Massive Russian earthquake felt 4,000 miles from epicenter

May 24, 2013

A Friday earthquake under the Sea of Okhotsk was felt in Moscow, 4,000 miles away. (EPA/Yuri Kochetkov)

MOSCOW – If an earthquake can shake Moscow, what’s next?

Anyone taking a look at the Global Seismic Hazard Map can see that the capital of Russia sits squarely in a big boring gray blotch, which means – no hazard. At all. Yet on Friday, a great big earthquake let loose deep under the Sea of Okhotsk, way off by the Pacific Ocean, and a seismic wave hurtled across Siberia and through the Ural Mountains and under the Volga River and past the endless potato fields and shook flower vases in Moscow apartments.

Moscow is 4,000 miles from the epicenter. That’s like an earthquake in Anchorage stirring your mojito in Miami.

It can happen, apparently. In this case, in fact, it did, said the Russian Federal Service for Hydrometeorology and Environmental Monitoring (Roshydromet).

The Sea of Okhotsk is an arm of the Pacific formed by the Kamchatka peninsula, a zone of legendary seismic activity. The earthquake struck about 250 miles northwest of the city of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, and registered either 8.0 (according to Russian monitors) or 8.2 (say the Americans) on the Richter scale. It was reported to have occurred 375 miles under the sea bed, which could account for its being felt so far away.

As of Friday night, though, Russian emergency teams that went into action had been unable to find any significant damage or injuries. A tsunami warning was called off. Across thousands and thousands of square miles of steppe and taiga and tundra, not much fell apart. People in nine time zones felt their houses sway, either grew alarmed or didn’t, and then it was over.

"The entire continent was shaken," Anatoly Tsygankov, head of Roshydromet's emergencies center, told the Interfax news agency.

Russia, of course, is a big place, and a lot of it is astonishingly remote, so a final damage report is still not in.

Moscow police said that 9,000 people fled their apartments or offices, though how they were counted isn’t clear. Thirty-six people called the city’s emergency line. The mayor, Sergei Sobyanin, put out the word: “Nothing terrible is happening,” he said.

Gennady Onishchenko, the health and consumer rights watchdog who spends much of his time finding sanitary problems with goods imported from countries Russia doesn’t like (the United States and Georgia, principally), declared the earthquake to be “an exotic occurrence,” but took no steps to protect citizens from its effects.

Maybe the idea of an earthquake sweeping from one end of Russia to the other, and everybody being in on it and nobody getting hurt, conjures up an image that people like Onishchenko and Sobyanin and their superiors in the government would find just a little unsettling. It suggests that, in Russia, the ground can shift under their feet, and it would turn out okay.

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