BRISTOL — Did you feel it?
Those four words are bandied about among neighbors, friends and family members whenever a known earthquake hits the New England area. You were probably asked that very question on Oct. 16, when a 4.6 magnitude earthquake centered in Maine was felt in parts of Rhode Island and Massachusetts.
Chances are you got through the Great New England Earthquake unscathed, and may have even had a chuckle or two over it. Within hours the tremors had spawned a Facebook page, “I Survived the 10/16/12 Earthquake,” illustrated by a photograph of an overturned plastic lawn chair and the words “Never Forget.”
Earthquakes may be somewhat of a joke around these parts, but they’re serious business for Patrick Barosh. A geologist for more than half a century, he’s been all over the world studying the earth’s structure — including the impact a serious earthquake would have on it.
Mr. Barosh worked for the U.S. Geological Survey for 16 years and then for five years ran a program for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) on assessing earthquake hazards while he was a research professor at Boston College. Now 76 and a consultant, his expertise is still in great demand. This week he was scheduled to take another trip to China, where he’s been doing geologic mapping and studying earthquake hazards and geological structures.
“I’ve been working there with the Chinese Academy of Geological Sciences for 10 years, mainly in Tibet,” said Mr. Barosh recently from his home study, where he was scrambling to put the final touches on a book — “City on the Hill: The Geology of Boston” — that he hopes will be published early next year.
“I’m racing to finish these last illustrations and I’m supposed to go to China,” he said with a laugh. “I don’t know which way is up.”
Although few people have experienced significant ground tremors in these parts — a magnitude 3.5 earthquake centered near Newport in 1976 is widely considered to be Rhode Island’s largest — seismic shocks in the East Bay area are not as rare as you may think. Many of them are small, originate under the water and aren’t felt by most local residents. Local scientists are further handicapped by the fact that there’s only one seismometer in the area — at Community College of Rhode Island in Lincoln — which means many quakes go unrecorded, he said.
“Narragansett Bay is, geologically speaking, a young feature and it’s still growing. So there are little earthquakes associated with it, particularly along the eastern side,” said Mr. Barosh, adding that there’s a good amount of earthquake activity in the bay near the shoreline, “particularly on the northwest-trending faults.”
These crisscrossing faults, which divide up the bay like a jigsaw puzzle, were found to be extending into Mt. Hope Bay more than a century ago. In the mid-1970s, Mr. Barosh, the U.S. Geological Survey’s regional fault expert, directed a NRC study of the earthquake hazard in the Northeast. He said more than 30 faults project into the bay, and that history has shown there’s potential for a large earthquake in the region.
He pointed to the 1755 earthquake centered at Cape Ann, Mass., which measured between 6.0 and 6.3 on the Richter scale. The quake damaged hundreds of buildings, although no one was killed. A 1990 study by the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency, however, concluded that if a similar earthquake struck Boston today, it could result in hundreds of deaths and $4 to $5 billion in damages.
5.5 magnitude quake possible
So how worried should we be?
“There are local ones that can do damage. There’s a potential for moderate damage, but nothing catastrophic here,” said Mr. Barosh, adding that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has stated that an earthquake with a 5.5 magnitude is possible in this region.
“That would probably break a lot of chimneys,” he said. “Of course, they tend to fall on the roof and go through.”
Homes that are poorly constructed could be at risk in the event of such a quake, too. “There are a lot of houses that they remodeled and buildings that are ready to collapse on their own. This happens in New York periodically,” he said.
Mr. Barosh spoke to a Seekonk homeowner in 1993 after a small earthquake caused $40,000 worth of damage to her home.
“And she had earthquake insurance,” he said. “I think it’s fairly unusual. Often the deductible is so high that it’s not really practical insurance.”
Fought Weaver Cove Energy
A significant earthquake originating in the bay probably wouldn’t threaten either the Mt. Hope or the new Sakonnet River bridges, he said, noting that they’re solidly built. However, there’s still the potential for a catastrophic disaster in Mt. Hope Bay under the right circumstances, he said.
Mr. Barosh strongly opposed Weaver’s Cove Energy’s since-aborted proposal to install a liquefied natural gas (LNG) off-loading terminal in Mt. Hope Bay and facilities in Fall River. Plans submitted by Weaver Cove Energy, he said, relied on bad science in dismissing the potential danger of the location.
“One famous professor years ago said there weren’t any faults in this area, or they were negligible. His students, and then their students, preached the same thing,” he said, adding that the “LNG people” based part of their research on this faulty premise. “They weren’t putting any consideration into anything having to do with local earthquakes. They did no investigation whatsoever.”
