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The contiguous bedrock on the east coast allows energy to pass more efficiently and travel farther. That is why the earthquake on Tuesday was felt over such a broad geographic range. (USGS)

Q and A: Smithsonian's Elizabeth Cottrell on the Virginia Earthquake

A Smithsonian geologist offers her expertise on the seismic event that shook much of the mid-Atlantic this week

The Natural History Museum is a 100-year-old building, and things aren’t as earthquake ready here because earthquakes are not as common. The doors in our department are no longer square. Some doors don’t close. Some doors stick. So the doors are out of true, so there is clearly some shifting in the building. There was a lot more damage at the Museum Support Center [in Suitland, Maryland], which is still closed today. We had damage in the Minerals Hall. A lot of minerals fell out of their specimen holders, and that hall is closed today. In my own lab, I run really high temperature furnaces for doing experiments on rocks and I have to get in right now and assess that damage.

What was your personal reaction?

When we had the first shocks, I totally clapped my hands and smiled and I was like, “Oh, boy, an earthquake!” I knew immediately it was an earthquake and was really excited. Then it really started shaking and my reaction was one of fear and moving to the interior of the building and getting into a door jam. It was at least another five minutes before the fire alarms went off, but I knew we were going to have to evacuate. You could immediately see that there could be structural damage, so I was preparing to evacuate.

As a geologist, what were some of the questions running through your mind?

What was the magnitude? And, actually my guess was a 5.5. So I did pretty well there. And where is the epicenter? Because if it is really far away, then wherever the epicenter was could have a lot of damage. Until you know the magnitude and where the epicenter is, it is hard to gauge what you felt where you are. For example, people felt the earthquake in New York, but it felt like a very small earthquake to them.

Do you have any big unanswered questions that are maybe on the minds of other geologists and seismologists right now?

Right after it happened you are also wondering about aftershocks and how big the aftershocks might be. We did have aftershocks but not big ones.

Does the occurrence of an earthquake increase chances for more earthquakes in the area?

No, not necessarily.

What do geologists and seismologists do now? Do they heavily instrument that area to monitor it more?

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