The Sixth Seal: Real Risk, Few Precautions (Revelation 6:12)

Eastern Quakes: Real Risk, Few Precautions

1989 San Francisco Earthquake
1989 San Francisco Earthquake
Published: October 24, 1989
The chances of such an occurrence are much less in the East than on the West Coast. Geologic stresses in the East build up only a hundredth to a thousandth as fast as in California, and this means that big Eastern quakes are far less frequent. Scientists do not really know what the interval between them might be, nor are the deeper-lying geologic faults that cause them as accessible to study. So seismologists are at a loss to predict when or where they will strike.
For this reason, ”we can’t preclude that a Charleston-sized earthquake might occur anywhere along the East Coast,” said David Russ, the assistant chief geologist of the United States Geological Survey in Reston, Va. ”It could occur in Washington. It could occur in New York.”
If that happens, many experts agree, the impact will probably be much greater than in California. Easterners, unlike Californians, have paid very little attention to making buildings and other structures earthquake-proof or earthquake-resistant. ”We don’t have that mentality here on the East Coast,” said Robert Silman, a New York structural engineer whose firm has worked on 3,800 buildings in the metropolitan area.
The result, said Dr. John Ebel, a geophysicist who is the assistant director of Boston College’s Weston Observatory, is that damage in the East would probably be more widespread, more people could be hurt and killed, depending on circumstances like time of day, and ”it would probably take a lot longer to get these cities back to useful operating levels.”
On top of this, scientists say, an earthquake in the East can shake an area 100 times larger than a quake of the same magnitude in California. This is because the earth’s crust is older, colder and more brittle in the East and tends to transmit seismic energy more efficiently. ”If you had a magnitude 7 earthquake and you put it halfway between New York City and Boston,” Dr. Ebel said, ”you would have the potential of doing damage in both places,” not to mention cities like Hartford and Providence.
Few studies have been done of Eastern cities’ vulnerability to earthquakes. But one, published last June in The Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, calculated the effects on New York City of a magnitude 6 earthquake. That is one-tenth the magnitude of last week’s California quake, but about the same as the Whittier, Calif., quake two years ago.
The study found that such an earthquake centered 17 miles southeast of City Hall, off Rockaway Beach, would cause $11 billion in damage to buildings and start 130 fires. By comparison, preliminary estimates place the damage in last week’s California disaster at $4 billion to $10 billion. If the quake’s epicenter were 11 miles southeast of City Hall, the study found, there would be about $18 billion in damage; if 5 miles, about $25 billion.
No estimates on injuries or loss of life were made. But a magnitude 6 earthquake ”would probably be a disaster unparalleled in New York history,” wrote the authors of the study, Charles Scawthorn and Stephen K. Harris of EQE Engineering in San Francisco.
The study was financed by the National Center for Earthquake Engineering Research at the State University of New York at Buffalo. The research and education center, supported by the National Science Foundation and New York State, was established in 1986 to help reduce damage and loss of life from earthquakes.
The study’s postulated epicenter of 17 miles southeast of City Hall was the location of the strongest quake to strike New York since it has been settled, a magnitude 5 temblor on Aug. 10, 1884. That 1884 quake rattled bottles and crockery in Manhattan and frightened New Yorkers, but caused little damage. Seismologists say a quake of that order is likely to occur within 50 miles of New York City every 300 years. Quakes of magnitude 5 are not rare in the East. The major earthquake zone in the eastern half of the country is the central Mississippi Valley, where a huge underground rift causes frequent geologic dislocations and small temblors. The most powerful quake ever known to strike the United States occurred at New Madrid, Mo., in 1812. It was later estimated at magnitude 8.7 and was one of three quakes to strike that area in 1811-12, all of them stronger than magnitude 8. They were felt as far away as Washington, where they rattled chandeliers, Boston and Quebec.
