What Makes an Earthquake a Star?

Scripps Oceanography geophysicist considers what makes some quakes celebrities

Some large earthquakes are remembered more than a century after they happened. Others fade into obscurity almost immediately.

In a paper appearing Nov. 11 in the journal Seismological Research Letters, Duncan Agnew, a geophysicist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego, examines what makes some earthquakes linger in our memory longer than others. 

The relative celebrity of earthquakes matters, Agnew argues, because it often dictates the extent to which scientists study them and informs what the public knows about what another one might be like, and how to prepare for it. 

“As editor of a geophysics journal, I saw a lot of papers on particular earthquakes, and started to wonder why that was, and if there were too many,” Agnew said.

Agnew analyzed how often different earthquakes appeared in scientific and non-scientific literature and found that size does not necessarily matter. The 1992 Landers, Calif., quake, for instance, was the third strongest in the state during the 20th century, but got little attention outside of the research community, probably because it was located in a sparsely populated part of California’s Mojave Desert.

Newspaper account of 1906 San Francisco earthquake

A-list earthquakes throughout history include the 1755 Lisbon earthquake, which was common knowledge more than a century later. In the United States the 1906 San Francisco earthquake remains in the popular imagination. But the biggest megastar, Agnew notes, is a temblor that has not happened yet: the “Big One,” that has leveled many parts of California, but so far only in fictional accounts. 

Agnew said it is worthwhile to look at earthquake celebrity because it sheds light on how the public processes earthquake preparedness messaging. Popularity might also play a role in determining what earthquakes get analyzed by the scientific community. Agnew noted that magnitude is only part of the reasons for how many research papers get written about a quake. 

As with popular celebrity, research celebrity goes with an earthquake having a large human impact, in deaths or damage. Some major quakes without this, he found, have received little research attention though their attributes might warrant more study.

“We should ask if some earthquakes are given unduly much attention but others get too little,” his study concludes. “As with other kinds of celebrity, opinions will certainly vary.”

About Scripps Oceanography

Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego is one of the world’s most important centers for global earth science research and education. In its second century of discovery, Scripps scientists work to understand and protect the planet, and investigate our oceans, Earth, and atmosphere to find solutions to our greatest environmental challenges. Scripps offers unparalleled education and training for the next generation of scientific and environmental leaders through its undergraduate, master’s and doctoral programs. The institution also operates a fleet of four oceanographic research vessels, and is home to Birch Aquarium at Scripps, the public exploration center that welcomes 500,000 visitors each year.

About UC San Diego

At the University of California San Diego, we embrace a culture of exploration and experimentation. Established in 1960, UC San Diego has been shaped by exceptional scholars who aren’t afraid to look deeper, challenge expectations and redefine conventional wisdom. As one of the top 15 research universities in the world, we are driving innovation and change to advance society, propel economic growth and make our world a better place. Learn more at ucsd.edu.

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