Wednesday, February 23, 2011

It's all New Madrid's fault

Hanging out with the artistic types Monday morning, we got to talking about our worry tapes --- those loops of anticipated woes stored in our heads with controls set on autostart. Mine launches at about 4 a.m. some days and serves as an alarm clock since the only way to stop it is a cup of coffee --- or two.

Natural disasters usually aren't included on my tape, but the earthquake at Christchurch (where the death toll is creeping toward and may exceed 100) did send me scurrying to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources' "Iowa Perspective on Midwestern Earthquakes," which I generally find reassuring --- up to a point.

Those of us who live out here in the middle tend to look toward the West Coast, where a broad slash of seismic red stretches from border to border, and wonder in a self-congratulatory kind of way why in the world anyone would want to live in a region where a slight underground shift could dump a guy and several hundred thousand others into the Pacific with less than adequate notice.

We tend to overlook the New Madrid Fault, centered in the Mississippi River Valley quite a ways south of us and named for a little Missouri town down in the bootheel, just because it hasn't fired in a big way recently --- not since 1811-1812 actually. When it did go off, seismologists estimate it generated the largest North American earthquakes in recorded history. There weren't many people around at that time, so the human toll was minimal --- but its effects reportedly were felt from the Rockies to the Atlantic coast. And the Mississippi reportedly ran backwards for a while.

The destructive potential is greater along New Madrad than along the coastal faults, the experts say, because the earth's crust here is older, thicker, cooler and more brittle. Several major population centers are in extreme danger zones from New Madrid --- St. Louis, Memphis, Nashville, Little Rock, Birmingham, Louisville.

The good news for Iowans, if there is good news in a scenario like this, is that most likely only our four southeasterly-most counties would be affected and even then damage probably would be minimal. Predicting earthquakes is an inexact science of course, but some of the experts say that the chance of a major quake along New Madrid will increase to 90 percent by 2040.

But then there's other disconcerting news from Christchurch --- the existence of the fault that caused this week's damage wasn't even known until a few months ago when a less severe quake hit the city.

So that brings up the question --- is there, deep under Chariton, an undetected fault --- just waiting? Yikes! I'm still trying to decide whether or not to worry about this.


I've been hanging out at the museum a lot this week, continuing the great Stephens House sort. This involves dividing the contents of a previously out-of-control storage closet under the back stairs into two sections: Hundreds of documents related to Lucas County's rural schools before consolidation into one collection (these documents will stay where they're at for the time being) and everything else, into another. "Everything Else" is moving gradually to another building and into more organized storage --- or display. In many cases, "everything else" involves books, documents and the like that reached us in very poor condition, should never be handled on a regular basis because of their fragility and must be securely wrapped and placed in accessible storage in case someone does want to take a look at them at some point.

I did emerge something of a hero yesterday because I managed to accidentally find the curator's "New Testament," which she had absent-mindedly misplaced several weeks ago. You need to know the terminology here to know what's going on. Our "Bible" is the big black ledger into which all accessions since the beginning have been painstakingly entered according to a consecutive numbering system. All of that's on computer now, too, but the "Bible" still is the most convenient tool to use when we need to track down the provenance of something. The "New Testament" is the notebook in which the curator makes preliminary notes regarding accessions before they're entered first into the ledger, then the computer.

So I found the "New Testament" stuffed among church-related documents on a staging shelf in the library yesterday --- and now there's great rejoicing in museumland.

1 comment:

Ed said...

"the existence of the fault that caused this week's damage wasn't even known until a few months ago when a less severe quake hit the city."

Thanks Frank. Now you started up my worry tape.