The recent earthquake in Chile has shaken awake the medias interest in the infamous “Ring of Fire”. From local weather men to the big network scientists, all have vaguely scratched the surface in their explanations of one of the most dangerous areas on Earth.
The Pacific Ring of Fire stretches from South America, where the Nazca plate dips beneath the South American Plate, and runs north along the pacific coasts of Central and North America up to Alaska. It then crosses over to the coasts of Asia all the way south to New Zealand and the Pacific Islands. It is along these fault lines that 75% of the worlds active and dormant volcanoes rest. It is also where 90% of the worlds earthquakes occur.
Plate Tectonics in a Nutshell
To understand the Ring of Fire you must first explore plate tectonic theory as its likely cause. Some of you may say “what theory?” yes as incredible as it may sound plate tectonic theory, also known as continental drift theory, is still a relatively new idea that has just begun to be researched intensely within the last 80 years, even though it is almost regarded as common knowledge by the public.
It all goes back to 1912, when Alfred Wegener had this crazy idea looking at a map of the world. What he saw was continents that seemed to almost fit together like a giant jigsaw puzzle. He continued his research and came up with idea that millions of years ago there was a super continent on Earth, he named it Pangaea, meaning “all lands”. He thought that due to the Earths rotation the huge landmass had broke up into pieces which began to drift apart, he called this his continental drift theory and presented it to a scientific community which wasn’t quite ready to listen to the theory, he was dismissed and no one was the wiser. Wegener had no proof of his theory after all and it wouldn’t be until 1929 that scientists would revisit the crazy idea.
In comes Arthur Holmes who building on the research of Wegener tried to explain to the scientific community that the formations of mountains and volcanoes, as well as the cause for earthquakes could be connected with Wegeners other theory of thermal convection and its currents as the cause for continental drift. In short there is a molten sea underneath us with it’s own currents that move the landmasses (tectonic plates) on top of them. It is through the collision of these plates that mountain ranges are formed as they grind together skyward, kind of like when you shuffle two decks of cards together. Well amazingly the scientific community was still not ready for this theory and once again dismissed it as bologne. It would would be another 30 years and advances in technology and exploration of the ocean floor that would finally convince scientists that Wegener and Holmes were on to something.
The discovery of underwater volcanoes in the Atlantic, mountain chains and trenches beneath the pacific solidified Wegeners theory of plate tectonics. It is the movement of the Nazca Plate rubbing against the South American plate that caused the 8.8 earthquake in Chile, and hundreds, if not hundreds of thousands of other earthquakes in the past.
The Ring of Destruction
Perhaps the most significant events in American history regarding the Ring of Fire have been the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and the eruption of Mount Saint Helen. The Great Quake of 1906 measured in at 7.8 on the Richter scale and is remembered as the most devastating natural disaster in the History of the United States. While Mount St. Helen was equally the most destructive and deadly volcanic event in US history. Mount St. Helen today is just one of a chain of 160 active volcanoes in the Pacific Ring of Fire.
Peru as well has seen its cities crumble to the ground. We seem to experience a major earthquake about every 20 years or so. In fact in the last 100 years alone Peru has had 7 earthquakes with the magnitudes of over 8.0 on the Richter scale. Our most recent was on August 15th, 2007 when a 8.0 Earthquake leveled the towns of Chincha and Pisco to the South of Lima, 514 people lost their lives. Relatively small to the quake of 1970 when a 7.9 earthquake leveled towns in the Province of Ancash, 66,000 souls were taken that day.
Chile meanwhile has had 5 earthquakes in the last 100 years that have been over 8.0 including the strongest ever recorded, measuring in at 9.5 on the Richter scale. The quake occured on May 22nd, 1960 and took the lives of 1,655 people, including 138 dead in Japan and 32 dead in the Phillipines due to the tsunami that followed. For that reason tsunami warnings were quickly posted after Saturdays quakes, to avoid any loss of life.
The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami killed over 200,000 people. It was caused by the Sumatra-Andaman Earthquake which measured in at 9.3 on the Richter scale.
The Ocean Wall
Earthquakes and deep ocean volcanic eruptions due to continental drifts can trigger tsunamis of incredible size and destruction. They occur when there is displacement of a large volume of water, creating waves that as they approach land flow straight instead of in a natural circular motion. On open ocean tsunamis are hardly noticeable, not reaching more then 12 inches in height, however as they approach land and shallow water they can grow as large as 50 ft high.
As the tsunami approaches, drawback is commonly seen on the coast and serves as a warning sign for a tsunami. It occurs when a tsunami’s trough reaches the land before it’s peak.
The Ring of Fire
The 452 Volcanoes that make up the ring of fire are also responsible for the name. These volcanoes release the pressure from the underground molten sea between tectonic plates. These volcanoes can be seen from space as running in a straight line and side by side. Powerful eruptions are common as was the case with Mount St. Helens and more recently Nevado del Ruiz in Colombia in 1985 which killed 23,000 people.
It is important for engineers and city planners to take into accounts their locations within this ring as a number of natural disasters can be imminent. Many have asked why the recent earthquake in Chile hasn’t claimed as many lives or has not been as severe as the earthquake in Haiti, even though it was more powerful. The reason is because Chile has been dealing with earthquakes for most of it’s history and was a little more prepared. That is not to say that they are not scathed, as anyone can see from watching the news the incredible amount of destruction the quake has caused.
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