In the Beginning …

Natural disasters are a tale of pain … and creation


I took a class on natural disasters during my undergrad studies. The course was a filler, ticking some general education box, and as college classes are wont to do, the topic didn’t end up being quite as fascinating as the title promised. But I got some good stuff out of it. 

Mostly, I remember learning about earthquakes — terminology like fault lines and seismic waves and swarms, as well as how Nevada and California rank in the top three for most seismically active states in the U.S. A few years later, I experienced my first earthquake during grad school in Reno. Then this past April and May I felt the ones that rattled Tahoe. Never any clutch-my-pearls moments, thankfully. I didn’t even realize what was happening until they’d already passed.

While the Tahoe/Truckee environment has been set geographically for about 24 million years now, thanks in large part to numerous geographically changing natural disasters, we still experience smaller scale landscape-changing events today. Wildfire breathes down our necks every year; avalanches are taking place more frequently amid climate change’s effects on weather consistency; drought has plagued California on and off for the past 20 years. Tornadoes aren’t unheard of either; in early 2021, two twisters touched down in Tehama County (northwest of Chico). 

Illustration By Mike English

And, of course, earthquakes. Three fault lines pass mostly under Lake Tahoe’s waters and the trio are currently center stage with the recent cluster of shakes. Tsunamis are likely too, if the fault lines produce quakes with magnitudes higher than what we’ve seen thus far. 

Needless to say, there’s a lot of potential for serious disaster and lives lost in Tahoe, and preparation is incredibly, incredibly important, but I think it’s also worth recognizing the roles such events have had in creating this region.

This month’s story about earthquakes shares how Tahoe’s geological beginnings are based on seismic activity. But lava flows and an Ice Age also played a role in the lake and the Basin’s formation. Healthy forests rely on fires for germination and underbrush clearing. Native peoples knew this. Our actions in suppressing fire have caused overgrowth and fire danger. We are still rectifying our misunderstandings.

Pain begets beauty, as cheesy as it might sound. It certainly is the case for Tahoe, which is made up of Mother Nature’s scars. Heck, you can actually see the Incline Village Fault Line, both underwater and on land.

Heaven forbid more serious events are on the horizon, though I think it’s inevitable. But it gives scope to step back and remember what the “disasters” millions and millions of years ago created in their wake: Tahoe, a beautiful place we live in and love on.   


  • Alex Hoeft

    Alex Hoeft joined Moonshine staff in May 2019, happy to return to the world of journalism after a few years in community outreach. She has both her bachelor's and Master's in journalism, from Brigham Young University and University of Nevada, Reno, respectively. When she's not journalism-ing, she's wrangling her toddler or reading a book — or doing both at the same time.

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