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Could a big earthquake reduce Manhattan to rubble someday?


earthquakes, indian point, nuclear, new yorkA new study from the Earth Institute at Columbia University says there’s more seismic activity around the Big Apple than previously thought. Researchers also say they discovered a new active fault line running from Stamford, Conn., 25 miles (40.2 kilometers) west toward the Hudson River. There, this underground fault intersects with another fault line.

Sitting on top of that intersection is the Indian Point nuclear power plant.

Scary stuff perhaps? Maybe—but big earthquakes still remain geologically unlikely around New York City.

The study authors say that a magnitude 5 quake on the Richter scale, which could cause some moderate damage, last jostled the region in 1884. They go on to say that based on historical evidence going back to 1677, such magnitude five temblors should happen about every 100 years. They also estimate that magnitude 6 quakes (10 times more powerful that a magnitude 5) rock the region every 670 years or so, and magnitude 7 earthquakes (100 times bigger than a magnitude 5) can happen every three and a half millennia or so.

That’s a good deal less hazardous than, say, southern California: The U.S. Geological Survey says it's 60 percent likely that a good-size magnitude 6.7 quake will happen there just in the next 30 years.

Nevertheless, the new study has already influenced negotiations over extending operations at the Indian Point’s nuclear reactors, according to a press release accompanying the study. Last winter, New York’s former governor and the state’s attorney general filed papers to prevent the nuclear plant’s parent company, Entergy, from re-licensing the facility for an additional 20 years. The New York politicians cited the upcoming Columbia study on earthquakes as one of the key reasons for questioning the plant’s safety, according to the press release.

The debate over Indian Point continues, according to a New York Times story from early August. Residents of the area around Indian Point may have a thing or two to say about keeping radioactive material near two seismic zones.

Image: All known quakes near the Indian Point nuclear power plant (near Peekskill, New York, or "Pe" on map) between 1677-2004, graded by magnitude (M). (adapted from Sykes et al.)






The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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