Earthquake in the Valley: Could it Happen Here?

By Derek Kinkade   - bio | email | Twitter

COLUMBUS, GA (WTVM) -  "In terms of large earthquake that people recognize pretty quickly as earthquake, it's been a long time," says Dr. Clinton Barineau, an Assistant Professor of Geology at Columbus State University.

In fact, the last earthquake that was felt significantly here in the valley happened in the late 1800s in Charleston, South Carolina.  It was large enough to cause damage to buildings several hundred miles away from the source of the quake.  In 1811 and 1812, another series of quakes struck along the New Madrid seismic zone in Tennessee and Missouri.  Again, these quakes were felt across a large part of the United States, including Alabama and Georgia, but in the last 100 years or so, our area has been free of major earthquakes, but that doesn't mean that all has been quiet.

"Here in Columbus, in this region, we have faults pretty much all around us," Dr. Barineau says.

There are dozens of these faults under our feet, including the Goat Rock and Towaliga faults that run through parts of Muscogee, Harris, and Lee counties.  Any of these fractures -- leftover from the formation of the Appalachian Mountains -- would be capable of producing a small earthquake.  Recent devastating earthquakes have occurred along faults that are located along the boundaries of tectonic plates – large land masses that are constantly moving toward one another, drifting apart from one another, or sliding past one another.  Energy is sometimes released when this happens in the form of an earthquake.

"The main difference is that here in the southeast, the faults that we have are no longer under these significant stresses being at the edges of these boundaries," explains Dr. Barineau.

Because of this, the earthquakes we may experience here in the Southeast would generally be not as strong as the devastating earthquakes we've seen occur along the plate boundaries, like in Chile or Haiti, for example.

Dr. Barineau says, "The probability of a large earthquake - something similar to what they experience in Haiti - something on the order of a 6 or 7 plus magnitude earthquake would be extremely unlikely here."

And whether it's a large earthquake or just a small tremor, the Coca Cola Space Science Center in Columbus is equipped to measure them.

"What we have is, we have a digital seismograph here located at the CCSSC, and what that allows us to do is actually monitor seismic waves as they arrive here in Columbus, Georgia," says Michael Johnson, an assistant administrator with the CCSSC.

The waves from several recent earthquakes, including those in Haiti and Mexico, have been detected by the instruments here -- even though we could not feel them.  In fact, the equipment is so sensitive, it can pick up more than just earthquakes.

"We can actually pick up things like trains. We're located downtown and we have the 9th Avenue train that comes up and down and we can actually see that train coming and going on our seismograph," Johnson tells us.

So while the chances of a major earthquake -- one with a magnitude of six or greater -- happening in the valley are rather small…

An earthquake of that magnitude here in the Columbus region would be devastating," warns Dr. Barineau.

Because our buildings, roads, and bridges are not built to withstand earthquakes, a significant quake would cause major damage to our infrastructure -- damage that may not be included in your homeowners insurance.

"If your homeowners doesn't cover earthquakes and there is an earthquake and you have damage, then it's going to be excluded unless it's specifically covered in your policy," Georgia Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine says.

However, because the chances of a major quake around here are so small, it's something Dr. Barineau isn't losing sleep over.

"I'd be much more concerned about tornadoes and hurricanes and floods. Those are the things that are more likely to affect us," he says.

And don't let the recent number of major earthquakes scare you.

"The earthquake that we're feeling, the earthquake that we're seeing occurring around the planet are normal - there are no more occurring this year than there were last year, or a decade, or a century ago," Dr. Barineau says.

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