Sunday Gazette-Mail from Charleston, West Virginia on August 24, 1975 · Page 51
Get access to this page with a Free Trial
Click to view larger version

Sunday Gazette-Mail from Charleston, West Virginia · Page 51

Charleston, West Virginia
Issue Date:
Sunday, August 24, 1975
Page 51
Start Free Trial

Page 51 article text (OCR)

The Whole Earth Is On the Move Underneath ·" »». --- ,/*· -"* ,- '"**:,, '*^» .-=·. ·* : :V..^-^'.-' ·' - * J t *: : .* -'-.-·*' ' . ·-·· · -J-ir..' . , ',--M '-',«*» , * ' · * : . t** · · .. · ~.-f _ -- - £ By John Barbour MOUNT BAKER, Wash. un - This steep mountain belches sulf uric steam day after day -- a hot, noxious reminder that she. like her sister volcanoes to the south, is still alive. Further, she threatens the valley below. A thousand miles to the south, the land mass on which Los Angeles, San Francisco rest is in danger. Two land masses, jerkily grinding against each other, one headed north, one headed south. If they continue, the two cities are only 20 million years away from a bizarre rendezvous. . But worse, and sooner -- some day before the century is out -- they face a jar: ring release of the stresses building between them, an earthquake of massive proportions. And out in the mid-Pacific, Mauna Loa, still searing from one major eruption last . month, threatens another. She shudders as one flank fills with hot magma -- molten . rock below the surface -- above the town of Hilo, already built on Mauna Loa lava. Kilo's population is 26,000. . These warnings have rumbled out of the earth for the last six months in the United States, and a relatively small band of scientists have watched, knowing they can do little about them, and wondering how * people can live in the shadow of these momentous events and not seem to care. These practitioners of a venerable and how reawakening science, geology, have -pattern's today to make sense'of my raid observable facts that all boil down to one: The whole earth is on the move, If e' {* "· ' , * / ' \l SurraavtG'azeile-Mail I/"'JA' , , x. C TM , A . '/,-( *', /, . · . . ) » / » · invent Char IE August 24,1975 tains which go through Salt Lake City, although they don't know the driving force. But they are just now beginning to study the 164-year-old Missouri quakes, to try to understand the geology .behind them. "We finally managed to get a man on the project just last year," Hamilton says. "We're really in a bad situation regarding the Eastern United States." Nor is that the voice of idle curiosity. "Most of the nuclear reactors are going into the Eastern states, and that's where we know the least about earthquakes." MEN MAY RULE the surface and ;· build their cities and arrange their miniscule affairs. But below, gigantic forces out of their control are at work. Huge plates of land, the continents and .the ocean floors, glide like Stygian icebergs over the more dense mass of the earth's hot heart. They rub against one an' other and collide, as India collided with .'/Asia, the one thrusting beneath the other, - raising the Himalayas. The Pacific Ocean floor grows, fed, by ,new material from the earth's interior, and groans and shoves under South America, only to be swallowed again. The earth quakes and thousands die. And volcanoes .form mountains. Earthquakes and volcanoes: these are two surface events that, disrupt the lives of men. They occur most frequently ar; ound the world's 280,000 miles of coastline :;--but that, too, is where two : thirds of the world's four billion people live..' . . ·-"·- They also ; occur inland,"where;"often'; . t h e r e are no ready explanations why. A. moderate quake hit Minnesota in July. ; When it showed up on seismographs at the ..U. S. Geological Survey's headquarters in : Reston, Va., scientists were bitterly chagrined at the range of their knowledge.. :', "We know very little of what caused the . earthquakes in the inerior United States,", says Bob Hamilton who heads the Survey's earthquake section. "There were big earthquakes in 1811 and 1812 in southeast. ern Missouri. They continue to occur ..there. , · -. . » "Then there was a big earthquake in 1886 in Charleston,, S:C., and there's continuing activity. there. There are earthquakes all along the St. Lawrence Valley. There was a big earthquake off Boston in. - . -1755.- ;, · . . : · · " '"'· "·" In the West, scientists can associate '-earthquakes with geological structures they : can see on the surface^like the San . , Andreas fault in California. . They can make some kind of sense out of an earthquake belt in the Wasatch-Moun- THE POTENTIAL for disaster is, of course, most strong along the San Andreas fault in the stresses between the Pacific Ocean plate and the North American continental plate. Just this month a .quake of strength above the damage threshhold struck northern and central California in a belt 175 miles wide/300 miles long. Windows broke. Walls cracked. Geologists keep a constant watch on the fault/There are sections of it, notably the section that broke in 1906 and caused the great San Francisco earthquake, that are not moving at all now. It seems locked in place. But there are other sections where the · relative movement along the fault is two to three .inches a year. To the scientists this means that obviously stresses are being built up in the locked sections.. '· Like the twisting of a violin screw, in time, something has to give. , , They even have, an idea of how to relieve the tensions--but they are not sure, it will work, 'and[are having trouble" raising; the money to find out. The idea arose out of'a strangely happy accident in the early 1960s. The Corps of Engineers had drilled a deep hole just north of Denver to dispose of waste water contamiiiated'with nerve gases: When Jtheypumped the.waste water in, earth- ;· quake activity began in Denver for virtually