Pushing Boundaries

A Flurry of Learning: The 1906 San Francisco Earthquake

San Francisco City Hall after the earthquake

Having grown up in California I’m no stranger to earthquakes. One earthquake that we learn about in school is the Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906. Besides just being a big earthquake, the San Francisco earthquake sparked a flurry of learning about earthquakes that North Americans had not yet seen to that point.

Until April 18, 1906 and its aftermath very few seismic monitoring stations existed in North America. Seismology in the US was almost completely ignored, unlike in Japan and Europe. In fact, little was understood about earthquakes in North America and the mechanics and reach of fault lines.

All that changed following the 1906 earthquake. Scientists’ interest in seismology, particularly in California, was ignited and great strides in understanding earthquakes, the San Andreas fault, and how to protect people in a temblor grew from that incident. One of the most authoritative works on earthquakes, the 1908 Lawson Report, compiled eyewitness accounts and scientific theory — including the “theory of elastic rebound” which still drives earthquake studies — that has proven invaluable over 100 years later. That Wednesday morning has had a lasting effect on the building codes and our understanding of earthquakes and the mechanics behind them.

While Japan rebuilds and recovers from Friday’s devastating earthquake a new round of scientific study will no doubt occur. Hopefully some good can come from this disaster for future generations. Hopefully as geologists and seismologists study what happened in Japan they are able to learn more about earthquakes and the mechanics of the Earth’s constantly changing surface. We can’t stop the earth from moving, but we can learn to protect ourselves from it. Just like they did in a little harbor town in Northern California over a hundred years ago.

[Image Credit: USGS]

  • OA5599

    There's nothing like an earthquake to shake things up in the field of seismic study.

    • mr. mzs zsm msz esq

      You might say it ripples through the community and brings new results and data on the waves of new research.

  • SSurfer321

    The Japanese did better than we did. Their nuclear power stations were built to withstand large magnitude earthquakes and NOT on fault lines.

    Cleveland Electric Illuminating (CEI) and Toledo Edison (TE) thought it best to build the Davis-Besse Nuclear Power Plant right on the Great Lakes Fault Line.

    It could be 100s of years before those tectonic plates shift, causing an earthquake. Or it could be next week…

  • That is pretty impressive. I visited SF City Hall some 100+ years after, and was very impressed with it. I never saw how kafucked up it was way back when. Pretty awesome, the PAH! of nature.