Field of Science

Cabinets of curiosities #4: Classification and Collection

The naturalists of the Renaissance were obsessed with the idea to collect and describe all the secrets of earth, polymaths by passion, however only some men achieved so much confidence in this task as Conrad Gesner (1516-1565) as he avidly collected and immortalized such things as words, animals, plants and rocks. Other tried to classify catastrophes and explain the origin of earthquakes.
But not only nature, also time should be distinguishably and labelled adequately - in a letter to his fellow colleague the Italian geologist Giovanni Arduino (1714-1795) proposed a classification of rocks according to their supposed order of temporal deposition, scheme in part used still today.
Men was and is a wanderer as he is a collector of strange things - some people will do everything to achieve a collection rich in rare books and precious specimen, there are even (presumed) bad and fool(ed) geologists.
It is wonderful when collections can be completed with rare specimens - the discovery of the only known colour photographs of the great earthquake of San Francisco in 1906 is an extraordinary event.

Image from "La vana speculazione disingannata dal senso" by Arduino Scilla, 1670.

The Thunderstone of Ensisheim

"It was nothing of this earth, but a piece of the great outside; and as such dowered with outside properties and obedient to outside laws."
"The Colour Out of Space", by H.P. Lovecraft (1927)

It was 11.30 a.m. of the 7, November 1492 that in the sky a “gruesome thunderbolt and long lasting roar” was heard and a rock impacted in a wheat field producing a crater “half a man length” deep.
Soon curious onlookers gathered around the hole, and with the help of some strong men and an oxcart the recuperated 127 kilogram heavy stone felt from the sky was carried with a solemn procession in the nearby city of Ensisheim, however not after some pieces of the rock were broken off as memorabilia.

Fig.1. One of the most popular depictions of the impact of the thunderstone of Ensisheim in a contemporary pamphlet by the Swiss humanist Johann Bergmann von Olpe from Basel.
The accompanying text explains as follows:
In the year thousand four hundred ninety two was heard a great clamour
That first outside the city in the seventh month of wintertime
A great rock at bright day felt down with thunderbolt
With a weight of three and a half centner and with the colour of iron it was brought here in a solemn procession, with great strength many pieces were broken off

The Austrian emperor Maximilian I., accidentally in the town for political reasons, also took two pieces for his collection and ordered that the remaining mysterious rock should be exposed in the local church. This seemed necessary, stones falling from the sky were believed to be dangerous premonitory signs of war, plague and famine and the product of evil forces - only by putting the rock in chains on holy ground their evil influence could be neutralized.

The shooting star became soon known as the “thunderstone of Ensisheim”, the news of its recovery was propagated by pamphlets all over Central Europe and scholars speculated about the significance of the strange rock.
In the first pamphlet the Swiss humanist Johann Bergmann von Olpe remembered of various signs in the sky and wonders observed in the last years, more remarkable than every thing that could be read in books, but this rock was by far the greatest of all miracles.
He continues to tell the extraordinary effects of the phenomena, the thunderbolt produced by the rock alone was heard all over Europe, or at least until the nearby Swiss.
Bergmann is sure that the stone is a sign for misfortune for all the enemies of the rightfully emperor Maximilian, god himself send it to declare his support for a war against France – another example of misuse of catastrophes for political reasons.

Fig.2. The impact as seen in the “Schweizer Bilderchronik des Luzerners“ by Diebold Schilling in 1512.

The “thunderstone of Ensisheim” is today the oldest known recorded case of a meteorite in Europe.
For the next centuries the case of Ensisheim will appear in various chronicles and report, but the origin of these rocks remains mysterious until the 18th century.
Two main explanations will develop - meteorites are solidified air or vapour and so phenomena of the atmosphere or in alternative eruption products of volcanoes and so phenomena of the geosphere.
An extraterrestrial origin was considered impossible because the space between the planets was considered free of matter, idea supported and promoted by the English astronomer Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727).

An important contribution comes from the German physician and lawyer Ernst Friedrich Chladni (1756-1827), he collects eyewitness reports and petrologic and chemical analyses and in 1794 publish his work entitled “Über den Ursprung der von Pallas gefundenen und anderer ihr ähnlicher Eisenmassen, und über einige damit in Verbindung stehende Naturerscheinungen” (About the origin of the by Pallas discovered and other similar masses of iron and their connected natural apparitions). He is the first to publish and carefully document the hypothesis that meteorites are not rocks from or formed on earth, but remnants of the formation of the solar system coming from the interplanetary space.


BÜHLER, R.W. (1992): Meteorite – Urmaterie aus dem interplanetaren Raum. Weltbild Verlag:, Augsburg: 192

Online resources:

e-meteorite (31.10.2001): Geschichte der Meteoritenkunde. (Accessed 29.03.2011)

GROSSMAN, M. (2010-2011): Meteorite Manuscripts. (Accessed 29.03.2011)

A geologist riddle #9

A new georiddle about an impossible rock...

Geological risks and human society

"Civilization exists by geological consent, subject to change without notice."
Will Durant (1885 - 1981) American writer, historian, and philosopher

Fig.1. Woodcut of the "terrible and great" water-flood in the year 1651 of the German river Rhine.

Earthquakes and volcanic eruptions are part of the activity of earth and not controllable or alarming as natural events; however as these events affect human infrastructure they became natural disasters.
Human population today tends to be concentrate
d in cities, in 1950 just 30% of the world's population lived in urban areas, today already it is 50% and until 2025 it will likely increase to 60%.

