Answering kids questions about earthquakes


Visitors view a broken spire, top left, on the Washington National Cathedral after an earthquake caused damage to the building. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)
August 23, 2011

Did you feel yesterday’s big news? Most of the time the news is something that happens to other people and we just read about it. But Tuesday’s earthquake, which was reported to have a magnitude of 5.8, struck Virginia at 1:51 p.m. and sent shock waves through the Washington area.

How did it feel for you? Was it scary? Cool? A little bit of both?

When the ground started shaking at Dorothy I. Height Community Academy Public Charter School in downtown Washington, some teachers thought it was because kids were jumping up and down. But Principal David D’Ercole, who was teaching first-graders at the time, said that the school’s 300 students were quickly brought to a park, far away from buildings.

There were reports of damage, including the tip of a Washington National Cathedral spire that crashed to the ground. “It was scary seeing it fall,” said a 10-year-old boy who was going to soccer camp nearby.

Probably the last time most kids thought about an earthquake was in March, when an earthquake of magnitude 8.9 struck Japan, caused a tsunami and severely damaged nuclear power plants.

If you’re like most people, Tuesday’s earthquake made you want to brush up on some earthquake facts.

What’s the difference between a 5.8 and an 8.9 earthquake?

A lot! An earthquake of magnitude 5.5 to 6.0 is considered “moderate” and can cause slight damage to buildings. About 500 earthquakes of this magnitude are reported in the world each year. (That’s more than one a day!) An earthquake of magnitude 8.0 or higher is considered a great quake that can destroy communities. These occur only once every five to 10 years.

What happens in an earthquake?

The U.S. Geological Survey, an agency that keeps track of earthquakes, offers a good way of thinking about earthquakes.

Put your fingers together as if you’re going to snap them. When your fingers are together, they don’t move up and down or side to side, but when you snap, your fingers move and slide apart.

The same thing happens with pieces of the Earth’s crust. Most of the time, the Earth’s rocks are together, just like your fingers, but in an earthquake, the rocks slide apart. If you put your fingers right next to your ear, you’ll hear a much louder snap than if you hold your hand as far away as you can. It’s the same with an earthquake: The closer you are to where the earthquake happens (the epicenter), the more you feel it. Because Tuesday’s earthquake was less than 100 miles from Washington, we felt it more than people in New York or Chicago did.

How can I be safe in an earthquake?

Remember that you’re a kid, so the first thing to do is find a responsible adult: a parent, a teacher, a neighbor. But it’s still helpful to know a few basics:

● If you’re inside, stay away from anything that could fall on you: lights, bookshelves and especially glass or windows.

● Get on the floor and try to crawl under a desk of other strong piece of furniture.

● If you’re outside, stay outside, and move away from anything that could fall and hurt you, including buildings, electrical wires and streetlights.

Tracy Grant

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