Because the New Madrid rift is so active, it has been well studied, and scientists have been able to come up with predictions for the central Mississippi valley, which includes St. Louis and Memphis. According to Dr. Russ, there is a 40 to 63 percent chance that a quake of magnitude 6 will strike that area between now and the year 2000, and an 86 to 97 percent chance that it will do so by 2035. The Federal geologists say there is a 1 percent chance or less of a quake greater than magnitude 7 by 2000, and a 4 percent chance or less by 2035.
Elsewhere in the East, scientists are limited in their knowledge of probabilities partly because faults that could cause big earthquakes are buried deeper in the earth’s crust. In contrast to California, where the boundary between two major tectonic plates creates the San Andreas and related faults, the eastern United States lies in the middle of a major tectonic plate. Its faults are far less obvious, their activity far more subtle, and their slippage far slower. 
The vulnerability is evident in many ways. ”I’m sitting here looking out my window,” said Mr. Silman, the structural engineer in New York, ”and I see a bunch of water tanks all over the place” on rooftops. ”They are not anchored down at all, and it’s very possible they would fall in an earthquake.”
Buildings of reinforced masonry, reinforced concrete and steel would hold up much better, engineers say, and wooden structures are considered intrinsically tough in ordinary circumstances. The best performers, they say, would probably be skyscrapers built in the last 20 years. As Mr. Silman explained, they have been built to withstand high winds, and the same structural features that enable them to do so also help them resist an earthquake’s force. But even these new towers have not been provided with the seismic protections required in California and so are more vulnerable than similar structures on the West Coast.
Buildings in New York are not generally constructed with such seismic protections as base-isolated structures, in which the building is allowed to shift with the ground movement; or with flexible frames that absorb and distribute energy through columns and beams so that floors can flex from side to side, or with reinforced frames that help resist distortion.
”If you’re trying to make a building ductile – able to absorb energy – we’re not geared to think that way,” said Mr. Silman.
Manhattan does, however, have at least one mitigating factor: ”We are blessed with this bedrock island,” said Mr. Silman. ”That should work to our benefit; we don’t have shifting soils. But there are plenty of places that are problem areas, particularly the shoreline areas,” where landfills make the ground soft and unstable.
As scientists have learned more about geologic faults in the Northeast, the nation’s uniform building code – the basic, minimum code followed throughout the country – has been revised accordingly. Until recently, the code required newly constructed buildings in New York City to withstand at least 19 percent of the side-to-side seismic force that a comparable building in the seismically active areas of California must handle. Now the threshold has been raised to 25 percent.
New York City, for the first time, is moving to adopt seismic standards as part of its own building code. Local and state building codes can and do go beyond the national code. Charles M. Smith Jr., the city Building Commissioner, last spring formed a committee of scientists, engineers, architects and government officials to recommend the changes.
”They all agree that New York City should anticipate an earthquake,” Mr. Smith said. As to how big an earthquake, ”I don’t think anybody would bet on a magnitude greater than 6.5,” he said. ”I don’t know,” he added, ”that our committee will go so far as to acknowledge” the damage levels in the Scawthorn-Harris study, characterizing it as ”not without controversy.”
For the most part, neither New York nor any other Eastern city has done a detailed survey of just how individual buildings and other structures would be affected, and how or whether to modify them.
”The thing I think is needed in the East is a program to investigate all the bridges” to see how they would stand up to various magnitudes of earthquake,” said Bill Geyer, the executive vice president of the New York engineering firm of Steinman, Boynton, Gronquist and Birdsall, which is rehabilitating the cable on the Williamsburg Bridge. ”No one has gone through and done any analysis of the existing bridges.”
In general, he said, the large suspension bridges, by their nature, ”are not susceptible to the magnitude of earthquake you’d expect in the East.” But the approaches and side spans of some of them might be, he said, and only a bridge-by-bridge analysis would tell. Nor, experts say, are some elevated highways in New York designed with the flexibility and ability to accommodate motion that would enable them to withstand a big temblor.
