Many market gurus have been warning that a terrible selloff lies ahead and that a black swan event -- a devastating development that is completely unexpected -- might trigger it. Could that event be an earthquake or a volcano?
Most people don’t think about these phenomena, particularly those living in New York City. After all, they are few and far between in these parts, and even when one does occur it is usually very small and hardly noticeable. But out West, where they are more common, people think about quite often. And in other regions of the world, such as Japan, they are always on people’s minds.
Maybe it’s time for us to pay more attention to them, because if a big one were to strike, it would unleash indescribable devastation, financial chaos, and change the lives and lifestyles of many millions of people.
We had a reminder of nature’s destructive power just a few weeks ago when the Hunga Tonga Hunga Ha’apei volcano in Tonga, an island in the South Pacific, erupted. The eruption sent a three-mile wide mushroom cloud of red-hot ash, steam and gas 12 miles into the air -- literally to the edge of space. A sonic boom from the blast was heard in Alaska -- 6,000 miles away -- and was accompanied by another phenomenon: 200,000 lightning “events” in the first hour alone.
Before-and-after photos show that once lush, green areas became gray with volcanic ash. Fresh water sources also were contaminated, and a tsunami that followed added to the misery.
The impact is not limited to Tonga. Tiny particles of ash and sulfur dioxide propelled into the stratosphere could remain there for months (or even years), causing problems for farmers by blocking the sun’s rays and cooling temperatures in many areas of the world.
No Summer That Summer
The largest volcanic eruption in recorded history occurred in 1815. The Mount Tambora volcano was so powerful that it led to global cooling and worldwide crop failures; there was frost in July in the US and 1815 is still referred to as the year without a summer. Much worse is that 100,000 people died directly from the blast, and it’s believed that millions more died indirectly because of the famine it caused.
Tonga and the US are practically at opposite ends of the world, but that doesn’t mean the US need never worry about such a catastrophe happening here. Geologists have been warning that parts of California and the US West Coast are overdue for “a big one” and that it’s just a matter of time until one strikes. The consequences of such a disaster are too horrible to think about.
Not So Rare
Actually, earthquakes and volcanoes in the US are more common than many people realize. New York State is considered a geologically quiet area, yet between 1737-2016 -- 279 years -- there were 551 earthquakes; on average that’s very nearly two a year. Most of those were very small, but several were surprisingly powerful, and a few, centered in other states and in Canada, were strong enough to be felt in the Empire State.
The most powerful volcanoes and earthquakes often occur in the Ring of Fire, a horseshoe-shaped area that stretches for some 40,000 km in the Pacific and includes the West Coast of the US.
Among those that struck the US were a few that were exceptionally destructive. On April 18, 1906, an earthquake estimated to be of magnitude 7.9 struck San Francisco. In less than 60 seconds, it caused more than 3,000 deaths, left half of the city’s 400,000 residents homeless, destroyed 28,000 buildings, and created fires that lasted three days.
In January 1994, a 6.7 earthquake in the Northridge area of Los Angeles killed 60, injured more than 9,000 and left more than 125,000 temporarily homeless; the damage it caused was estimated at $435 billion.
And on October 17, 1989, a magnitude 6.9 earthquake jolted California during Game 3 of the World Series between the San Francisco Giants and Oakland Athletics at Candlestick Park, forcing postponement of the game. Several quakes in Alaska were among the largest ever recorded anywhere; fortunately, they were centered in remote areas.
In general, volcanoes are not common in the US - but that doesn’t mean they never happen. On May 18, 1980, Mount St. Helens erupted, becoming the deadliest and costliest volcano in U.S. history. Fifty-seven people were killed. In addition, 200 homes, 47 bridges, 15 miles of railways, and 185 miles of highway were destroyed. The 5.1 event blasted off the mountain’s peak, lowering its height from 9,677 ft to 8,363 ft. There had been significant activity there between 2004-2008.
The Really Big One
Perhaps the most feared eruption is the one that could happen in Yellowstone, and geologists warn that it could be worse than any ever seen. They believe it would leave large parts of North America uninhabitable for many years and so much ash and acid would be spewed into the atmosphere that it would have a catastrophic effect on agriculture around the world, causing countless deaths from famine; it would also have a devastating impact on infrastructure in the US, among other consequences. There have been numerous small quakes there recently, but what really worries geologists is that lava domes may be expanding, which makes them think about a supervolcano.
According to NY1.com, “Researchers say New York City is due for a significant earthquake originating near the five boroughs, based on previous smaller earthquakes in and around the city. While New York is at moderate risk for earthquakes, its high population and infrastructure present significant risk if a magnitude 5 quake or stronger hits the area...Although generally unknown, there are numerous fault lines in the city, but a few stand out for their size and prominence.” There are several more just outside the city.
Shaking In Israel
In Israel, too, earthquakes are a major concern. Between Jan. 21, 2022 and Feb. 3, 2022, there were at least 30 earthquakes in and just outside of Israel; most were very small but several were large enough to be felt. Separately, there were several more in nearby countries.
After conducting a first-of-its-kind study under the Dead Sea, geologists warn that a major earthquake measuring 6.5 on the Richter Scale may hit the region near Israel in the coming years. This explains why Israel has been taking preparatory measures, such as the major earthquake drill it conducted in January. Unfortunately, Israel has already had experience with this problem. On Jan. 1, 1837, an earthquake believed to have been of magnitude 6.7 hit the Galil, killing an estimated 5,000 people (most Jews) in Tzfat and causing widespread destruction.
Researchers are trying to learn more about these phenomena, their first objective being able to predict when earthquakes will strike and volcanoes will erupt, in an effort to save lives and if possible property. Although they’ve learned a great deal, this remains an inexact science.
Currently, the Taal Volcano in the Philippines is erupting, and the Three Sisters Oregon Volcano is threatening to. In late December, a magnitude 6.2 earthquake struck just off the coast of California. According to Volcano Discovery, more than two dozen volcanoes are erupting around the world now, and major earthquakes are happening more frequently along the Ring of Fire. And on Jan 31, an earthquake in Oklahoma was felt in several states.
People and nations will have to deal with these dangers, as there is no known way to prevent them and usually little or no time to seek safety. Scientists say that on average, 540 people a year die from volcanoes and 20,000 by earthquakes. Government agencies say earthquakes and volcanoes in the US cost billions each year.
Even with all of our supercomputers, incredible rockets and the knowledge we’ve learned about the tiniest organisms and the infinite cosmos, it is clear that we are still controlled by forces completely beyond our control. It’s a humbling realization.
Sources: apnews.com; australianjewishnews.com; earthquake.co.il; economiccollapseblog.com; foxnews.com; loc.gov; history.com; nationalgeographic.org; naturenews.com; phys.org; smithsonianmagazine.com; volcanodiscovery.com; wikipedia.org; YouTube: What If The Yellowstone Supervolcano Erupted Tomorrow?