Unfortunately many urbanized areas are concentrated in regions with s
trong seismic or volcanic activity - cities and harbours developed along coasts where oceanic plates move under continental plates. Islands and regions with volcanic soils are very fertile and attract people. In contrast seismically stabile regions like Siberia or the interior of Australia are strongly weathered and the soils depleted of nutrients.
Considering the distribution of earthquakes and the density of population the most dangerous countries are located around the Pacific Ocean (the notorious ring of fire) like Indonesia, Japan, China, North to Central America and the Andes, also countries in the Near East and around the Mediterranean Sea are at risk.

Fig.2. Simplified map with earthquake events, volcanoes and larger cities, modified after U.S.G.S. 2005.

Fig.3. "...the resulting map gives each person living on earth the same amount of space while also preserving the geographical reference. This map allows to understand the earthquake intensity in relation to today’s population distribution, and thus gives an idea of where most people are of risk related to seismic activity.", Global Earthquake Intensity map after Benjamin Hennig 2011.

The increment and concentration of humans and infrastructure in narrow spaces increases the risk of and the impact from natural hazards like floods, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, even small disasters can have great effects. Main problems are the to high grow rates, overcrowding population, no adequate infrastructures and development planes, limited space, mismanagement and corruption, all these factors increase the vulnerabilities of large cities and their inhabitants to local events.
Also modern technology and industry tends to be concentrate in single spots, however at the same time globalization tends to interconnect economies worldwide - a local catastrophe can so have worldwide economics percussions.
Living in highly technological cities also poses the danger that people loss contact and so awareness to natural hazards. In slightly modified or rural areas traces of past catastrophes can be observed, like landslide scars or deposits of rock fall or debris flows, in urbanized areas these traces tend to be smoothed or cancelled to build new infrastructures.
Defence or protection constructions tend also to smooth the temporal occurrence of natural hazards, most of these measures are build to prevent short term events of lower magnitude, producing the false impression that floods or mass wasting processes in general are extraordinary and rare events. People behind the protection w
all tend to be less vigilant or reduce private mitigation measures. When then an event is large enough to overcome the protection barriers, the results tend to be even more disastrous.

Even if natural disasters are not controllable, what is manageable is the response of single individuals and society to such a catastrophe, interestingly this response is strongly influenced by the former experience of catastrophes and the form of government in the afflicted region.

- The Netherlands, with large areas located on sea level, had to deal in historic times with floods and storms coming from the North Sea. In the last centuries with an ambitious project and kilometres of dams' additional large land areas lying below sea level were gained from the sea. The struggle against natural disasters is fought with technology and considered a task for the entire society.

- In the U.S. the answers to the inundation caused by hurricane Katrina in New Orleans were mixed between government actions and individual interests. Authorities reacted unprepared in a first moment and help was organized late, however there were strong efforts by local groups or individuals. When the government intervened, many homeowners refused to abandon their properties and tried to deal with the catastrophe independent.

- In strongly organized and centralized governments, like Cuba or China, ordered evacuations are followed mostly without opposition.

The wealth of a society plays also an important role in the results of a catastrophe. In the Indian city of Delhi the poorest people are concentrated at the city limits or in the areas of less interest for city planners, areas however in danger to become inundated, as happened in summer 2010 when the river Yamuna flooded the slums.

After many catastrophes follows the "blame game". Humans tend to connect an effect to a cause, during medieval times it was god or the devil, today it is mostly the behaviour of politics, economics or society. Often in the apparent rational blame a certain supernatural believe still persists. Many natural disasters are comprehended as a sort of revenge by misbehaviour of western civilization against nature, like regulation of rivers or overexploitation of natural resources.


CHESTER, D.K.; DEGG, M.; DUNCAN, A.M. & GUEST, J.E. (2001): The increasing exposure of cities to the effects of volcanic eruptions: a global survey. Environmental Hazards 2: 89-103

Online Resources:

SWAAF, K.F. de (20.03.2011): Von Ruhe bis Hysterie - So geht die Welt mit Katastrophen um. (Accessed 27.03.2011)

27 March, 1964: The Alaska Earthquake

One day earthquake and thunder decided to explore the world, but doing so they reached only a desolate and dry plateau. Earthquake noted that the land was located much too high in the sky for humans “They will have no food, if there is no place for the creatures of the sea to live in!” Earthquake begun to shake, stronger and stronger, until the earth finally collapsed and the sea inundated the land. Earthquake was satisfied “From here, they will obtain what they need to live, where prairie has become water…. This is what brings to the people life.” Thunder acknowledged what earthquake had done “It is true. So they will survive!” and so they went further north and together they lowered the land and created the western coast.
The creation of the world according to a legend of the Yurok people (Cascade Range)

In the late afternoon of March 27, 1964 Alaska was shaken for five minutes by one of the strongest earthquakes ever to be recorded in modern times, with a magnitude of 8.3 – 9.2 after Richter (the earthquake was so strong that no seismometer in the affected area recorded it correctly).
The earthquake displaced almost the entire southern coast of Alaska along the Prince William Sound, some areas were raised by 9 meters (30 feet) above the sea level, other dropped below sea level and became inundated later by the sea (maybe the Yurok myth is based on the observation of such a similar environmental change after an earthquake in prehistoric times along the western coast of the U.S.).

The earthquake caused heavy damage on 75% of buildings and infrastructure in the affected area, most in the city of Anchorage, 131 people were killed.
Large fissures opened in the ground when the groundwater liquefied the soil and more than 2.000 landslides and avalanches occurred across south-central Alaska. Buildings in Seattle (Washington) begun to swing by the approaching seismic wave and the ground was measurable deformed even in Florida.

