The 1902 Los Alamos Earthquakes: Their Cause

Following the 1902 Los Alamos earthquakes, many experts were quoted in newspaper stories giving the supposed cause of earthquakes. One Colonel M. M. Ogden, an "oil field expert," was quoted as saying the cause of earthquakes is the rushing of petroleum into newly formed fissures in an endeavor to reach the surface. Many people wondered if the recently tapped oil wells not far from town might have somehow caused the earthquakes.

Another popular theory was that there was a volcano at a nearby lake, Zaca Lake, and the earthquakes were caused by "subsidences caused by the action of subterranean gases and oils." A geologist, John H. Conway, was quoted in another account giving one of the most popular theories of the day, that earthquakes were due to the contraction of the earth as it cooled down.

Although we now look at these theories as silly, the attention given to the cause of earthquakes following the Los Alamos shocks does show that this issue was one of great interest at the time.

The answer which is generally accepted today would be postulated just four years after the Los Alamos earthquakes. By studying the earth after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, Harry Fielding Reid developed the elastic rebound theory of earthquakes. Reid realized that earthquakes occurred due to distant forces, which caused the gradual buildup of stress along a fault until the fault could not withstand the stress any longer. It would not be until the 1960's, with the development of the theory of plate tectonics, that a solid explanation for the distant forces would be made.

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