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Mid-Atlantic Earthquake Strikes, and Social Media Rock

The third largest earthquake in decades ever recorded to hit the mid-Atlantic region just rattled the windows here at the Physics Buzz headquarters.

A magnitude 5.9 quake makes for an exciting few seconds, but didn't do a lot of direct damage in our town of College Park, MD (there's word that some people began to panic in Washington DC, but that's life in the big city). The fascinating part for me and lots of my friends was just how useful social media networks were during this (somewhat minor) emergency.

Within seconds of the tremor, which gave us a heck of a ride on the fourth floor of the American Center for Physics, I and countless others posted about it on Facebook, Twitter, and I assume on Tumbler and Google+.

Cell phone communication was knocked out, possibly because so many people were trying to call friends and family, but social media sites worked just fine. I assume most of the posts were sent over cell networks, but the relatively minuscule size of the messages, when compared to voice communication, allowed them to make it through despite jammed circuits.

Word quickly came through that it had been between a magnitude 5 and 6 quake centered somewhere near Richmond, VA. That was consistent with the status updates we were seeing on Facebook - initially most of the updates that mentioned the earthquake came from people in the DC/Maryland/Virginia area. Within in a few minutes, friends in Pittsburgh, New York City, Boston, Raleigh, NC and West Virginia started posting.

Considering that earthquakes create waves that travel at about 2-8 kilometers per second, or about 100-200 miles per minute, people in New York and Harrisburg would have felt it about a minute later than we did, and folks in Boston and Raleigh would have noticed the quake another minute later.

Facebook's timestamps can be a bit vague (I made a map showing the first postings in red and later ones in orange and green), but it's clear from the order that we all posted that the epicenter was fairly near DC. News sites and radio reports later confirmed Mineral, VA as the source, about halfway between DC and Richmond. But anyone who uses social media was way ahead of them.

Despite a little damage being reported on Twitter, including some flooding at the Pentagon and broken spires on the National Cathedral, most of the impact has been on the order of the picture at the top of this post. In fact, I would guess that very few lawn chairs suffered that much trauma.

Still, if this has taught me anything, it's that a charged cell phone and a Facebook account are much more valuable than conventional news could ever be in a large-scale emergency like this. It was pretty minor this time, but when the big one comes I'm going to rely on my web of friends and acquaintances to get me through, not Channel 4 News.



    xkcd summed this up well.

  2. Internet connectivity is first to go in a disaster, so although twitter gives an interesting (though useless?) angle, the important and relevant information will still be news over the air.

  3. Taqyon,

    Internet connectivity worked just fine, while cell service was out (or swamped) making phone calls all but impossible. The news services reported on things eventually, but by today's standards it was old news by the time it aired on the TV and radio. So in this emergency, the situation was the opposite of your claim.

    The Internet was initially designed specifically to be a robust communication system in the event of a major disaster (including nuclear attack, That robustness was confirmed yesterday in our relatively small disaster.



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