Fig.1. Aerial photographs of destructive landslides and damage in Anchorage, Photo by A. Grantz / image in public domain from the U.S.G.S. Photographic Library.

In some lakes in Alaska the movement of the water catapulted chunks of ice onto the land, causing damage on the surrounding trees up to 9 meters (30 feet) above ground. Unusual water movements, attributed cautiously to the earthquake, were observed in South Dakota and apparently even in Puerto Rico and Australia.
Most remarkable was the generated tsunami, waves higher than usual were observed even along the Japanese coast. The seaport of Valdez was destroyed by a 30 meter high tsunami, 32 people died there. For hours after the earthquake the sea was tumultuous and in the evening with the high tide the reflected waves of the first tsunami inundated the surviving area of the city of Valdez.
Six hours after the earthquake the tsunami reached the coasts of Vancouver Island, one hour later the coast of Oregon and the wave caused damage even in Crescent City and Los Angeles (California). 

Many of these phenomena were studied for the very first time by scientists – only two hours after the earthquake the first geologists arrived to Anchorage.

Fig.2. Alaska Earthquake March 27, 1964. Rockslide avalanche on Sherman Glacier. The source was from the area marked by the fresh scar on Shattered Peak (top center image). The debris displays flowlines and terminal digitate lobes. No marginal dust layer is present. The steep margin, about 20 meters above the clear ice, is due to more rapid melting of the exposed glacier than the ice protected by the debris. Photo by A. Post, August 25, 1965 / Geological Survey.


Committee on the Alaska Earthquake of the Division of Earth Sciences National Research Council (1968): The Great Alaska Earthquake of 1964. National Academy of Sciences, Washington: 473

GATES, A.E. & RITCHIE, D. (2007): Encyclopedia of earthquakes and Volcanoes. Facts on file science library. 3th ed. New York: 346
WALKER, B. (1982): Earthquake. Planet Earth. Time Life Books: 154

Online Resources:

GATES (2007):
U.S.G.S. (21.10.2009): Historic Earthquakes - Prince William Sound, Alaska 1964.

Tsunamis in the geological record

Tsunami deposits are well documented in the Holocene and the Pleistocene, in part by the good accessibility in outcrops to rocks of these epochs or when historic records help to identify areas subjected to tsunamis.
Modern databases list more than 2.000 tsunami events for the lat 4.000 years, most of them recorded in documents and chronologies and others inferred by their geological evidence.
It seems also possible that tsunamis in historic tim
es (after 1700) have found place in myths and oral tradition of the local Indian tribes of the Cascade Range. Based on these stories geologists tried to establish a chronology of events, backed by geological evidence.

Fig.1. Temporal distribution of 2341 tsunami events listed in the database of the National Geophysical Data Center, USA. The database contains the events of the past 4000 years until 2001 AD, from SCHEFFERS & KELLETAT 2003.

However such a database has to be very incomplete, tsunami without greater damage or loss of life are likely to be underrepresented in historic documents, tsunamis wit
h disastrous effects can in contrary became overemphasized and tsunamis occurring in uninhabited regions will not even be noted by humans. With the age of colonization and exploration the known and inhabited zones grow rapidly, and so also the record of large, destructive tsunamis apparently experienced a mayor increase.
However it can be assumed that the actual number, frequency and power of tsunami in such a compilation are still inaccurate and probably underestimated in the past and emphasized in the present the occurrence of strong tsunam
In the geologic record examples of ancient tsunamis are however quite rare. The coastal environment, like flood plains or the estuary of a river, are subject to continues reworking, erosion and deposition, a single event like a tsunami can got destroyed even before it's deposits or traces can became fossilized.
Also in such a complex environment single e
vents tend to became homogenized and amalgamated with the "background" sedimentation, like deposits of the tides or storm events.

In theory a tsunami can produce various geologic evidences in four phases: it can both deposit sediments and erode them during generation, propagation, run up on land and backwash current.
The sedimentologic record of the run up by a tsunami on land is well described by this post at "Trough The Sandglass", especially sand layers, and it´s environmental effects at "paleoseismicity" - however tsunamis can transport and deposits giant boulders (like reef debris thrown on land), these boulders are unlikely to be reworked by normal processes of a coastal environment and have a great potential to become fossilized.
Liquefaction phenomena like sand dikes and intrusion during the earthquake are
preserved in the sediments underlying the soil and tsunami deposits.

Fig.2.Worldwide published distribution of coastal boulders thrown on land as evidence for tsunamis. Historical tsunami and storm wave boulders were defined here as those purporting to show clear depositional evidence based on historical descriptions, direct observations, and analyses of aerial photographs during the historical age (from GOTO et al.2010).

There is also indirect biological evidence to infer the occurrence of a tsunami.

A strong earthquake can cause a displacement of great parts of a coastal area and the land can become inundated by the sea. The salt water soon will kill trees and plants growing on this land. Because dead trees will survive for quite a while as "Ghost forests" the tree stumps can became buried in the sediments of the tidal flat. After the displacement the land can rise upward by the continuing tectonic movements and again became dry.
These changes can be observed in the stratigraphic succession: layers of peat or soil with tree stumps will change suddenly to sand and silt layers deposited by the tsunami and the tides. The plant remains can be dated by the radiocarbon method and are used to produce a chronology of the changes.