Tunnels Vulnerable
The underground tunnels that carry travelers under the rivers into Manhattan, those that contain the subways and those that carry water, sewers and natural gas would all be vulnerable to rupture, engineers say. The Lincoln, Holland, PATH and Amtrak tunnels, for instance, go from bedrock in Manhattan to soft soil under the Hudson River to bedrock again in New Jersey, said Mark Carter, a partner in Raamot Associates, geotechnical engineers specializing in soils and foundations.
Likewise, he said, subway tunnels between Manhattan and Queens go from hard rock to soft soil to hard rock on Roosevelt Island, to soft soil again and back to rock. The boundaries between soft soil and rock are points of weakness, he said.
”These structures are old,” he said, ”and as far as I know they have not been designed for earthquake loadings.”
Even if it is possible to survey all major buildings and facilities to determine what corrections can be made, cities like New York would then face a major decision: Is it worth spending the money to modify buildings and other structures to cope with a quake that might or might not come in 100, or 200 300 years or more?
”That is a classical problem” in risk-benefit analysis, said Dr. George Lee, the acting director of the Earthquake Engineering Research Center in Buffalo. As more is learned about Eastern earthquakes, he said, it should become ”possible to talk about decision-making.” But for now, he said, ”I think it’s premature for us to consider that question.”

The Nuclear Risk of the Korean Horn

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un supervises the launching of four ballistic missiles during a recent military drill in North Korea. (AFP/Getty Images)
On the day of North Korea’s first atomic test in 2006, aides to President George W. Bush began phoning foreign capitals to reassure allies startled by Pyongyang’s surprising feat. The test, aides said, had been mostly a failure: a botched, 1-kiloton cry for attention from a regime that had no warheads or reliable delivery systems and would never be allowed to obtain them.
“The current course that they are on is unacceptable,” State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said publicly at the time, “and the international community is going to act.”
A decade later, that confidence has all but evaporated. After a week in which Pyongyang successfully lobbed four intermediate-range missiles into the Sea of Japan, U.S. officials are no longer seeing North Korea’s weapons tests as amateurish, attention-grabbing provocations. Instead, they are viewed as evidence of a rapidly growing threat — and one that increasingly defies solution.
Over the past year, technological advances in North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs have dramatically raised the stakes in the years-long standoff between the United States and the reclusive communist regime, according to current and former U.S. officials and ­Korea experts. Pyongyang’s growing arsenal has rattled key U.S. allies and spurred efforts by all sides to develop new first-strike capabilities, increasing the risk that a simple mistake could trigger a devastating regional war, the analysts said.
The military developments are coming at a time of unusual political ferment, with a new and largely untested administration in Washington and with South Korea’s government coping with an impeachment crisis. Longtime observers say the risk of conflict is higher than it has been in years, and it is likely to rise further as North Korean leader Kim Jong Un seeks to fulfill his pledge to field long-range missiles capable of striking U.S. cities.
“This is no longer about a lonely dictator crying for attention or demanding negotiations,” said Victor Cha, a former adviser on North Korea to the Bush administration and the Korea chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank. “This is now a military testing program to acquire a proven capability.”
Pyongyang’s ambition to become an advanced nuclear-armed state is not new. North Korea began building its first reactor for making plutonium more than three decades ago. Over the years, it has shown ingenuity in increasing the range and power of a stockpile of homemade short- and medium-range missiles, all based on Soviet-era designs.
Often, in the past, the new innovations have been accompanied by demands: a clamoring for security guarantees and international respect by a paranoid and nearly friendless government that perceives its democratic neighbors as plotting its destruction. After the first atomic test in 2006, then-leader Kim Jong Il threatened to launch nuclear missiles unless Washington agreed to face-to-face talks.
North Korea has been slammed instead with ever-tighter United Nations sanctions meant to cut off access to technology and foreign cash flows. Yet, despite the trade restrictions, diplomatic isolation, threats and occasional sabotage, the country’s weapons programs have continued their upward march, goaded forward by dictators willing to sacrifice their citizens’ well-being to grow the country’s military might.
And now, in the fifth year of Kim Jong Un’s rule, progress is coming in leaps.
