Nevada’s next big earthquake is coming
The Nevada Seismological Laboratory at the University of Nevada, Reno was new and garnering media attention the last time the Silver State was rocked by a large earthquake, more than half a century ago.
In 1965, the Sacramento Bee ran a story featuring the laboratory’s staff and its mission of “predicting earthquakes.” Headlined, “Can Destructive Quakes Be Predicted? Nevada Scientists Probe for Answer,” the piece quoted seismologist Dr. Alan Ryall and geologist Dr. David B. Slemmons, the heads of staff for the then three-year-old laboratory discussing their ultimate goal of finding “the key to the prediction of earthquakes”—something the reporter noted as “obviously desired before the settlement of future cities and communities.”
When a large quake struck the following year, Reno’s population was around 51,000. The quake occurred between Reno and Truckee on Sept. 12, 1966. It was the topic of that day’s Reno Evening Gazette front page stories. One stated that “singing star Leslie Uggams” had slept through the quake “on the penthouse floor while her matron, in a nearby room, was thrown out of bed.” A report from a UNR student who was in the gymnasium when the quake struck reported “a sudden silence” that hit the gym as “several hundred students, registering for the new semester, realized the whole building was rolling.” The story in the center of the spread recounted the experiences of crane operator R. B. Rick, who was working “atop the 22-story Arlington Towers apartment building” and was thrown out of the window of his crane during the quake but survived by grabbing the crane’s windowsill and scrambling down the gantry “40 feet to the top of the building under construction.”
The quake was reported at an estimated magnitude of 6.5 on the Richter Scale.
Dr. Annie Kell is the Nevada Seismological Lab’s education and outreach seismologist. These days, she said, earthquakes are commonly measured on the Moment Magnitude Scale. This newer measurement paradigm takes into account more than the maximum amplitude (the largest wave as measured on a seismograph) that’s created by a quake. It quantifies the amount of energy released by an earthquake, and whereas quakes increase in size by a factor of 10 on the Richter Scale, it’s 31 for Moment Magnitude.
“So what that means is if a magnitude 3 earthquake releases a certain amount of energy, it would take 31 to equal the same amount of energy of a magnitude 4. It would take 900-something to equal the same amount of energy as a magnitude 5—30,000-something to be a 6.”
But many of Nevada’s big earthquakes happened before either the Richter or Moment magnitude scales were in place, including one in Pershing County’s Pleasant Valley, south of Winnemucca that is—according to Nevada Bureau of Mines and Geology reports—thought to be the largest documented in the state’s history. Measuring an estimated magnitude of 7.3, it ruptured the ground surface for about 37 miles and woke people as far away as San Francisco, Las Vegas and Salt Lake City.
Back then, researchers at the university had only rudimentary seismological equipment. The first seismograph purchased by the school is still kept inside the Keck Museum at the Mackay School of Mines building on campus. According to Keck Museum Curator Garrett Barmore, delivery of the seismograph, which was ordered from the German Wiechert Scientific Instruments Company after the 1915 quake, was waylaid when the British Navy captured and scuttled the ship transporting it.
“It was in Britain for a year,” he said. “It took a year for the State Department to get it, so it didn’t arrive here until 1916. … The British thought it was spy equipment, or something like that. Seismographs would have been new at the time.”
After its arrival, the seismograph was in use at the university until the 1960s. In fact, it documented the series of earthquakes that current Nevada Seismology Laboratory Director Dr. Graham Kent credits as the catalyst for the lab’s formation.
“I think in spirit, the lab started the day after the Dixie Valley, Fairview Peak earthquakes,” Kent said.
The earthquakes to which he referred took place east of Fallon on Dec. 16, 1954—the first, a magnitude 7.1 near Fairview Peak around 3 o’clock in the morning, and the second, a 6.9 that occurred four minutes and 20 seconds later in Dixie Valley. After this, Kent said, Dr. Slemmons, one of the lab’s aforementioned founders, turned his attention away from his specialization in petrology and began studying earthquakes in effort to learn more about them before the next big one struck.
According to current associate director Ken Smith, the genesis of the seismo lab was also spurred by technological advancements of the era.
“Things changed when people realized that we could actually record quakes remotely with telemetry systems,” he said.
