I felt it! The UK earthquake of 23 September 2002

This page was created on 23 September 2002.

A peaceful autumn Sunday evening in Oxford takes a highly unusual turn for Richard as he sits at his computer…

Sunday 22 September 2002 had been a lazy day off with more of the same to follow, and I was taking advantage of the almost-free modem-time and lack of company to look at lots of things on the Web. It was getting on for one in the morning but I wasn’t bothered — this is normal for me!

To relieve strain on my body I had turned my office-chair to face away from the computer and was sitting on it back-to-front, with my arms clasped around the backrest. Everything was quiet and I was motionless; drowsiness beckoned, assisted by lack of fresh air: I’d shut the door to the tiny office in order that the heat from me and the computers might warm the room enough to make it cosy, as the night was clear and chilly. I had been transported many miles away from Oxford onto London Underground’s District Line, courtesy of District Dave and the Tubeprune website. I was comfortable and totally engrossed.

You know that sort of pulsating-vein sensation that at least some of us experience, often around an eyeball or in the neck? It makes you think part of you is shaking when it isn’t? For a split-second that was what I thought it was, but everything in my peripheral vision seemed to be shaking too. Not by much, just quivering silently. One of my computer-monitors was rocking fore and aft at about 5Hz with an amplitude of several mm, thanks to sympathetic oscillation of the rather unstable computer-desk (my A-level Design & Technology major project!) on which it sits. That screen was blank at the time and so reflections in it could easily be seen, and these were shaking with double the amplitude which made it even more noticeable.

It must have gone on for four or five seconds: long enough for me to marvel at how the whole room was shaking around me; long enough for me to feel that the trembling was too strong and concentrated to be the result of a speeding juggernaut; long enough for me to wonder whether it was an earthquake — something I hadn’t experienced up to now. I recalled for an instant the images many of us have seen on Savage Earth or similar TV programmes, images taken from CCTV in shops as the Kobe earthquake struck, when the whole building is hurled from side to side at 1Hz with an amplitude of several feet, throwing everything off the shelves as the shop-assistants cling to the counter for dear life before the picture cuts to snowstorm. I had time to wonder if it was going to get more violent, and to feel really pretty helpless, and then it seemed to stop.

Almost instinctively I looked at the digital clock which, as it happens, I had reset accurately to BST earlier in the day, and made a mental note that it was 00:53. I seem to have developed a mental reflex to check the time when something unusual and unexplained happens, particularly strange noises that might be explosions, so that if something appears on the news I know whether to tie it in with my experiences.

Doubts crept into my mind as, within a couple of seconds of the tremor ceasing, I opened the office door and heard a large vehicle on the road; I recalled that a glass of water placed on an upstairs mantlepiece in this house would have ripples forming on it when heavy vehicles came past, so I tried jumping on the floor in front of my computer-desk but couldn’t get the monitor to quiver in the way I’d seen it do before. Perhaps it was a waking dream as I had a micro-sleep in front of the computer, an eminently possible explanation given the situation?

I looked on Ceefax at about 01:05 and could find nothing. I did a Google search for “UK earth tremor” and “Seismogram” but didn’t bring up anything relevant. I went to the BBC News page and reloaded it but could find nothing. Perplexed, at 01:20 I composed an email to my Mother (who was in North America and would see it immediately) with the subject, Whoah! Was that an earth tremor?, including a description of what had happened and a query as to where I could find out the answer.

After sending that, I felt a bit disappointed. In 2000 I had been sitting in bed reading, at home in Oxford, at the time of the nearby Warwick earthquake (spookily, exactly 2 years previous) and had been a bit miffed that I never felt a thing and discovered it only on the news later that day. Determined not to be proved wrong, I reloaded the BBC News page again, and there was the headline: Earth Tremor hits UK. Wow! I emailed mother again quickly with the subject-line YES! and simultaneously tried my Father’s number, in case he was in his office or at the telescope; it was cloudy in Cambridge and he was at his desk, but he didn’t know why I might be ringing as he hadn’t felt anything. He’s been in Hawaii and Los Angeles during several tremors, but has never experienced seismic activity in the UK. Even Mother replied from Vancouver, saying in blasé fashion that We had an earthquake here on Friday afternoon!!

I spent a further hour or so looking at BBC News and then the British Geological Survey’s earthquakes website, on which I filled in a Tremor Report form. Eventually I went to bed, late even by my standards, feeling just a little older, wiser and more humble in this extraordinary world.

Further information

This earthquake took place on 2002 Sep 22 at 23:53:14.7 UTC (confirming my 00:53 BST mental note). Its epicentre was at 52.518° North, 2.141° West, which equates to Brick Kiln Lane, Gornal, Dudley, West Midlands. Its magnitude was 4.8 Richter at a depth of 9.6 (km?). This makes it the most powerful earthquake felt in the UK since the 5.1-Richter quake at Bishop’s Castle, Shropshire, in 1990. However, its intensity in Oxford was much lower than at the epicentre — folk in the Birmingham area reported power-cuts, longer periods of shaking and general neighbourhood alarm.

When I’d gone to bed, there was an after-shock of magnitude 2.7 from a similar epicentre (0.002° further N and 0.005° further E) at 03:32:15.9 UTC. I would guess that this was not noticeable in Oxford.

The British Geological Survey’s website has some survey results relating to this earthquake.