‘A living, breathing thing’
Pyongyang’s fifth and latest nuclear weapons test occurred on Sept. 9 on the 68th anniversary of North Korea’s founding. Seismic monitoring stations picked up vibrations from the underground blast and quickly determined that this one was exceptional.
Scientific analyses of the test determined that the new bomb’s explosive yield approached 30 kilotons, two times the force of the “Little Boy” bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, in 1945. The device was twice as powerful as the bomb North Korea tested just nine months earlier, and it was 30 times stronger than one detonated in 2006 in a remote mountain tunnel. More ominously, North Korea last March displayed a new compact bomb, one that appears small enough to fit inside the nose cone of one of its indigenously produced missiles.
Regardless of whether the miniature bomb is real or a clever prop, North Korea does finally appear to be “on the verge of a nuclear breakout,” said Robert Litwak, an expert on nuclear proliferation and director of International Security Studies at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He said Pyongyang’s arsenal is believed to now contain as many as 20 nuclear bombs, along with enough plutonium and highly enriched uranium to make dozens more.
“When I got into this field,” Litwak said at a symposium on North Korea this month, “I couldn’t have conceived of North Korea acquiring a nuclear arsenal approaching half the size of Great Britain’s.”
The country’s missiles also have grown more sophisticated. Last year, North Korea’s military conducted the first test of a two-stage ballistic missile that uses solid fuel — a significant advance over the country’s existing liquid-fueled rockets because they can be moved easily and launched quickly. Also in 2016, North Korea broadcast images of engineers testing engines for a new class of advanced missiles with true intercontinental range, potentially putting cities on the U.S. mainland within reach.
The provocations have continued in the weeks since the inauguration of President Trump, who, just before taking office, appeared to taunt Pyongyang in a Twitter post, saying that North Korea’s plan for building intercontinental ballistic missiles “won’t happen.”
A month later, Kim launched one of the country’s new solid-fuel missiles, interrupting Trump’s Mar-a-Lago dinner with visiting Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Last week’s coordinated launch of four intermediate-range missiles appeared intended to showcase the country’s ability to fire multiple rockets simultaneously at U.S. military bases in Japan, increasing the likelihood that some will penetrate antimissile shields.
North Korea’s state-run media has occasionally shown propaganda footage of Kim huddling with his generals over what some analysts have jokingly called the “map of death”: a chart that portrays Japanese and U.S. mainland cities as potential targets.
The laughter has now stopped, said Jeffrey Lewis, an expert on North Korean weapons systems. “This idea that these things were just bargaining chips — something that was true years ago — is superseded by the fact that there is now a rocket force . . . with a commander and a headquarters and subordinate bases, all with missiles,” said Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. “This is now a living, breathing thing.”
There have been notable failures as well. Numerous test rockets have drifted far off course, and others never made it off the launchpad. Many analysts say it could still be several years before Kim can construct a true ICBM that could reliably reach the U.S. mainland, and perhaps longer before he can demonstrate an ability to incorporate a nuclear payload into his rocket design. Yet, already, the basic components for a future arsenal of long-range, nuclear-tipped missiles are in place, Lewis said.
“The ICBM program is real,” Lewis said. “They’ve showed us their static engine test. They showed us the mock-up of the nuclear warhead. They have done everything short of actually testing the ICBM. When they do test it, the first time it will probably fail. But eventually it will work. And when it works, people are going to freak out.”
Danger of miscalculation
For decades, the United States and its East Asian allies have tried an array of strategies to blunt North Korea’s progress, ranging from diplomacy to covert operations to defensive antimissile shields. Lately, the search for solutions has taken on an intensity not seen in years.
As diplomatic initiatives have stalled, U.S., Japanese and South Korean officials have broadened the search for measures to ensure that Pyongyang’s missiles remain grounded, or — in the event of a launch — can be brought down before they reach their target. The efforts have proved to be partly successful at best.