Fig.3. Summer in the ghost forest in Alaska and the remains of the town of Portage after the earthquake of 1964 and in the year 1998. In the background of the old photo spruce trees are dying and the high tide covers recently subsided land. In the modern photo still few trunks are standing and shrubs cover the land rebuilt by tidal silt (after BOLT 1995 and ATWATER et al. 2005).
The 1964 Alaska earthquake was a megathrust earthquake that began at 5:36 P.M. on Good Friday, March 27,.1964. Across south-central Alaska, ground fissures, collapsing buildings, and tsunamis resulting from the earthquake caused about 131 deaths.

The remains of the trees provide even a more accurate chronology: The sudden occurrence of the event is proved by the tree rings, a gradual subsidence of the land would produce a different pattern in the rings that the sudden interruption often observed in cedar trees along the North American coast.


ATWATER, B.F.; SATOKO, M.-R.; KENJI, S.; YOSHINOBU, T.; KAZUE, U. YAMAGUCHI, D.K. (2005): The Orphan Tsunami of 1700 Japanese Clues to a Parent Earthquake in North America. U.S.G.S. - University of Washington Press: 144
BOLT, B.A. (1995): Erdbeben - Schlüssel zur Geodynamik. Spektrum Akademischer Verlag, Berlin: 219

DAWSON, A.G. & STEWART, I. (2007): Tsunami deposits in the geological record. Sedimentary Geology 200: 166-183

GOTO, K.; KAWANA, T. & INAMURA, F. (2010): Historical and geological evidence of boulders deposited by tsunamis, southern Ryukyu Islands, Japan. Earth-Science Reviews 102: 77-99

SCHEFFERS, A. & KELLETAT, D. (2003): Sedimentologic and geomorphologic tsunami imprints worldwide-a review. Earth-Science Reviews 63: 83-92

Burros and Steampunk Geology

The Alpine areas of the Italian provinces of Piedmont and Liguria are rich in minerals and in the second half of the 17th century naturalists begun to collect and study them.
First museums in the city of Turin opened to the public in 1759, in 1805 the collection of the two most important were assigned to the University of Turin. The collection comprised in 1830 more than 9.900 specimen of minerals, rocks and fossils. The mineralogical museum of the university played also an important role in geological mapping of the two provinces and especially in the prospection of extractable rocks and minerals.

Important contributions to both the collection as to g
eological research came form the Italian Prof. Angelo Sismonda (1807-1878), since 1833 to 1878 Director of the Museum of Mineralogy of the University of Turin.
One of the most remarkable heredity by Sismonda is this portable laboratory kit for mineralog
ical analysis on the field owned by him. In this particular case it was designed to be transportable on the back of a donkey or mule during field work.

Fig.1. and 2. "Steampunk" field laboratory for prospecting work used between 1833 to 1878 by the Italian geologist Angelo Sismonda. On the top side of the bag bottles of glass for samples and chemicals, in the foreground drawers with mortars of porcelain to prepare samples and in the background heavy equipment like hammer and forceps. On the right tubes of glass for analysis equipment.

Fig.3. Not
Sismonda, but a good impression of field work with the help of a donkey: "Postcard showing a prospector and burro standing on a hill overlooking a number of old mine structures and mine tailings, probably in Colorado. The caption on photograph identifies this person as Frank Gimlet, living on the site of the abandoned mining town of Arbourville, Chaffee County, Colorado. He authored “Over Trails of Yesterday,” a series of tales and poems, and entertained tourists in the 1940s.", picture from Image Database Arthur Lakes Library/ Colorado School of Mines.

Sismonda also published the first geological map of the two Italian provinces of Piedmont and Liguria in 1862, this work was for decades to come the most important publication about the geology of the western Alps.

Fig.4. "Carta Geologica di Savoja, Piemonte e Liguria" (first edition 1862).

Sismonda was followed in 1878 by the experimental mineralogist Giorgio Spezia (1842-1911). In 1886 Spezia began to conduct experiments on the behaviour of minerals, especially quartz, under high pressure and temperature. Some of the used mechanisms were constructed by Spezia himself; in 1900 he finally succeeded in the production of artificial minerals, an important step in the industrial production of synthetic materials.

Fig.5. "Steampunk" apparatus utilized to synthesize quartz created by Giorgo Spezia. On 1906 the scientists produced by hydrothermal synthesis crystals of quartz, with the apparatus on display (unique survived of the two developed).


GALLO, M.L. & COSTA, E. Mineralogen im Piemont zwischen 1800 und 1900. Mineralientage München Messetage 2010: 172-174

A geologist riddle #8

Strange and mysterious tools of ancient times, what were the good for and what is special about these in particular?

Earthquake - myths: North America

"It is not good that these stories are forgotten. Friends, you are telling them from mouth to ear, and when your old men die they will be forgotten. It is good that you should have a box in which your laws and your stories are kept. My friend, George Hunt, will show you a box in which some of your stories will be kept. It is a book that I have written on what I saw and heard when I was with you two years ago. It is a good book, for in it are your laws and your stories. Now they will not be forgotten."
American Anthropologists Franz Uri Boaz in a letter to the Kwakiutl Indians of British Columbia, April 1897

Oral tradition and legends all over the world maybe represent the first efforts to record and explain geological phenomena. In all cultures it was tried to explain why things happen as they happened, catastrophic events were no exception and during centuries a rich collection of stories were told and retold.
The Japanese Namazu-myth is one of the most popular and remembers the tragic connection between society and geology in the form of earthquakes, but many other myths on the various continents try to explain why earthquakes occur and kill people.

