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Tuesday, May 5, 2015
HaitiPosted Saturday, January 23, 2010, at 11:19 AM
For most of us, when we think of the Caribbean, the furthest thing from our minds is seismic activity. Fair enough. Most of day-to-day events there never make the news here. Even the minor temblors here in Indiana often don't make the news. If you ask friends who have moved here from California, they will likely tell you that we get a couple little bumps per year that the seismically uneducated, and the news media, never notice.
The continents of North America and South America are independent tectonic plates, which touch by "geologic accident." Their movement westward and toward each other caused Central America and the Caribbean basin to rise. Just east of the archipelago of the Caribbean islands, the sea floor drops in a sharp cliff of more than 1,000-feet deep.
The Island of Hispaniola, which is shared by the nations of Haiti and the Dominican Republic, is one of the largest islands in the Caribbean. The part of the Caribbean where Haiti lies is under tremendous geologic pressure from several directions. As a result, there are not less than five separate fault lines that run through the island. In 1946, an immense 8.0-magnitude earthquake shook the city of Samana, in the Dominican Republic. (The quake which triggered the 1994 Tsunami, which wiped out much of the Indian Ocean, was a 9.0.)
The fault, which recently gave way, was a sleeper. According to reports, the high magnitude of this quake took scientists by surprise, as this system of faults hasn't triggered a major temblor in recent decades. The fault has, however, been linked to some historical big ones in 1860, 1770, 1761, 1751, 1684, 1673 and 1618. The last major quake from the New Madrid fault, which loosely parallels the Mississippi River, was in 1812. That quake changed the course of the Mississippi River, made the land of Illinois roll like waves on the ocean, and rang church bells in Philadelphia.
Perhaps the most infamous Caribbean earthquake was on June 7, 1692, at Port Royal, Jamaica. Port Royal is located at the mouth of Kingston Harbor in Southeastern Jamaica. This quake largely destroyed Port Royal causing two thirds of the city to sink into the Caribbean Sea such that today it is covered by a minimum of 25-feet of water. A great many of the ships in the harbor, Pirate vessels all, were sunk and are the subject of archaeological excavation today. Interestingly, a large pocket watch was recovered from one of the ships sunk during the earthquake. The hands were stopped at 11:43 - presumably in the a.m.
Port Royal was a home port of the privateers employed by European powers to nip at superpower Habsburg Spain's empire when smaller European powers dared not directly make war on Spain. (Privateers were issued 'Letters of Marquee" by a government which allowed them to operate under the protection of the law of the sponsoring nation.) When European powers stopped issuing letters of marquee, privateers typically went pirate.
Spanish shipping provided the gold, silver, jewels, and valuable artifacts, which filled the coffers of the aggressively expanding Spanish empire and the treasure chests of the pirates, which prayed upon them. As a port city, it was notorious for its gaudy displays of wealth and loose morals. It was a popular base for the English and Dutch sponsored privateers and a safe place to bring and spend their treasure during the 17th century. Pirates from around the world congregated at Port Royal coming from waters as far away as Madagascar.
When the earthquake hit, newspapers in America and Europe reported that it was divine retribution for the excessive and open sinfulness of the inhabitants and visitors. Port Royal is known today to 16th to 18th century focused archaeologists as the "City that Sank."
Earthquakes are not the only danger in the Caribbean. One of my brothers lived for two years on Montserrat. Shortly after he left, in 1995, the mountain in the center of the island became increasingly seismically active and eventually released a volcanic eruption, which wiped out approximately one third of the island. In 1902, volcanoes erupted on the islands of Martinique and St. Vincent. There are not less than 18 volcanoes in the Caribbean stretching from Puerto Rico to Venezuela. Not all of them are currently active.
While the Caribbean is not known as a seismic hot zone, it nevertheless is seismically active. Most of the Caribbean is virtually a tropical paradise. Every rose has a thorn, every paradise has its serpent, tropical island paradises are the result of violent geologic activity which will continue so long as the earth's crust float upon a molten core.
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