Three years ago, alarmed by North Korea’s advances on missile systems, the Obama administration ordered the Pentagon and intelligence agencies to deploy highly classified cyber and electronic measures against North Korea, largely aimed at undermining the country’s nuclear and missile programs, two former senior administration officials said. Aspects of the initiatives were described in a recent report by the New York Times. The effort was further intensified last year, the officials said, in response to new intelligence assessments showing North Korea inching closer to its goal of fielding long-range ballistic missiles.
The clandestine effort begun under President Barack Obama appears to have borne fruit, judging from a rash of missile failures in the past year, said one former official familiar with the program. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the secret operations.
“We’re stopping shipments. We’re making sure things don’t work the way they’re supposed to,” one former official said. “We’ve been able to delay things, in some cases probably by a lot. It’s a cat-and-mouse game.”
But the second official, familiar with the Pentagon’s cyberwarfare efforts, acknowledged that North Korea remains an exceptionally difficult target because of its isolation and limited digital infrastructure. The official suggested that at least some of the recent missile failures were probably caused by North Korean errors. “I would be wary of claiming too much,” he said.
“We were trying to use all the tools that were available to us in order to degrade as much of their capabilities as possible,” a second former official said. “But we just did not have nearly as much game as we should have.”
In handoff meetings with Trump, Obama described the gathering threat in stark terms, calling it the most serious proliferation challenge facing the new administration, according to aides familiar with the discussions. The Trump White House has since convened three deputies’ committee meetings on North Korea and ordered a new, top-to-bottom threat assessment. White House officials say that Trump is weighing all options, from a new diplomatic initiative to enhanced military capabilities, possibly including a highly controversial return of tactical nuclear weapons to South Korea for the first time since the early 1990s.
The administration is dispatching Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to East Asia this week to confer with counterparts in Beijing, Tokyo and Seoul. And the White House is defending its decision last week to send antimissile batteries to South Korea despite vehement opposition from China.
The initiatives have failed to calm tensions in the region. As more missiles streak across North Korea’s eastern coast, Japanese and South Korean officials are pledging increased investments in defensive shields and highly accurate, conventionally armed missiles designed to preemptively destroy North Korean launch sites and command centers if an attack seems imminent. North Korea has responded with similar threats, describing its recent missile launches as a dry run for a preemptive attack on U.S. bases in Japan, the presumed staging ground for forces preparing to come to South Korea’s aid if war breaks out.
In the past, such a strike would be seen as suicidal, as it would certainly result in a devastating counterattack against North ­Korea that would probably destroy the regime itself. But Kim is betting that an arsenal of long-range, nuclear-tipped missiles would serve as an effective deterrent, said Cha, the former Bush administration adviser.
“That’s why they want to be able to reach the continental United States, so they can effectively hold us hostage,” Cha said. “Do we really want to trade Los Angeles for whatever city in North Korea?”
Such an attack on the U.S. mainland is not yet within North Korea’s grasp, and U.S. officials hope they can eventually neutralize the threat with improvements in antimissile systems. But in the meantime, each new advance increases the chance that a small mishap could rapidly escalate into all-out war, Cha said. In a crisis, “everyone is put in a use-it-or-lose-it situation, in which everyone feels he has to go first,” he said.
“The growing danger now,” he said, “is miscalculation.”
Ellen Nakashima contributed to this report.

Korea Prepares For Nuclear War

An undated file photo of a submarine ballistic missile being test-fired in an undisclosed location in North Korea. 
An undated file photo of a submarine ballistic missile being test-fired in an undisclosed location in North Korea.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY
Images show tunnelling at test site, which could support a blast up to 14 times more powerful than the last: Report
The isolated country is carrying out “substantial tunnel excavation” at its nuclear test site, which could support an explosion up to 14 times more powerful than its last test in September last year, said US scientists Frank Pabian and David Coblentz.
They wrote that the continued tunnelling under Mount Mantap at the Punggye-ri test site “has the potential for allowing North Korea to support additional underground nuclear tests of significantly higher explosive yields, perhaps up to 282 kilotonnes”. Kilotonne is a unit of measuring the energy of explosion.