However myths address lesser the question how something happens (as for example modern science) than why it happens - humans tend to interpret phenomena in relation to a presumed end-cause, if for example a supernatural forces causes an earthquake it is often to establish the lost equilibrium of creation - it is not important how it is done, but the results in the supernatural world, even if some minor traces remain back in the "real world."
Also the apparent connection between ancient myths and modern concepts is often biased by interpretation, if a certain term is translated from an ancient language and modern terms used, like "earthquake", we can not be sure to exactly "catch" the quintessence or meaning intended by the original author - so the following selection of mythical stories and creatures is surely biased by my interpretation or "earth trembles" and other "earthquake effects".
Despite these considerations, myths can be wonderful stories worth to be at least remembered:

The Duwamish people, natives of the Cascade Range, tell of the terrible "A´yahos", spirits with the body of a serpent and the antlers and forelegs of a deer. Old folks warn to look directly to an A´yahos because it could shake the ground or turn people to stone. The Quileute people know a similar entity, the "T´abale", a vicious guardian spirit on the north-western Washington coast. The Indigenous group of the Kwakwaka'wakw tell stories about the two-headed "Sisutl".

The bay of Lituya is a remote place situated in Alaska. It is a narrow, only 2 kilometres broad, but 11 long bay open to the Pacific Ocean. The native Tlingit Indians tell that in a cavern, deep in the underground, lives a demon, similar in appearance to a great toad or frog. If someone dares to disturb the tranquillity of the bay the demon will rip apart the sea and shake the earth and catch the intruder and transmute him into a bear.

Many catastrophes however were not the acts of demons, but an essential part of creation - these events were necessary to form a world habitable by us humans.

The Yurok Indians, once native in the Cascade Range, tell about the creation of the world by "earthquake" and "thunder":

"One day earthquake and thunder decided to venture south, but doing so they reached only a desolate and thirsty plateau. Earthquake saw that the land was located much to high in the sky for humans "They will have no food, if there is no place for the creatures of the sea to live in!" Earthquake begun to shake, stronger and stronger, until the earth finally collapsed and the sea inundated the land. Earthquake was satisfied "From here, they will obtain what they need to live, where prairie has become water…. This is what brings people to live." Thunder acknowledged what earthquake had done "It is true. So they will survive!" and so they went further north and together they lowered the land and created the sea."

Unfortunately gods often were moody and their fights were carried out on or below the surface of the earth.
The Klamath people of Oregon tell of the time when the chief of Above World - called Skell- and the chief of Below World - called Llao- decided to settle the dispute which of them was stronger. For many days the fight raged over the land, the two adversaries' hurled rocks and flames at each other and soon darkness covered the land.
To better see his adversary Llao decided to climb on the highest mountain he could find - Mount Mazama - but as soon he reached the peak the mountain collapsed with terrible vibrations and thunders under him and hurled him back into his underworld domain. The large hole that was created then filled up and became known as Crater Lake.

Many tribes from Vancouver Island until northern Washington know of the fight of gods in the guise of animals. He is remembered under many names, the Lakota call him "Waki-ya", the "sacred winged being", the Nuu-chah-nulth called him "Kw-Uhnx-Wa" and today we call him the powerful "Thunderbird".
Thunderbird was easy to enrage and it was better to avoid him when he flew above the sky to cause the thunder of the storm, but deep inside he was a friendly and helpfully spirit.
One day a monstrous whale begun to kill all the animals in the sea depriving the Quileute tribe in Washington of meat and oil. Thunderbird saw from its home high in the mountains that the people were starving and decided to interfere. Thunderbird plunged into the ocean and a terrible battle arouse between him and Whale. The ocean receded and rose again, many canoes were flung by waves into trees and many people were killed. Thunderbird eventually succeeded in lifting Whale out of the ocean, carrying it high into the air and then dropping it onto the land.
The earth trembled under the ongoing battle, finally Thunderbird succeeded with the help of wolf and serpent to throw Whale back into the sea and dragging him to the bottom of the sea.

In other versions of the story it is thunderbird starting the fight by attacking whale, which supports the earth on his back, and droving his claws deep into his flesh. Whale in his struggle shakes the land until he finally drags thunderbird to the bottom of the sea.


LUDWIN, R.S. & SMITS, G.J. (2007): Folklore and earthquakes: Native American oral traditions from Cascadia compared with written traditions from Japan. In Piccardi, L. & Masse, W.B: (eds): Myth and Geology. Geological Society, London, Special Publications, 273: 67-94
VITALIANO, D.B. (2007): Geomythology: geological origins of myths and legends. In Piccardi, L. & Masse, W.B: (eds): Myth and Geology. Geological Society, London, Special Publications, 273: 1-7

Historic tsunamis in Japan

Fig.1. Kanagawa Oki Uranami - "The Hollow of the Deep-Sea Wave off Kanagawa", coloured woodcut from the collection of "Thirty-Six Views of Fuji" (1831) by Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai. The contrast between the various elements reflects the harmonic order between Ying and Yang and the necessity of solidarity of men in case of natural disasters.
The destructive power of water from the sea - Ying- contrasts with the calmness of the fishermen - Yang- the symmetric symbol is also formed by the wave and the sky. The similar colour of the volcano in the background and the wave emphasise the harmony between mountain (symbol for the body) and wave (symbol for the soul).
Many books describe this wave as a tsunami, but it's shape, characterized by a deep leading through and a very peaked crest, reveals it's origin from the wind. Only some tsunamis resemble such a wave and only near the shore.

The words "tsu-nami" in Japanese means "wave in the harbour", the name derives from the experience of fishermen that only when they returned from the sea into the supposed secure harbour they discovered the terrible destruction that these waves can cause on the shore. Tsunamis are generated by the rapid dislocation of large quantities of water by displacement of the seafloor triggered by earthquakes or landslides, also by explosions caused
by volcanic eruption or meteoric impacts. The Pacific Ocean is surrounded by tectonic active borders of the lithospheric plates; nearly 53% of tsunamis worldwide occur here and 82% of them are caused by earthquakes.

