For some reason I’m not able to fathom, extreme forces of nature exhilarate me, never frighten me. As a teenager, I remember watching a violent electrical storm from our front porch when suddenly all I could see was a bright white flash, followed almost immediately by a wave of heat. A second or two later, I was in complete darkness. My first thoughts were “Wow! I’ve been blinded by a lightning strike. What a story to tell!”
Slowly my vision returned, and I realised that the reason for the darkness was that there were no street lights or any form of lighting from houses in the neighbourhood. I was somewhat disappointed that I wouldn’t have such an amazing story to tell after all.
Lightening had stuck a large step-down transformer that stood about 15 metres from our porch, and the flash and and rush of heat was the result of the transformer exploding from the strike, plunging the suburb into darkness.
In my Early twenties, a brother and I toured the South Island. On the return Cook Straight crossing between Picton and Wellington, The Interislander ferry ran into a violent storm. I was the only passenger to occupy the front observation lounge as the ship’s bow was pointing at the stars one moment, then disappearing beneath dark water the next. Everyone else, including my brother, were huddled in the rear lounge with vomit bags held firmly to their faces, or had developed complexions that ranged from deathly white to assorted shades of green.
I thought the scene was rather funny, although had I been aware that many of the restraints holding the cars, trucks and railway rolling stock on the lower decks had failed, I might have had some concerns for the safety of my car. As it was, I was blissfully unaware of the damage being done below me and enjoyed wandering the top deck promenade while waves several stories high rush past, and the ship pitch violently beneath me.
Earthquakes have the same effect. Living in Aotearoa New Zealand, one gets kind of complacent with short quakes. We’re rather small in geographical terms – only 268,000 square kilometres (103,500 sq mi) in area, about the size of Colorado – but over 20,000 earthquakes are recorded every year. Most pass unnoticed, but there’s usually around 250 each year that are noticeable.
I’ve experienced a number of earthquakes over the years that have caused some damage to our home and contents, although nothing too serious. Each quake is unique and as they come on, I wonder what type of motion will result. Some seem to move in just one plane, for example horizontally or vertically. These, especially the horizontal ones, often have a few violent shakes towards the end, which seem to cause all the damage. The ones I enjoy the most, are those that have a rolling motion and feel as though they are moving in all directions at once. Think of riding a narrow gauge train travelling at very high speed over a poorly laid track with incredibly tight curves, where standing is impossible without holding on tight to the handrails on the seats around you.
Last night’s shake was like that. I was sitting in the lounge watching some late night television, and everyone one else had gone to bed. At 2 minutes after midnight I felt slight sensation of movement, and wondered if an earthquake was about to happen. Very gradually the movement increased, and within 15 seconds, I could see the ceiling fan, and bookcases moving. Shortly after I was watching the walls as they flexed and appeared to have waves moving along them. Doors started slamming shortly afterwards, and by the time a minute had passed, I realised that if I had intended to move to safety, the window of opportunity had probably passed. It would have been impossible to walk upright, and I would have needed to resort to hands and knees to make an escape. So I enjoyed the ride. I realised that with a shake this long, a major shock had occurred within a few hundred kilometres.
At about 5 minutes after midnight, the rocking and rolling had subsided somewhat, and I decided to check on the rest of the family, as I am aware that others do not view earthquakes as I do. I found my wife, daughter and her three children upstairs standing in doorways somewhat shaken. The length of the shake had prompted my daughter to gather her brood around her, and even now, fifteen hours later is reluctant to let them out of her sight.
Strong aftershocks are still being felt, and while only two deaths have been reported, Wellington’s CBD has been closed off due to fallen glass and masonry. Universities and schools have been closed and some roads are impassable. What I find interesting, is that aftershocks have been dispersed over a wide area, from several hundred kilometres south of where I live to over a hundred kilometres north. I wonder if it’s a precursor to the “Big One”. The Southern Alpine fault ruptures approximately every 330 years, the last one occurring in 1717. The fault line extends for over 400 kilometres and is expected to cause a magnitude 8+ earthquake when it ruptures, quite likely, within in my lifetime.
While I know it’s likely to cause widespread damage and possibly fatalities, I really would like to “ride the wave”. I can’t think of anything more exciting.