Earthquake notes

Stepping off the farm soapbox for a minute, I’m going to don my ex-geologist hat for a few observations on the horrific earthquake/tsunami situation unfolding in Japan:

1) This was not an “unimaginable” event, as so many in the media are claiming. Generations of geologists and scientifically educated laymen have known perfectly well where most seismic and tsunami hazards exist. They do their best to inform decision-making at the political and economic level, with some success. Japan is one of the most prepared countries in the world, and despite the horror, it shows. Sometimes you just can’t prepare enough; there’s a cost-benefit analysis that goes into all decisions. For example, seismic tsunamis are possible along the Atlantic coast, too, but at a low enough risk not to justify investing in the spectacularly expensive mitigation strategies that would be necessary. If it happens, the hindsighters will scream, but no one can pre-justify the expense on a rational level.

As another example, Japan has put tons of money into building some tsunami walls in what are considered the highest-risk areas. This wasn’t one of them, but that doesn’t make them wrong. No country has the resources to attempt 100% prevention/mitigation, so you choose the best solution you have and hope for the best. That didn’t happen this time; we don’t always have control. But it was plenty “imaginable” to anyone who has taken a well-taught earth science course.

2) Big earthquakes happen regularly. This very useful USGS page demonstrates that magnitude 8+ quakes have occured on average a little less than once a year since the record begins in 1902, with rarely more than a couple of years between 8+ events. Most of them happen in remote or unpopulated places, as one would expect given the actual density of human population as spread across the entire globe (including oceans). Every now and then one hits where there are lots of people, and that’s when we pay attention. That’s the reality of statistical chance, not something unusual or unimaginable. This is why most Pacific Rim countries have invested in a network of earthquake/tsunami sensors and warning systems, which performed very effectively in tracking and monitoring this event as it spread, and made sure the effects on further coasts were minimal. The Pacific NW coast is strung with tsunami warning signs, sirens, and evacuation plans. Most residents know what to do in the event those go off (whether they actually do it is their problem, as it their choice to live and build in a risky area). It doesn’t do much good when the event happens a few minutes off-shore, but the system is there for a reason.

3) Subduction zone earthquakes are not, repeat NOT, related to human-induced climate change (I’m talking to you, Grist). That whole climate change debate has gotten to the point where both sides look silly for claiming that either everything, or nothing, is evidence of climate change. Yes, a significant rise in sea level will make a given event more damaging. And, yes, climate (especially precipitation) may influence tectonics on broad spatial scales and long time scales. But subduction zone earthquakes and the tsunamis they generate are about the last place that such an effect would be seen. Activists, please don’t use such bad examples to undercut any chance you had at seeming rational and educated.

4) Media are even dumber than I realized. I was forced to watch CNN in a waiting room Friday morning, and was appalled (even with my low expectations) by how utterly uneducated and alarmist the talking heads were. Even their so-called on-staff scientist was spouting claims that were not only wrong, but flatly contradicted by statements already available from reputable sources (for example, that huge waves were sweeping toward the American coast when NOAA had already issued its forecast earlier that the effects on the Pacific NW would be noticeable but not widely damaging). I haven’t watched TV news in at least 7 years, and I don’t seem to be missing anything.

5) Natural events aren’t always predictable, but they are “expectable”. So while we’re all justifiably horrified at the unfolding events in Japan, let’s take a deep breath and accept that this kind of event happens and is going to continue to happen no matter what we do, on a geologically active planet with ever-more people concentrating with ever-more infrastructure to be destroyed by random but expectable events. And for local readers, keep in mind that St. Louis is on the edge of one of the highest seismic-risk areas in the lower 48, the New Madrid fault zone. It may not happen through our grandchildrens’ lifetimes, but no one should be surprised if it does.

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