? As you read on, you will find, sadly, that the answer is a resounding "yes."
Long ago, when single-celled organisms roamed the Earth, in the same location where Albuquerque exists today, geological processes were set in motion deep within the planet, leading up to what we have on our smooth mammalian hands today: A cauldron of trouble a-brewin'. Yes, we cruise down old Route 66 in our Chrysler LeBarons thinking everything is A-OK, but few of us consider the geological threats taunting us from below. We can only imagine how the Earth trembled millions of years ago, or how it will soon tremble again.
Fred Lawrence, a rock scientist, also called a "geologist," at the University of New Mexico, is a person in the know regarding our tumultuous geological past and our troubling future. "We know from the rocks at the crest that Albuquerque was once at, or below, sea level. Over time, the Western U.S. has been uplifted to over a mile above sea level, some mountains are almost 2.5 miles above sea level. To do this takes a lot of energy over a long period of time. Since then, entire mountain ranges have come and gone, and trying to understand how and why this happened is captivating. What makes New Mexico so nice for this is the exposure. Unlike Pennsylvania, in New Mexico you can actually see the rocks, and the rocks tell stories."
This story tells the tale of ominous geological activities, and of a very near future when massive upheavals, marked by terrible volcanoes and hyper-jiggly earthquakes, will return to this land and bring the city of Albuquerque to its quivering knees.
"In all seriousness, the U.S. Geological Survey considers Central New Mexico, namely along a feature called the Rio Grande Rift, to have a reasonable risk of earthquakes," says Professor Lawrence. "Since about 2 million years ago, the state has been relatively quiet. However, there are still many small earthquakes, particularly around Socorro. In the early ’70s, the West Mesa was rocked by a magnitude-6 earthquake: Many goats and chickens were lost."
Will there be another earthquake? "Yes," says the Professor. "Can we predict it? No."
The Rio Grand Rift, which extends from Central New Mexico to Central Colorado, is a regional tectonic feature wherein the ground is pulled apart while a chunk of land sinks into the Earth. "As the crust pulls apart,” says Lawrence, “the reduced pressure at great depth results in a lower melting temperature for the mantle, which then melts, and following an earthquake, the magma may be able to escape to the surface. With time, the Southwest U.S. will continue to extend, and the Rift will likely continue along with it. This in turn means we will, for the foreseeable future, have earthquakes and possibly active volcanoes."
When we Albuquerqueans look to the west, what do we see? The Albuquerque Volcanoes (the largest of which some like to call "Maneater"1), threatening to vaporize our citizens and turn our city into a pool of molten lava. The last eruption was roughly 150,000 years ago, which is only one millisecond ago in geological time2. "This event was a fissure eruption that produced the volcanoes visible on our skyline,” says Lawrence, “and the West Mesa escarpment through Petroglyph National Monument. Since then nothing much has happened; there has been some erosion of the original cinder cones, but otherwise, quiet ... perhaps a little too quiet."
According to Professor Lawrence, the state's largest magma pool3 is located 10 kilometers below the surface of Socorro. While the Albuquerque Volcanoes are considered to be dormant, he says there are rumors that Socorro's magma pools extend to our volcanoes via some linear feature. This would mean the Albuquerque Volcanoes could potentially become active. Let's assume this is true. What would happen?
Well, Rio Rancho would be in trouble, that's for sure. Is that actually a problem, though? "I have always wanted to see Rio Rancho be covered by flood basalts4 from a fissure eruption," says Lawrence. So have we, Professor, so have we.
"Unzip the old fault line that underlies the Albuquerque Volcanoes, and we could have another fissure eruption,” he continues. “It would likely last for days, possibly months. So much for all that cheap land."
"Wow," you say, "that's heavy. What can I do to protect myself and my family?"
The best way to protect yourself from the dangers of earthquakes is to be prepared. First, stock up on supplies such as a battery-operated radio with extra batteries, a flashlight, bottled water (sparkling or still), at least two weeks worth of food, tools, a shotgun with plenty of shells for home protection or foraging, blankets and pillows, a first aid kit, a pint of whiskey5 and, most importantly, a positive attitude. Store these supplies in a cool dry place (the same place you put your potatoes) or an earthquake-proof trunk. Next, take a long look at your house and ask, “Is this place earthquake-safe?” A good way to find out is to grab your nearest bookshelf and shake it violently. Anything that falls off and breaks should not have been placed where it was. Try setting heavier books and objects on lower shelves or on the ground. Lock up small breakable items in secure cabinets, and be sure that any hanging mirrors or pictures are nowhere near any place that people generally congregate in your home. The next step is to educate yourself on how to turn off all the gas and water valves in your house. Be sure to practice as sometimes these valves can be sticky or confusing.
If you are indoors when the big one hits, quickly find cover under a strong desk, a strong table or a strong man. Avoid going near any windows, hanging pictures, mirrors or gigantic chandeliers. If you are outside, move quickly away from any tall buildings or tall people as either of these things could topple over onto you and kill you. Also avoid standing under power lines or large trees. Those who are driving should come to a smooth, controlled stop and wait for the shaking to cease6.
The first few minutes following the quake should be spent turning off gas and water, unplugging appliances and dipping into the whiskey. It's important to note that, contrary to popular belief, the most dangerous part of the earthquake is not the initial violent shakes, but the hours and days after a major quake has hit. It is during this time that our city could be rocked with devastating aftershocks (not just the physical earth tremblers, but the emotional aftershocks of having braved such a traumatic experience), freezing avalanches of regret, wave upon wave of Poseidon’s Wrath (tsunamis) and, most tragically, the rebirth of Maneater.
Preparing for the volcano is similar too preparing for the great quake, just add disposable gas masks for everybody in the family. During the eruption, take note of where you are in relation to the volcano as dangers change according to proximity. If you find yourself very close to the awakened fire beast, beware of hot lava, mudslides and pyroclastic flow7. It is best to have an escape route planned, hopefully to higher ground. However, if you are trapped inside, close all windows and doors and bring pets in with you. Those caught outdoors should seek shelter inside or, failing that, curl up into a ball to protect their heads from falling rocks (this safety system also “works” for bear attacks). If you find yourself far away from the eruption, you are not out of harm's way: Giant boulders can be shot many miles from the central eruption point of a volcano, so seek shelter indoors or keep looking up. Be sure to wear long sleeves, goggles and your disposable gas mask to protect yourself from raining ash, and don’t stay in one place too long, lest you get buried.
Now, go to sleep. The next time you wake in the middle of the night, you will be armed with knowledge, and thus prepared for the Earth's violent revolt. Good luck, little Albuquerqueans. You're in our prayers.