Fig.2. Location of tsunami in the Pacific Ocean region: A) Location of 1.274 tsunami since 47 BC. Size of circle increases proportional to number of events per degree square of latitude and longitude. B) Source of significant distant tsunami - tsunamis generated at the coast of Japan can have effects on the coasts of the American continents and vice versa. Size of circle increases proportional to area affected and magnitude of t
he event, after BRYANT 2008. Note however that the diagram is biased against well studied coast regions (like U.S.A.) or areas with long written records (Japan).

Recognized Tsunamis sediments in Japan go back nearly for 5.000 years, historic records span for nearly 1.300 years, however the most detailed and precise accounts cover mostly the recent period.

An earthquake offshore the north-eastern coast generated a large-scale tsunami on July 13. in 869, we read in the Nihon Sandai Jitsuroku - the "The True History of Three Reigns of Japan" compiled in the year 901:

"Some time after severe seismic shocks, a gigantic wave [tsunami] reached the coast and invaded entire Sendai plain. Rising seawater flooded an old castle town [Tagajo], causing the loss of 1000 lives."
Inscriptions on up to 600 years old stone marker located near the coastal city of Kesennuma warn descendants:
"Always be prepared for unexpected tsunamis. Choose life over your possessions and valuables."
"If an earthquake comes, beware of tsunamis."
"High dwellings are the peace and harmony of our descendants, remember the calamity of the great tsunamis. Do not build any homes below this point."

In 1596 an earthquake offshore reportedly generated a tsunami that destroyed the island of Uryu-Jima completely and caused more than 4.000 deaths.
An official diary about the life and work of the Japanese warlord Tokugawa Ieyasu in his residence city of Sumpu from 1612 contains what is probably the earliest example of the written word of "tsu-nami". The text contains eyewitness-reports of a tsunami that hit north-eastern Honshu, killing thousands of people on December 2. 1611.

On 26. January 1700 contemporary chronicles describe a surprising tsunami, which caused minor havoc, but was not preceded by an earthquake (that earthquakes can be followed by a tsunami was already a well known fact). Research 300 years later revealed that this "orphan tsunami" was generated by an estimated magnitude 9 earthquake offshore the North American coast.

Possibly one of the largest tsunamis recorded in the history of Japan followed a strong earthquake in 1737. Information is scarce and written records are based mostly on ru
mours: according to these a 64meter (!) high wave devastated the island of Yezo (modern Hokkaido) and destroyed the coastal city of Kamaishi, thousands of people died.

On June 15. 1896 many villages along the coast of Sanriku were celebrating the return of the soldiers from the war against China, when an earthquake of magnitude 8.5 occurred nearly 145 kilometres offshore of Honshu.
The direct effects of the five minutes long quake were of minor entity, the epicentre was distant enough to reduce catastrophic movements on the main island and earthquakes were nothing unusual in this region.
However 35 minutes after the earthquake the most devastating tsunami experienced until then in modern Japan hit the coast, one of the subsequent waves reached a height of over 30-38 meters. 26.000-27.122 people were killed and 9.000 buildings destroyed, th
e effects of the Tsunami were observed over the entire Pacific, in Hawaii some houses were swept away and a three meter high wave reached the coast of California.
Fig.3. Drawing by Walter Molino, published in the Italian newspaper "La Domenica del Corriere" January 5, 1947, of a tsunami, probably the tsunami of the Great Tokyo Earthquake of the 1. September 1923. The devastation of the earthquake was caused mainly by the subsequent fire, but it triggered also a 11m high wave - estimated 90.000-130.000 people were killed.

In 1933 another very strong tsunami hit the coast of Sanriku. The earthquake of magnitude 8.4 occurred on March 3. 1933, this time also the quake caused heavy damage and landslides, it was then followed by a 21m high tsunami; In sum more than 6.000 people died.
The dead toll was significantly lesser then in previous events, in the years after the tsunami of 1896 authorities had invested in catastrophe mitigation, escape routes were build and the coast reinforced by special constructions (4m high walls and artificial barriers) and planted trees. Most effort was put into education; booklets warned of the consequences of earthquakes in the sea and explained the signs of danger of a incoming tsunami: a tsunami can be preceded by a loud noise like a thunder, the most important warning sign is however the temporally retreat of the sea before the first wave.

In May 1960 a tsunami generated by an earthquake off the coast of Chile reached the coastline of Hokkaido, causing havoc on the island of Okushiri, 142 people were killed.
Okushiri was hit again in more recent years. July 12. 1993 an earthquake of magnitude 7.8 caused an 6-10m high tsunami that hit the small island to the west of Hokkaido (in nearly the same region an earthquake on August 29. 1741 produced a tsunami with a maximum run-up of 90m along the adiacent coast). From 680 buildings in the city of Aonae 550 were destroyed or damaged, more than 200 people were killed.

List of the deadliest tsunamis in Japan's history with date/year, affected region and estimated death toll, adapted from KOZAK & CERMAK 2010.

