What geologists are doing to monitor and track earthquakes in the Lowcountry

Local News

SUMMERVILLE, S.C. (WCBD) – Several low-grade earthquakes recorded in South Carolina over the past few months have sparked a lot of conversation about the state’s risk for larger quakes.

The strongest earthquake ever recorded along the east coast happened in the Summerville area back in 1886.

That earthquake, nearly 140 years ago, was a magnitude 7 and devastated downtown Charleston; it claimed 83 lives.

But the Lowcountry is much more populated now, and many more homes are closer to where the earthquake actually happened.

Steven Jaume is an associate professor of geology at the College of Charleston and an earthquake expert.

“The problem with the earthquake being in 1886 is we had no seismograph then. We don’t have a clear mark on the ground where the fault reached the earth’s surface,” he explained.

That is one reason Jaume and his students are working on a two-year project with Georgia Tech. They placed 19 temporary seismometers at various locations in the Charleston area beginning in June. 

“There’s a sensor buried in the ground; you can see the solar panel and the GPS for power and time and then there’s a bin for the electronics to actually record it,” he said.

Data from these 19 seismometers along with the four permanent seismometers that were already in place, will help in several ways.

“Since we put them in, there have been nine earthquakes recorded in the Lowcountry, and we know at a minimum there are somewhere between 20 to 25 there with the first quick look, which will allow us to get a very precise location of these earthquakes. So there was one just a few days ago a magnitude 1 1/2, right, that was only recorded by three out of four of the permanent stations. But I’m gonna have another dozen or so at least.”

So how will data that pinpoints the exact location of the fault in Summerville help to prepare us for a potential earthquake in the future?

“With that information, we can give it to the engineer who can better design buildings for an earthquake on that fault,” said Jaume.

Jaume’ said even an earthquake not as strong as the 1886 earthquake could be devastating.

“Even a medium-size earthquake, like a magnitude 6 instead of 7, under Summerville, is going to do an enormous amount of damage because there are so many more people here.”

So what can you do if an earthquake happens? If you are in a wood-framed building… “The best thing to do is called the drop, cover, and hold drill,” he said.

Basically, drop down and get under something that might protect you from falling objects. But do not try to run outside.

“Because if the earthquake is strong enough to knock something down, you’re not gonna be able to run outside anyway. It’s just gonna knock you off your feet.”

Peggy Pinnel is an insurance agent with State Farm in Moncks Corner.

“In the time that I’ve lived here, I’ve seen hurricanes, I’ve seen tornadoes, I’ve seen water rising rapidly. But I haven’t seen an earthquake,” she said.

That is one reason she said many people have no coverage for an earthquake. 

“Unless your policy is endorsed specifically with the earthquake coverage you will not have earthquake coverage on your house, and your car is a different story. If you have comprehensive coverage you would have coverage for an earthquake,” she said.

So, essentially if your insurance policy for your homeowner’s insurance does not specifically mention earthquake insurance, you get nothing if an earthquake occurs.

Pinnel said earthquake insurance is not very cheap because if a major earthquake does happen, damage to your home could be tremendous. 

“I can’t tell you when the big earthquake’s going to be. I wish I could. That Nobel Prize would look great on the wall if I could predict earthquakes. I can’t. So you just have to be prepared and assume they’ll happen anytime.”

A magnitude 1.5 earthquake struck near Centerville earlier this morning. Three earthquakes were recorded in the Lowcountry on September 27th. The largest, a 3.3 magnitude quake, struck near Centerville during the evening.

A low-end earthquake was reported near Centerville in August and two small quakes registered near Ladson back in July, and a swarm of earthquakes were recorded in October and November just north of Columbia.

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