The fickle Earth

Beauty and the sound of artillery

The fickle Earth

We have just had a great holiday in Japan, during which we took a trip up to the lakes at the foot of Mount Fuji.

We were blessed with gorgeous weather so my wife got this great photo and several others but what the photos cannot tell you about Fuji is the noise. Every few minutes, the volcano or one of the spouts in the surrounding hills explodes. The effect is like being in the middle of an occasional artillery exchange. We humans inhabit a very thin mantle that floats precariously above a tortuously energetic sea of energy. Volcanoes are the holes in the mantle through which the energy that lurks below escapes.

It was a timely reminder of the power of the planet because on the night before we were due to return home, a magnitude 6.4 earthquake hit about twenty kilometres from our home city of Hualien. Seventeen people died and two large buildings tipped on their foundations and now lurch precariously at impossible angles. The fault that runs through the city moved and allowed some more of the earth’s energy to escape to the surface.

Most people who are reading this will never have felt an earthquake. If you could imagine living directly in the middle of a half dozen railway lines on which the heaviest freight trains were travelling at full speed, you would have a decent general idea.

In Hualien, it starts with a deep rumble. This rumble is not usually a feature of quakes in other parts of Taiwan. It frightens the life out of me because the rumble for a small earthquake is as loud as that for a large one, so the degree of dread before the shaking starts is the same for both. The house then begins to shake. This shaking is not the low amplitude rattle that accompanies passing rail traffic: the very building weaves dangerously on its foundations and the windows and doors shake as if a legion of invisible jackhammers is being applied to the walls.

We are no strangers to this experience as our city is right on top of a fault but the regular small quakes are usually fairly well dispersed. The dozens of aftershocks that we have been experiencing for the past week and a bit are the real torture. The term, ‘aftershock’, implies a comparatively benign idea of a baby tremor but aftershocks are proper earthquakes and when they come hourly, as they did in the first few days after the big quake, they wear the nerves like nothing else I know. The risk of a Tsunami is thankfully low here because Tsunamis travel along the bottom of the ocean and the east coast of Taiwan is protected by a coastal sheer wall that plummets two kilometres not far from the shore and acts as a mirror.

Scientists predict that the sea to the south of Japan is due an earthquake of magnitude nine or more. I really hope that we are safely back in Ireland by then.