Mr. Barosh pushed the company to hand over its drilling data, to no avail. “I was sort of disgusted with the whole process. Their attitude was, ‘We had done this drilling, we looked at it, and we see no problem and we don’t need to show it to you,’” he said.
Although the bay’s faults are relatively small, even a “local disruption” or shock — as opposed to a major earthquake that’s felt throughout the entire region — could have a catastrophic effect, said Mr. Barosh. He pointed out that one such small earthquake was recorded just south of the Sakonnet Bridge in 2002. A small, locally concentrated earthquake could break a pipe or shift the foundation of an LNG terminal, he said.
“With something like LNG, you don’t want to fool with it. There’s a potential for a gigantic disaster. If it breaks there would be a huge explosion, like an atomic bomb. There would be no chance to escape the huge fireball,” he said.
Weaver Cove Energy withdrew its plan last year, but Mr. Barosh said there’s no stopping a similar facility from being proposed in the future. After his book is published, he plans to seek funding for a more thorough study of the faults under Narragansett Bay.
Mr. Barosh’s work has taken him far and wide over his 50-plus-year career. After earning his doctoral thesis from the University of Colorado in 1964, he was initially tapped to be an astrogeologist for the Apollo space program before ending up at the Nevada Test Site (now the Nevada National Security Site), where nuclear devices were studied.
“They were doing extremely good work,” he said.
He went overseas in 1969 to do research in Turkey, Pakistan and Iran. Mr. Barosh represented both the United States and the South East Asia Treaty Organization, the eastern equivalent of NATO.
He’s worked in China on and off since 1985, and his research was used during the construction of a large railway across the southern part of the country.
“When I first went there everyone was in these little blue outfits and riding bicycles. Now they dress better than I do and are in brand-new cars,” he said.
Of all his work trips, however, Mr. Barosh said his most memorable was his first, in 1957. He had just earned his bachelor’s degree in geology and was prospecting for iron in Alaska with a team working for a mining company.
“Every day something dramatic would happen — plane crash, running into a grizzly bear, falling off a cliff, a collapsed bridge,” he said.
But all that paled in comparison to the thrilling adventure later that summer.
“We actually survived a three-day, nonstop Fourth of July party.”
Brief history of earthquakes here
Here are some notable earthquakes over the years that either originated in or were felt in Rhode Island and Massachusetts. All information was provided by the U.S. Geological Survey (www.usgs.gov).
• 1638: A violent shock near Quebec, Canada, was reportedly felt throughout New England, including the Narragansett Bay area.
• 1755: One of the most significant earthquakes in the northeastern region occurred off Cape Ann, Mass. While no one was killed, walls, chimneys and stone fences were knocked down in Boston and large numbers of fish were killed.
• 1876: Shock reported in Newport and Fairhaven and Woods Hole, Mass.
• 1883: Earthquake that was probably centered in Rhode Island was felt from Fall River to New London, Conn. In Rhode Island, it was felt from Bristol to Block Island.
• 1925: A magnitude 7 shock centered in the St. Lawrence River region was felt on Block Island and in Providence and Charlestown.
• 1929: The major submarine earthquake (magnitude 7.2) in the vicinity of the Grand Banks of Newfoundland caused moderate vibrations in Newport and elsewhere in Rhode Island.
• 1940: Two separate earthquakes centered near Lake Ossipee, NH knocked pictures from walls in Newport and was also felt elsewhere in the state.
• 1963: A magnitude 4.5 earthquake near the coast of Massachusetts cracked plaster in Chepachet, and others reported rattling windows and dishes and rumbling sounds.
• 1965: A small earthquake in the Narragansett Bay region rattled windows and doors and shook trees and bushes slightly, frightening many people. Small objects and furniture shifted in Bristol.
• 1967: The lower bay was shaken by a shock felt in Adamsville, Middletown, Newport and other areas.
• 1973: A slight disturbance not reported by local seismographs shook houses and rattled windows throughout Rhode Island and eastern Massachusetts, with some people reporting noises similar to an explosion or sonic boom. A magnitude 5.2 earthquake in Maine later in the year was felt in Bristol, East Providence and other parts of Rhode Island.
• 1976: The earthquake centered near Newport on March 11, with a magnitude of 3.5 and an intensity of VI, is considered to be the largest earthquake in Rhode Island. A lamp fell from a table in Newport and snow was knocked off a roof in Westport.