Twitter was abuzz with the news of a Tsunami hitting Japan after a powerful earthquake off the coast of Japan. One thing I noticed was the number of people asking why there were so many earthquakes recently and was this evidence of something bigger, more sinister. There were a few instances of “#2012” out there as well – as if the Mayan doom prophecy could be more than a few shamen shaking sticks at the sky.
People forget that the Earth is old and massive. For most people it is the oldest and most massive thing they will ever come into contact with. And because of those qualities, people forget that the Earth is also a type of machine with a motor and a lifespan. And it’s part of a universe which, though young, is entirely more massive, more ancient and therefore almost as unfathomable.
We have to remember that modern civilisation, the observation and recording of the human species only really began a few thousand years ago and the further we go back, the fewer the records we have.
The Earth does not notice when we produce greenhouse gases or when we mine for ore or oil. It has no feelings about whether we should save the Arabian Oryx or the Yellow-tailed Woolly Monkey from extinction. It doesn’t bat an eyelid when our economic situation is dire or equally when organisms started to produce oxygen as a by-product about 3 billion years ago and created a toxic event which massacred billions of organisms. It didn’t even notice that the iPad 2 went on sale today.
The Earth exists as a small machine in a vast void, filled with other machines. By our best estimates, it’s about 4.5 billion years old and it doesn’t react to anything smaller than an impact from a body nearly as massive as itself (one of the the prevalent theories of how we have a massive moon).
When starting my car in the morning, I am used to the shudder it makes when I start moving. I’m taking it to the mechanics on Monday because of a loss of power when I hit over 3000 revs. My car is a machine. I’m using this as a simile because, as I mentioned, the Earth is a machine. Instead of a fuel intake it has heat from the sun, pressure from it’s own gravity and these feed an engine made up of a molten core of metal and rock.
Our land masses float upon the molten core like ice floats upon the water and the broken edges of the plates rub against each other. And when they do, earthquakes are the result.
Humans are arrogant enough to believe that the Earth-machine has any real agenda towards humanity. That it measures the passage of time in months or years and not in millennia. Our recorded civilisation is the briefest moment in the lifespan of our young planet and every earthquake could essentially be similar to the shudder of my car as it starts off. And that shudder, which on my car lasts about two seconds, could last a comparable amount of time relative to the lifespan of the planet – probably about 10,000 years (maybe more – I’m not a cosmologist) – longer than our recorded history.
So, in essence, the recent spate of earthquakes should be measured on a global scale with millennia-long timescales. We have virtually no data from 1000 years ago never mind longer periods. We have no datasets to compare to see whether this is a global catastrophe or just a shudder in the morning. The datasets on Wikipedia for the Largest Earthquakes By Magnitude covers from 1575AD to 2011AD and the Deadliest Earthquakes on Record covers from 525AD to 2010AD.
So, calm the hell down. It’s not the end of the world. It might, due to a “loss of power over 3000 revs”-type event, mean the loss of millions of lives or the end of our oil-based civilisation – but that’s a different thing altogether.
And if you’ve not watched Wonders of the Solar System or started watching the follow-up Wonders of the Universe – both presented by Professor Brian Cox, then maybe you should start.