28.10.1707- Tokaido-Nankaido 30.000

1826- Not specified 27.000

20.09.1498- Nankaido 26.000

27.05.1293- Sagami Bay 23.024

15.06.1896- Sanriku, a wave generated by the Riku-Ugo earthquake killed 20.000
-26.000 people
21.05.1792- Southwest Kyushu 14.500-15.030
(tsunami triggered by the eruption of the Unzen)
24.04.1771- Ryukyu 13.486

31.12.1703- Tokaido-Kashima 5.233
31.01.1605- Nankaido 5.000

02.03.1933- Sanriku 3.000-6.000

20.12.1946- To-Nankai 1.330

07.12.1944- To-Nankai 1.223

Fig.4. The Coastal Engineering Committee of the Japan Society of Civil Engineers released a map (23. March 2011) showing the heigths of the Tsunami on March 11.2011 in Japan. The highest value shown is 30meters with an average height of over 15 meter.

ATWATER, B.F.; SATOKO, M.-R.; KENJI, S.; YOSHINOBU, T.; KAZUE, U. YAMAGUCHI, D.K. (2005): The Orphan Tsunami of 1700 Japanese Clues to a Parent Earthquake in North America. U.S.G.S. - University of Washington Press: 144
BRYANT, E. (2008): Tsunami - The Underrated Hazard. 2.nd edition Springer: 338
GATES, A.E. & RITCHIE, D. (2007): Encyclopedia of earthquakes and Volcanoes. Facts on file science library. 3th ed. New York: 346

GUNN, A.M. (2008): Encyclopedia of Disasters - Environmental Catastrophes and Human Tragedies. Vol.1. Greenwood Press, London: 733

KOZAK, J. & CERMAK, V. (2010): The Illustrated History of Natural Disasters. Springer-Verlag: 203
MINOURA, K.; IMAMURA, F.; SUGAWARA, D.; KONO, Y. & IWASHITA, T. (2001): The 869 Jogan tsunami deposit and recurrence interval of large-scale tsunami on the Pacific coast of northeast Japan. Journal of Natural Disaster Science, Vol. 23 (2): 83-88

Gods, stars, the moon and other dangerous pseudoscience

The Greeks imagined volcanoes as a sort of supernatural prison, to punish disobedience or crimes against the gods, the Roman poet Virgil reports that buried under Mount Etna lies the giant Enceladus, and under Mount Vesuvius his brother Mimas.
If any of these volcanos trembled, we could feel the agony, if it rumbled, we could hear their desperation and when it erupted we could observe their blood. The perpetual active island of Vulcano became the forge of the gods, supervised (not completely voluntarily) by the blacksmith Hephaestus.

Earthquakes and flood waves were caused by the god of the sea, mighty Poseidon, to punish the mortals.

Early Christianity often adopted these old believes, natural catastrophes, especially floods and earthquakes, were the wraith of god to punish believers or destroy nonbelievers. The active volcano transformed from a forge to the doorway to hell - inclusive lava thought to be the visible effects of hell-fire. During medieval times religious explanations prevailed, even if some scholars in later times tried to explain geological phenomena as natural events, like the French philosopher René Descartes (1596-1650), who imagined earth composed of three layers - fire, water, earth-, sometimes erupting one into the other. However it was god himself that had created earth and volcanoes or earthquakes in such a way.

From this aspect of geological catastrophes predetermined by god(s) results also the influence attributed to stars, and especially comets onto earthquakes. Astrology is older than many modern deities, and it was incorporated into the new monotheistic religions like Islam and Christianity, by studying the sky it seemed possible to foresee fate, recognize the future and understand the plans of the god.

Comets were unusual marks onto the celestial sphere - suddenly appearing and apparently following no rule, they were frightening and bad omen of plagues, war and earthquakes.
A hand-coloured woodcut and accompanying text by the German Hermann Gall explains this supposed connection between an earthquake in the citiy of Rossana and later in Constantinople (modern Istanbul) on May 10. 1556 and a comet visible some months before.
In the sky above the city, with a heavily damaged Hagia Sophia Temple i
n the centre and other collapsed buildings and people trying to escape, a comet is depicted as seen in the period from March 5 to March 17, on May 13. suddenly a bright star appeared near the moon. According to the author, who claims he was eyewitness of these celestial phenomena, such signs of wonder were a certain omen of the imminent end of the world.

Fig.1. "Frightening signs of wonder before the terrible earthquake which happened in the cities of Rossanna and Constantinople", hand colored woodcut by the German Hermann Gall displaying the 1566 Constantinople earthquake (from KOZAK & CERMAK 2010).

One of the first scholars to separate superstition and god from geology was the German Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680) naturalist but ironically also Jesuit. In 1638 he studied the active Mount Vesuvius by venturing into the crater. In his published work "Mundus Subterraneus" (1678) he adopted a complete secular explanation, explanation still rejected by the official church. Even in 1755 the Jesuit Malagrida claimed that the destructive earthquake of Lisbon was a result of the anger of god, ignoring the first naturalistic explanations existing at the time. The earthquake of Lisbon however marks the beginning the epoch of the enlightenment, this time scientific explanations will prevail over old superstitions.

Unfortunately dragons are hard to kill: The earthquake in Japan has generated again the reaction of religious fundamentalists, still today believers struggle to explain the contradicting behaviour of supposed higher beings - most concerning are the quotes of religious fanatics or politicians like for example the Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara, the American Glenn Beck or Roberto De Mattei, vice-president of the Italian National Research Council (!), in his religious broadcast "radici cristiane (Christian roots)" on the radio station "Radio Maria" 20. March 2011.
As for divine intervention here a scene of the Australian film "Bad Boy Bubby" (1993) summarizing why it would be a good idea to dismiss god(s):

Not only religion(s), today also pseudoscience tries to misuse catastrophes for its purpose - as for example the obsolete superstition called astrology tries to misuse the sorrows and fears of people to gain support and earn money.