Charles Richter, creator of the Richter Scale did some of this early telemetry work, as did researches in the Hoover Dam area, where Smith said, “was a bunch of earthquakes triggered by the filling of” the dam. The lab’s staff over the years has been comprised of people who took part in this early research.
“There’s a real legacy between the people who have been here and the whole development of seismology,” Smith said. One thing that drove the advancements in seismology—and helped establish Nevada’s lab as an entity independent from the university and its departments—was nuclear blast verification work conducted in conjunction with the U.S. military.
“You had earth sciences dramatically changing and then observation seismology dramatically changing,” Kent said. “But the reality of this lab is for most of its existence it relied on, basically, nuclear blast recording or verification for survival.”
Above ground nuclear testing was banned in 1963, but underground nuclear testing continued and became an important source of funding for the lab.
“Back in the old days, they’d blow anything up, right?” said Smith. “They’d set things up in Fallon. … The idea was that you could set off an earthquake in a tectonic environment, trigger an earthquake, and nobody would know it was a nuke you were getting away with. It was spy versus spy stuff back in those days.”
But this espionage activity, he said, propelled advancements in earth sciences and seismology—most importantly the validation of the theory of plate tectonics.
“What drove all of the technology, all of the modern technology, was nuclear monitoring, nuclear blast monitoring,” Smith said. “It drove observational seismology. The benefit to that was all of this tectonic information.”
According to Kent, the lab later became involved in nuclear research pertaining to the Yucca Mountain Project until its cessation in 2010 and, after that, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Source Physics Experiments—a series of underground chemical high-explosive detonations. Involvement in such projects, he said, has helped fund the seismo lab’s earthquake monitoring network.
“Our lab here in Nevada is very poorly funded by the state for doing monitoring, so it’s always been incumbent upon whoever’s been in [charge] to go out and find money,” he said.
These days, the lab uses its network of seismic stations across the state to monitor for more than just earthquakes. It also does extreme weather and early fire detection monitoring. Kent said, over time, this has turned the lab into a sort of “internet service provider for remote monitoring.”
“As technologies changed, there was an ability to bring more things back and paying customers who want things brought back,” he said. “We call it the internet of wild things—but it’s kind of an internet of things. Here’s it’s a seismometer. Here it’s a fire camera. Here it’s an anemometer to get wind speed.”
Recently, the lab has begun using its network to test earthquake early warning monitoring systems—something Kell said is worthwhile, because “there will be another large earthquake” in our region.
“California, Washington and Oregon are actually rolling out their earthquake early warning system this month,” Kell said.
It’s called ShakeAlert—an experimental system that will issue automated public alerts in an attempt to give people time to take prepare in the event of a quake.
Nevada isn’t rolling out a public alert system yet, but when it does, it will be based upon the same science behind ShakeAlert, which Kell explained is dependent upon the detection of the first in a set of waves that are always associated with earthquakes.
“There are P-waves and S-waves, primary waves and secondary waves,” Kell said. “The primary wave moves quite a bit faster than the secondary wave. The secondary wave is what causes the strong shaking.”
The idea behind earthquake early warning systems is that once a primary wave has been detected an alert can be sent to the public prior the arrival of damaging secondary waves. Depending on the distance at which an earthquake occurs, Kell explained, this could give people time on the order of seconds up to potentially a minute or so to prepare for the onset of shaking.
“People are like, ’Oh, my gosh, what are you going to do with that?’” Kell said. “I could do a lot in even three seconds.”
What’s more is that early warning systems are the closest seismologists have come to the seismo lab founders’ goal of predicting earthquakes. According to Kell, while seismologists have discovered that earthquake faults have a recurrence interval, “a span of time that faults have historically gone between ruptures,” there’s as yet no way to determine when an earthquake will occur.
“We can say things like that we know a particular fault is at its recurrence interval,” Kell said. “But that doesn’t mean it’s going to rupture tomorrow or it’s going to rupture in a hundred years—or a thousand years for that matter.”
According to Kent, working out the bugs in the lab’s established network of cameras and seismic and weather equipment keeps the staff on its toes—and while labs like Nevada’s have been busy beta testing early earthquake warning systems for years, it may take years more for them to become functional in the way that ordinary users would like. But playing a role in their development falls in line with the lab’s recent, more public-facing projects.
