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Idaho earthquake swarm may not mean a big one is coming

By Robert Patten, EastIdahoNews.com  |  Posted Sep 13th, 2017 @ 10:15am


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SODA SPRINGS, Idaho — The earthquake swarm in southeast Idaho has now risen to 321 quakes since Sept. 2, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

The quakes have been focused in the Soda Springs area, with the most powerful being a 5.3 magnitude. Although no structural damage or injuries to people have been reported, perhaps it’s a matter of time before the Big One hits and our cities topple like Lego blocks at a 4-year-old’s birthday party, right?

Not really.

Robert Clayton, a professor of geology at Brigham Young University-Idaho, calls the latest quakes a good thing.

Earthquakes take place when there is a very slow movement of the earth’s crust and “the amount of energy built up is greater than the capacity of rocks to resist,” he told EastIdahoNews.com.

It’s all about how that energy gets released.

“(These quakes) are releasing a lot of energy in very small doses,” Clayton said — a much better alternative to having all the energy released at once.

He said swarms like this one have happened before in the region, such as in northwest Nevada a few years ago.

“It’s not frequent, but it does happen,” he said. “It usually doesn’t build up to a big earthquake, though it’s not unknown.”

Shannon Kobs Nawotniak, an Idaho State University geosciences assistant professor, said no one can guarantee there won’t be a large quake in east Idaho, but it’s an extremely low possibility.

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In other words, although we should always be prepared for the Big One, little tremors in the earth don’t mean the sky is falling.

“Foreshocks, aftershocks and swarms are all very normal for earthquakes,” Nawotniak said in a news release. “It will take a little while for the rocks to finish settling into new positions, and each wiggle as it settles into place is giving us another small earthquake.”

But what if these earthquakes are just heralds to a fiery doom courtesy of the Yellowstone supervolcano?

Yeah, no.

David Pearson, also an ISU geosciences assistant professor, said despite what you may have seen on social media, this earthquake swarm isn’t related to Yellowstone, and it’s not going to trigger geological activity in Yellowstone. And Clayton emphasized, “It’s not related in any shape or form to Yellowstone.”

And it has nothing to do with North Korea’s nuclear tests either, Pearson said.

Let’s take a look at what’s actually causing these quakes. The mountains in southeast Idaho, west Utah, Nevada and Southern California are part of a group called the Basin and Range Province, which was made by lateral stretching of the earth’s crust, and mountains and valleys are bounded by faults caused by the stretching, according to the ISU Department of Geosciences. This includes the quakes in the Soda Springs area.

The non-scientific explanation is that this is a normal process.

The question here isn’t how big — it’s how long.

“It’s unknown when the earthquake swarm will end,” Nawotniak said. “Earthquake swarms have been known to continue for weeks or even months.”

Although feeling the earth move under your feet can be worrisome, don’t panic. Remember: Lots of small earthquakes are better than a few big ones.

“People should actually be relieved,” Clayton said.

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