the first time; They kept, pumping. The more water, the more earthquakes. The Corps finally stopped pumping because the earthquakes were big enough to cause minor damage. It appeared to Survey scientists that the water was somehow lubricating an old locked fault, permitting it to slip'and shaking up the countryside. A chance to investigate the phenomenon presented itself in the late 1960s in an old oil field at Rangely, Colo. The oil company pumped water into the field to force out residual oiland found that where high water pressure zones intersected a fault, it produced earthquakes. The Survey got the loan of four wells. By manipulating the water pressure, they controlled the frequency of quakes. The more water, the more quakes. Thereby hangs a plan. . SUPPOSE YOU drill a series of wells, perhaps 2Vz miles spart, along the San Andreas fault. Then in every other well you pump out water, and in alternate wells you pump in water. In the dried wells, you'd strengthen the fault, locking it in. In the wet wells, you'd lubricate the fault allowing it to slip--or pass on its stress--to the next dry well. Then you'd reverse the process, passing the slippage down the line like a bucket brigade. Ultimately, according to the plan, you could dump the stress to a safer place, where the fault goes into the ocean. In short, you'd create a series of small earthquakes of less than damage intensity, trading off that discomfort against waiting until nature relieved itself with an earthquake 30,000 times or more as great--as was the devastation that struck San Francisco. "Theoretically, we know this could be done--if the fault zone will accommodate us and let us do these things," says Barry Raleigh, an earthquake researcher at the Survey's study group at Menlo Park, Calif. He estimates that once or twice a year, if you could generate a slippage that way along the San Andreas fault you could pass the worst of the strain out to sea. "Now all this is specualtion," Raleigh says. "The reality is something else . . ." The reality is that although experiments have shown that the idea works where it's been tried--that, is, in sandstone formations--no one knows whether it will work in the rock of the fault zone about which very little is known. Scientists like Raleigh would like to drill down and through the fault zone at a number of locations to see what the rock there is really like--whether it is permeable enough to aiSJtept water, how much fluid is there in th'e" first place, what the pressure is, and so forth. "So we're just waiting around to do some drilling," Raleigh says. Scientists point out that while some two million wells have been drilled in the United States, there has never been a well drilled into the fault zone. Scientists Lower a Temperature Sensor Into a Hot Lake The Scene Is on an Ice Pit in Sherman Crater, Mount Baker, Wash. BUT PERHAPS things will change. The : Carnegie Institution of Washington recently published a report by an expert panel suggesting a 10-year drilling program, Costing at'least $2 million a year, to give scientists a look.inside the earth. - . . . - . 'The .report quoted a 1964 study which said, "Our ignorance of what we are unable to see and sample is profound." By surface observations, geologists have gone about as far as they can go. Their theories seem to explain the mysteries of continental drift, and why the continents; look like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle: because they once were joined together and have been driven apart. But the practicalities of living with these gross/movements that have taken millions and millions of years require a first-hand look below t h e surface. . " · ' . . There are. places where earth-heated rock comes up from the interior to the surface, or near the surface; and these volcanoes and geothermal areas offer both the prospects of a new source of energy and potential danger. In those areas where hot rock is relatively close to the surface, scientists would drill down-, inject water j fracturing the rock and reaping the submerged heat. It is estimated that a cube of appropriately hot rock, measuring six- tenths of a mile per side, could provide enough energy to supply San Francisco for a year. So energy researchers as well have a vested interest in drilling deep; below the ·surface^ to- measure this potential--and L ironically this high.priority proposalmay give the whole drilling program the impetus it needs. . The Geological Survey has long had money problems. For instance,.the Survey monitored a temperature measuring device on Mout Baker until last year when it was taken but for lack of funds. Then on March 10, the Survey was notified that new clouds of steam were emanating from the old volcano. Not only were old vents steaming more--but there were new vents. Steam was roaring out, carrying with it small particles of altered rock and small spheres of sulfur. · · · · ' ' *· MORE OMINOUS were the cliffs of al. tered rock clinging to" the steep sides of the mountain over the glaciers below. Over the years the sulfur-laden steam has produced suifuric acid, and the acid action on the rock has altered and weakened it to an almost cheese-like consistency. The danger, the geologists, saw was that the cliffs of weakened rock might soak up water from the melting snows and lose their grip on the mountainside, roaring down the glacier to the valley below. That in itself might not be dangerous. That kind of mudslide has happen^mfen before through the ages. But in the potential path were two man-made glacial lakes, dammed up to produce electricity. If the mudslide produced a tidal wave that broke the dams, then thousands of acre feet of pent-up water would cascade on the valley--and the tiny town of Concrete (so named because nearby limestone deposits once supplied concrete for