“A lot of what we’re doing now, whether it’s weather, fire or earthquakes, is trying to have even a greater role intersecting people and their dumb phones,” Kent said.
Branching out into early warning research and weather and fire monitoring may be the cost the lab pays to keep its earthquake monitoring activities funded, but Kent said he sees advantages to it.
“Here’s a tangible benefit,” he said. “We, with fire monitoring, have to intersect a group of people like firemen—big surprise, right?—and that whole emergency structure. But those are the same people who, when we have our next big earthquake, are going to be pulling people out of buildings.”
And despite the region’s relatively quiet seismic period over the last half century, Kent and his colleagues stressed that a big quake is imminent. In the meantime, they hope an annual event called the Great ShakeOut can help people prepare.
Now in its 10th year, the Great ShakeOut is an annual earthquake preparedness drill organized by government agencies and seismology labs in states around the country.
“Basically, it’s an education campaign to teach people what to do when there’s an earthquake—and then, additionally, how to prepare in advance,” Kell said.
Unless you’re reading this prior to 10:18 a.m. on Oct. 18, the 2018 Great ShakeOut drill has already occurred. Many adults will have failed to hear about it. According to Kell, since 2009, the drill’s main participants have been school systems that teach earthquake lessons and have their kids practice getting beneath sturdy objects and holding on in the event of a quake. While she’d like to see more adults at businesses go through practicing the physical motions, she said, “What we really need to do as a community is prepare now before we have the next really large earthquake in our region.”
“The ShakeOut is a time to revisit your emergency kit, to revisit your earthquake plan and to look at your home and make sure that things that are obvious sources of injury in earthquakes are secured properly,” Kell said. “There are a lot of really standard things like that, that you can look at—hot water heaters, tall bookshelves, things like that are notoriously hazardous during an earthquake events.”
When updating emergency kits, Kell said, it’s important to consider the potentially changing needs of your household, like if you’ve had a child who’ll need diapers or one who’s begun eating solids.
“And then think about your emergency plan, your family plan,” she said. “After an earthquake, the idea that you’re just going to be able to pick up your phone and call your loved ones, that’s not a reliable idea. For a family plan, you need to know what you’re going to do and where you’re going to meet and things like that, in advance.”
A timeline of some of the biggest earthquakes to hit our region:
March 15, 1860, magnitude 6.5: The Carson City area was severely shaken, causing goods to fall from store shelves and reports of people fleeing buildings as far away as Sacramento.
May 30, 1868, magnitude 6: Two quakes occurred 10 minutes apart, rattling Reno and Virginia City residents. Steamboat Springs spouted hot mud rather than hot water.
Dec. 26, 1869, magnitude 6.4: A quake shook Virginia City and Gold Hill. Residents reported staying on the streets out of fear all evening.
Dec. 27, 1869, magnitude 6.2: Masonry walls in Virginia City and Washoe Valley were severely damaged and plaster dropped and cracked by a quake that occurred only eight hours after the last.
Feb. 18, 1914, magnitude 6: A quake broke windows, cracked walls and damaged brick chimneys in Reno. In Virginia City, the Fourth Ward School was damaged.
April 23, 1914, magnitude 6.4: This quake also struck near Reno, starting in the early morning hours and was felt by people as far away as the Sacramento Valley.
Oct. 2, 1915, magnitude 7.3: The largest recorded earthquake in state history struck south of Winnemucca in Pleasant Valley and was felt as far away as Las Vegas, Salt Lake City and San Francisco
Dec. 20, 1932, magnitude 7.1: Known as the Cedar Mountain quake, this shaker occurred in a rural part of west central Nevada but was felt throughout the region surrounding Reno and as far away as San Diego.
Dec. 16, 1954, magnitude 7.1: A quake rocked Fairview Peak east of Fallon at 3:07 a.m., rousing people from their beds for hundreds of miles surrounding its epicenter
Dec. 16, 1954, magnitude 6.9: Four minutes and 20 seconds after the Fairview Peak earthquake, Dixie Valley, about 40 miles to the north, was ruptured by another quake. Walls and chimneys were cracked in towns as far away as Austin, Lovelock and Carson City.
Sept. 12, 1966, magnitude 6.5: This quake struck somewhere between Reno and Truckee, the region’s last real reminder of the power of large earthquakes.