April 7, 2010 - 5:59 PM | by: Alicia Acuna
Folks who work at the United States Geological Survey Earthquake Center in Golden, Colo., don’t just track temblors, they also answer the public’s questions via phone and email. The number one question they’ve been getting lately: “Is this the end of the world?” according to Heidi Koontz, the center’s Public Affairs Specialist.
News of four major quakes in as many months, in Haiti, Chile, Mexico and Indonesia, has prompted a tinge of panic in some who would otherwise consider these events pure coincidence.
“I received a call from a psychiatrist who is getting an influx of patients who are really concerned about the end of days,” says Koontz, “and he wanted us to pinpoint science and provide him with links to science that would help allay the fears of some of his patients. He needed some hard facts and he said that that actually helped.”
Koontz explained to the doctor what seismologist Harley Benz explained to Fox News. That seismically speaking, this is all pretty normal.
“You can expect earthquakes in locations where we are known to have earthquakes,” explains Benz. “And in this case, in Sumatra, it's one of the most seismically active areas in the world. Likewise Chile is one of the most seismically active areas in the world.”
According to the USGS Earthquake Center website, earthquakes can also occur in clusters, which may explain why this year has been front loaded with so much activity. Statistically, the globe is on track, so far this year, to be relatively average in terms of the number of larger quakes that hit annually. An average year will produce 17 quakes with a magnitude 7.0 or greater.
What is different about the last four months is the number of deaths caused by quakes. According to USGS records, 223,140 have been killed worldwide from seismic activity. Almost all of those deaths occurred in Haiti when residents were crushed by poorly designed and constructed homes and structures.
“Seismologists like to say, earthquakes don’t kill people, buildings do,” says Koontz. Scientists here also observed that the massive amount of destruction in Haiti made the public more aware, and therefore more afraid.
In the last 20 years the number of seismographs around the globe has increased dramatically. Right now, four thousand monitors measure the Earth's movements. Since the USGS scientists can track more quakes and get the information out there faster, that too can add to the perception the world has become less stable, even if that isn't the case.