much of the West). Typically, people react to such potential disasters more with a sense of inconvenience than with concern. The 5,000 citizens of Concrete didn't like it when cdrnp- grounds in the endangered areas were- closed to tourists, and the power company which owned, the dams lowered the water level as a precaution, but faced the prospect of lower generating capacity in the winter because of it. Geologists are not daredevils. Theyitend to like mountains and have learned t$ live with them. ^ ? Dr. Mack Meir, who heads th^'survey and the team of University of Washington researchers monitoring the mountain's danger potential, was gently month the quakes suddenly increased in number and the mountain by summer had begun to inflate. Then last December there was a tremendous surges in quakes--more than 1,000 a day. "This'gave us great concern/' Fisk says. "We measured the network again and found the mountain had inflated even more--up to two or three inches in a mile." 'All winter and spring the mountain shuddered. Local and state authorities were warned. "And late in the evening on July 5, the earthquake count increased and what we call harmonic tremor began--a general shaking of the ground, a rolling like a sea. like a rough ocean," Fisk explains. An hour later, it erupted. Survey people flying overhead in the middle of the night estimated the fiery plumes at 250 feet, a string of fountains at times three miles long that geologists call "a curtain of fire." After about 20 hours, it stopped. But significantly to the geologists, the tremor didn't stop, nor did the earthquakes. It meant that magma was still rising. The geologists followed it as the quakes moved through the northeast rift helicopter recently on the crumbling-n'ar- zone O f the mountain, indicating that mag- row brink of the mud cliff. He found he could push the handle of his mountain-climber's pike more than halfway into the soft earth. Meanwhile, down in the crater, gas- masked researchers were trying to take measurements that would lend some clue to the mountain's intentions. The hydrogen sulfide gas which combines readily with water to make sulfuric acid is a real hazard. Men can take up to 1Q parts per million of the gas in the air they breathe for up to eight hours. But the hydrogen sulfide density in the crater ranees from 700 to 900 parts per million, ^f-50 parts per million the gas destroysjthe sense of smell, so that the endangered ·worker may not realize he is breathing it. Workers were nauseated, and "otJ6J|uy lost the use of his eyes for a ceujfle;of hours," Meir said. "Craters are really spooky areas to work in," says Meir. "There is ice melting from underneath and big caverns forming under that." Meanwhile the volcano was spitting out 2,800 pounds of sulfur an hour last April, and has had its ups and downs since then. Through it all, an eruption or a steam explosion or just the accumulation of water could trigger the mudslide. \i "There are about 12 main volcanoes^ in the Washington-Oregon-California chain, and many of them have been active in historic time/' says Dr. Richard Fisk, head of the Survey's volcano group. He stays in constant touch with his men in the field studying the Mauna Loa eruption and waiting to see what will happen to the magma storing up in the northeast flank of the mountain. Wisps of Steam Drift From ai Area of Sbermai Crater in Washington Grqup of Scientists Observes the ActivUis From Mount Baker's West Rim THE SUGAR LOAF Hawaiian volcanoes are different from the conical types in the Cascades. Even the lava is different Jt is thinner and hotter, less sticky and viscous. For that reason it flows down the slopes cleaner, while the conical volcanoes build their cones and steep sides because the lava clings and cools before it reaches the base. Mauna Loa had been relatively quiet since its eruption in 1950, Until May of 1974, Survey stations were recording only a-Bandfnl of quakes a day. But in that ma was filling that flank. If an eruption on the flank starts, it could go on for weeks or months, producing enormous amounts of lava. An eruption in 1880-81 lasted a b o u t nine months. Fisk says. "Mauna Loa is not the biggest volcano in the world for no reason at all. It is an enormous producer and eruptor of lava. 7 ' Whether Mauna Loa erupts again or not, there is still plenty of activity in the Hawaiian volcanoes. Fisk and others look for more volcanoes to the southeast where there are already sea mounts with Fresh volcanic black glass as coal. "They just haven't reached the surface yet. so they're not yet islands." In fact Hawaii is characterized as the fastest growing state in the Union. It has gained several hundred acres in the last 20 years. Yet the state is not in a typical volcano zone. It is in the middle of the Pacific plate. Scientists have theorized that there is an ages-old hot spot in the center of the Pacific, and that as the Pacific plate moves north, this hot spot produces volcanoes like a fiery worker on an assembly line. And indeed. Fisk says, "as the Pacific plate moves northwestward through time, the volcanoes form like beads on a chain, the youngest on the island of Hawaii that we see today, and the progressively older up the chain toward the Emperor Sea Mount several thousand miles away." So the very land man lives on obeys these secret currents. And man cannot escape them. The area of earthquake activity that circles the Pacific coincides with what geologists call "the ring of fire." where most of the world's volcanoes live. And most of the earth's people. Some have become wise in the ways of the earth. But not wise enough. Volcanoes and earthquakes give warning signs, if man knows what to look for. L.T.Anderson Is On Vacation ! r

Get full access with a Free Trial

Start Free Trial

What members have found on this page