Here some examples of debunked fairy tales perpetuated by various astrologists, especially the claim that the constellation of stars (remember the comets) and the position of the moon triggered the earthquake in Japan:

On earthquakes, eruptions and the Moon

Are there more earthquakes in our days? Is the end of the world here?



KOZAK, J. & CERMAK, V. (2010): The Illustrated History of Natural Disasters. Springer-Verlag: 203

The first modern principles of anti-seismic building

"When the earth shakes,
flee in the bamboo-forest."
Japanese proverb

Japan possesses the most severe guidelines for anti-seismic buildings in the world; surely this is one of the reasons that many constructions not affected by the Tsunami resisted to the earthquake. Also a map after the Mercalli earthquake scale (displaying
the possible destructive effects of an earthquake) shows that on the mainland the reached intensity was "fortunately" lower than feared, because the epicentre laid far off the shores.
Fig.1. Mercalli intensity scale of the 8.9-9.1 magnitude earthquake of 11.03.2011 in Japan, after U.S.G.S. 2011.

Unfortunately preventing procedures or constructions for a Tsunami are virtually impossible, it were mainly these waves that caused much destruction and possibly killed thousand of people on the western coast of the island of Honshu (The German Aerospace Center (DLR) released satellite images and maps of the affected area on the shores of Japan). It see
ms also that it was the Tsunami that damaged severely the emergency system and cooling devices of the nuclear plant of Fukushima-Daiichi, a possible break of the containment of the nuclear material is now the greatest concern - Evelyn Mervine at Georneys posted an important interview about the anti-seismic guidelines, the damage and the actual situation at the power plant.

A sort of anti-seismic buildings were already known in ancient Japan, many Buddhist pagodas show some features that can minimize the dangerous oscillations of a building caused by an earthquake.
Some of these constructions tricks are possibly based on the observation of the biological characters of bamboo - the largest members of this grass family can reach a height of 30m.

In a pagoda the central column made of a single log is reaching deep in the ground like a root, it can swing in all directions and will so absorb most of the kinetic energy during an earthquake. The various floors of the pagoda can move independently and are connected to the inner central column by a complicated construction made of wood, acting like a spring or shock absorber it will also minimize dangerous movements.

The first modern principles of anti-seismic building were introduced at the beginning of the 20th century in Tokyo.
The "Imperial Hotel" was commissioned in 1915 and inaugurated in 1923 as a luxury hotel for foreigners in imperial Japan.
It was projected by the American architect Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959), who visited Japan for a first time in 1905 and became enthusiast of Japanese Art.

Fig.2. The "Imperial Hotel" in Tokyo (1930s-40s), image from Wikipedia.

The site for the hotel seemed unfavourable for such a building, located in the seismic zone of Tokyo on a 2,4m thick organic soil resting on 20m of alluvial and unconsolidated sediments.
On such a ground engineers normally choose to build a deep basement, trying to reach competent rock mass or as deep as possible to anchor the building in the underground. Wright in contrast projected a very shallow basement, just reaching 2-3m deep. He argued that deep fundaments during an earthquake would transfer the oscillations from the ground to the building; however the alluvial mud of the construction site should absorb the seismic energy and the hotel float on the sediment like "a battleship floats on water."

The hotel had several ulterior features designed to minimize the destructive effects of an earthquake:

- The pool in front of the entrance was not only a decorative element, but provided a source of water for fire-fighting. This feature saved the hotel from the firestorm raging after the 1923 earthquake.
- Cantilevered floors extending to the outside of the building and balconies provided extra support for the floors.
- The walls were not constructed simply with bricks, but with a sort of innovative sandwich technology: reinforced concrete between an extern and intern layer of bricks.

- Tapered walls, thicker on lower floors, increasing their strength, with small openings and fewer windows than the upper floors.

- A light copper roof would not oscillate as strong as a massive roof and stress the construction, with the danger of collapse of the entire building.
- Seismic separation joints made of lead, located about every 20 m along the building; during an earthquake the single segments and floors should be able to shake independently without breaking.

- Separated hollows with suspended piping and wiring, instead of being encased in concrete, as well as smooth curves, making them more resistant to fracture. Wright recognized the danger of lacking water or electricity after an earthquake by the rupture of conduits or wires, also the danger of gas or fuel outpouring and alimenting fire.
- Dispensation of unnecessary decorative features on the outside of the hotel, which during an earthquake tend to break and can kill people.

The hotel was inaugurated the 1. September 1923, at 11.58 local time Tokyo was hit by a massive earthquake with a magnitude of 8.3 after Richter, 5.000 buildings collapsed in the entire city, thousands were heavily damaged.
Wright anxiously awaited information on his hotel, two weeks later he received a telegram from the Japanese entrepreneur Baron Kihachiro Okura reporting the following:

"Hotel stands undamaged as monument to your genius - Congratulations"

Wright's passing the telegram to journalists has helped perpetuate a legend that the hotel was unaffected by the earthquake, even the only building still standing in Tokyo. In reality, the building was damaged; the central section slumped, several floors bulged and four pieces of stonework fell to the ground.
The building's main flaw was its shallow foundation, during the earthquake the basement sunk by 0,6m into the liquefied mud and in the subsequent years continued slowly to sink into the underground. The damage and instability of the entire construction (also the passing time) finally resulted in the necessity to demolish the entire hotel in 1968.

However many of the other anti-seismic features introduced by Wright are still in use, and hopefully many new technologies will minimize the deadly effects of future earthquakes.


WALKER, B. (1982):
Earthquake. Planet Earth. Time Life Books: 154