Fear and trembling as cities await the big one

ON the day of the Chile earthquake I was in internet communication with a friend I’ve never met in Hawaii.

From the vantage point of her clifftop home she was able to watch out for the promised tsunami and follow the evacuation of those living by the shore below.

As it turned out, the tidal wave was a bit of a washout by the time it got there, a surge less than a metre high. But the sense of anticipation was palpable even halfway around the world.

Perhaps this, along with the boom in worldwide news media, is why major earthquakes seem to be growing more common.

The Chile quake and its numerous aftershocks following so soon upon the disaster in Haiti have lent an air of doom to the start of 2010.

In fact, according to the US Geological Survey, which monitors quake activity worldwide, the last few years have been fairly quiet. Though this, they say, is just part of normal variation, not a downward trend.

Since 1900 there has been a fairly stable average of 18 major earthquakes (magnitude 7.0 to 7.9) and one great quake (magnitude 8.0 or above) per year.

Most Read

The recent quake in Chile was magnitude 8.8 – around 500 times the force that hit Haiti and the seventh strongest recorded. The strongest, at magnitude 9.5, was in 1960, also in Chile.

In fact, Chile suffers more earthquakes than any other country in the world. But then it is a very long country, well inside the tropics at its northern tip, the nearest mainland to Antarctica at its southern.

And every bit of it lies on the Pacific rim known as the Ring of Fire – the great line on which 90 per cent of all earthquakes occur.

The magnitude 7.0 Haiti quake was scarcely a major event geologically. What made it catastrophic was that it struck a city full of poor buildings and poorer people.

All only three quakes have killed more, all of them in China, and for similar reasons.

The rise in population, and the rise of cities, explain why six of the deadliest quakes ever have occurred in the last 90 years, two of them in the last six.

And this is why we should be worried.

Some of the world’s biggest cities, including Tokyo (population 35million), Mexico City (21m) and Tehran (8.5m) lie in areas of high earthquake risk.

California lies, like Chile, right along the Ring of Fire. In the most populous and prosperous state in the US, 37m people live with their heads in the sand while the quake-watchers await “the big one”.

But a greater risk may lie to its north.

Peter Yanev is a structural engineer and quake consultant. And his study of recent events has led him to some disturbing conclusions.

He says: “Based on the kind of damage that buildings suffered in Chile, tall structures in the earthquake zones of the United States appear to be at much higher risk than we thought.

“This lesson should be of obvious concern to San Francisco and Los Angeles. But the Pacific Northwest is most vulnerable.

“Just off Oregon, Washington and British Columbia sits the 600-mile-long Cascadia fault, which can produce tremors more powerful than anything we’ve experienced or expect from California’s famous San Andreas fault.”

Not good news for my nephew Matt, who moved to Oregon from New Orleans after surviving the horrors visited on his home by Hurricane Katrina.

IT’S been a long time coming, but I can finally call myself an exhibited photographer.

England were still a few weeks away from winning the World Cup when I went on what I could call my first photographic expedition.

I was eight years old. And I could feasibly trace my love of wild places, mountains, birds and photography to that day on Skye.

Just as I, in common with so many, could trace my fascination with football back to what happened at Wembley the ensuing June.

It was actually on Christmas Day 1965 that I was given my first camera, a simple point-and-click Kodak Instamatic. I took my first photo that day and I’ve been taking them ever since.

In those years I have wielded a lens, mostly for pleasure and occasionally for pay, in 27 countries on three continents.

My first published pictures accompanied a travel feature on India which appeared in the Sunderland Echo in 1983.

More recently I’ve had photos published with my articles in Suffolk and Let’s Talk magazines and of course occasionally accompanying my Evening Star column.

But I’ve never had framed photos on show – until now.

You can now see a few of my pics at Snape Maltings Gallery and in the Pavilion Caf� in Woodbridge.

A couple were taken in France, but mostly they are from Suffolk, including this one of a wave breaking on Dunwich beach, which is on display at Snape.

I wanted to capture the cave-like shape and structure of the wave as it turned over – a complexity impossible to see clearly with the naked eye.

And that day on Skye?

We’d taken a boat trip from our campsite at Elgol to Loch Curuisk, almost into the heart of the Cuillin mountains. The boatman told us we had half an hour before he’d take us back.

The alternative was a ten-mile trek back over the hills. My parents gave me the choice.

“We’ll walk,” I said.