Their analysis, published on North Korea monitoring website 38 North, is based on commercial satellite imagery of the test site. The website is run by Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.
The report published by 38 North came a day after it warned last Thursday that North Korea could be preparing for another nuclear test.
Commercial satellite imagery taken last Tuesday of the North’s Punggye-ri test site indicated movements and activities at the site’s North Portal, the main administrative area and the command centre, said defence analyst Joseph Bermudez.
South Korea’s Unification Ministry said North Korea is ready to conduct a nuclear test at any time.
“We are closely monitoring the situation while being fully alert against (North Korea’s possible provocation),” ministry spokesman Jeong Joon Hee told a regular press briefing last week.
North Korea’s state agency KCNA said the missiles were aimed at United States bases in Japan. The launches coincided with largest joint US-South Korean military exercises, yearly drills which Pyongyang views as preparation for an invasion.
In response to North Korea’s latest missile launches, the US accelerated the deployment of the first elements of its advanced anti-missile defence system in South Korea despite protests from China.
Today, South Korea and the US will kick off a computer-simulated command post exercise, codenamed Key Resolve, which is aimed at improving the combined forces’ operation and combat capabilities to deter threats from the North. The war game is carried out in conjunction with Foal Eagle, a field training exercise that began on March 1.
The Nimitz-class USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier is scheduled to arrive in Busan on Wednesday or thereabouts to participate in the ongoing drills, said Yonhap news agency.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is travelling to the region this week on his first trip to Asia as America’s top diplomat. He will travel to Japan, South Korea and China from Wednesday to Sunday.
Long-time observers say the risk of conflict is higher than it has been in years, and it is likely to rise further as North Korean leader Kim Jong Un seeks to fulfil his pledge to field long-range missiles capable of striking US cities.
“This is no longer about a lonely dictator crying for attention or demanding negotiations,” said Dr Victor Cha, the Korea chair at the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies.
“This is now a military testing programme to acquire a proven capability,” he told The Washington Post.

India Nuclear Horn Goes Supersonic

India test-fires supersonic cruise missile
Pakistan has already urges world to check Indian conventional, nuclear arms build-up
India on Saturday test-fired the BrahMos supersonic cruise missile, which is ‘capable’ of carrying a warhead of 300kg, from a test range along the Odisha coast, the Press Trust of India news agency reported.
The cruise missile was test fired from a mobile launcher from the Integrated Test Range (ITR) at Chandipur near Balasore in Odisha at about 11.33am, the news service quoted unnamed officials of the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) as saying. “It was an ‘excellent’ launch and a great success,” they said.
The PTI reported that the supersonic missile was capable of carrying a warhead of 300kg. “The two-stage missile, one being solid and the second one ramjet liquid propellant, has already been inducted into the army and navy, while the air force version is in final stage of trial,” the officials said. The Indian Army is already equipped with three regiments of Block III version of Brahmos missiles.
On Thursday, Foreign Office spokesman Nafees Zakaria said in Islamabad that India’s massive arms build-up and testing of inter-continental ballistic missiles was a source of concern for the region. However, Pakistan would not indulge in the arms race, he said. “Pakistan will maintain minimum deterrence capability to safeguard its national security,” he said.
“India’s massive arms buying spree, making it one of the top arms importers in the world, was driven by its desire for regional hegemony and global power status,” he said. On the other hand, Pakistan had been compelled to acquire and maintain a deterrent capability to ensure its national security, he said, adding that Pakistan never wanted to engage in any kind of arms race, nuclear or conventional.
Several international reports and independent observers had drawn attention to the rapid expansion in India’s capability to produce fissile material for military use, which had been made possible by the 2008 NSG waiver granted to India without appropriate non-proliferation safeguards and the subsequent nuclear deals struck with different countries.
In February, the Foreign Office urged the international community to check Indian conventional and nuclear arms build-up that had caused strategic anxiety in the region. “With conventional weapons balance already disturbed, India’s nuclear weapons build-up has dangerous proportions to tip the strategic balance and endanger peace of the region and beyond,” he said.