Updated: Friday, 29 Apr 2011, 7:27 PM EDT
(WTNH) - Powerful, awe-inspiring and at times deadly. Connecticut has had its share of violent weather, but to understand the true potential of mother nature we must first look half way around the globe to the island of Japan.
It began as a quiet afternoon in mid-March -- A slight tremble, a tiny sway. But in the blink of an eye the violent shaking began, the result of a 9.0 magnitude earthquake that struck off Japan's coast, ripping the eastern part of the island of Honshu apart.
The images are powerful; panic on the streets, crumbled rock everywhere, and then the unthinkable -- 30-foot walls of water swept through, wiping everything in its path away. The tsunami steam rolled the landscape, in some cases making it 6 miles inland, with nothing in its path to stop it. Thousands died, many swept away by the rushing waters. Tens of thousands were made homeless.
And as this crisis unfolded yet another appeared, that of a nuclear plant meltdown.
This chain of events is burned into our minds, and our thoughts go out to those caught up in the disaster. As we look closer to home we ask the nagging question: could it happen here.
The soft lapping water of Long Island Sound is a tranquil sight. But the strength of storms that surge across the region has the potential to cause trouble for those who live near shore. From hurricanes to blizzards, Connecticut is no stranger to severe weather. But what about earthquakes and the domino effect they may have on the Sound?
Vernon Cormier is a professor of Physics and Geophysics at the University of Connecticut and has studied the science of earthquakes for 40 years.
"Compared to active plate boundaries in California we are much less active," Cormier said, "but we can have earthquakes in New England and have had them in the past."
Including one in 1752 near Cape May, Massachusetts. Although instrumentation was not around to accurately record its strength, Cormier says there is evidence of it.
"We have a historical past of earthquakes up to magnitude six, we are pretty sure about that," he said.
News 8 Chief Meteorologist Dr. Mel Goldstein has his own insights to draw upon. "Predicting the weather is hard enough. Predicting earthquakes adds another dimension."
Can Connecticut be in for the big one?
"We have an older geology and as a result the earthquakes lack the punch that occurs elsewhere, but even if it lacks the punch it can rattle the books on the bookshelves and there's always a possibility of something bigger happening."
"Well, according to expert analysis California has a 40% chance in the next 30 years of a quake 6 or greater. Compare that to Connecticut which has a 2% probability in the next 500 years for the same intensity quake," Cormier said.
"But we have to be careful about over interpreting these plots because a lot depends on our prior history of earthquake activity in this area and to make an accurate plot we probably need thousands of years of history."
People living in the area of Moodus and East Haddam know all to well about the movement of the earth. For centuries Native Americans told of its shaking, calling the area 'Machimoodus', the place of noises.
"The earth is always moving and making noise, moving around. They call it Moodus Noises," Dr. Mel said.
Scientists later found the source. "Swarms of many small earthquakes clustered together over a period of a few weeks, usually they are so small that people experience them as sounds rather than feeling the ground shaking."
Just this past March a 1.3 magnitude quake sent some residents and emergency crews scurrying, fearing an explosion had taken place. So quakes, although usually small in size, are not unusual here in New England and Connecticut. But how about tsunamis?
"That would be very, very extreme but it is interesting that it can happen," Dr. Mel said.
The true test for the East Coast may come in the future. A hot spot for a volcano-triggered tsunami is the Canary Islands. It has the potential of sweeping through the Atlantic and pummeling our shores.
"We would have these waves that would be coming up from the Atlantic, coming through the Sound and totally inundating coastal areas," Dr. Mel said. "It's very possible for something like this to happen. Not common but certainly possible."
But luckily for us "Connecticut is well protected because it is not directly facing the ocean in most places due to Long Island Sound," Cormier said.
And the Sound is a good barrier unless there is some sort of unusual landslide for example off the land on either side of the Sound. Yet another reality check.