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Avoiding Volcanoes (Book Review)

Thirty nine years ago today 57 people died when Mt. St. Helens blew out its side early on a Sunday morning. Just why those lives were lost–and how it could have been far worse–are questions addressed in Steve Olson’s 2016 book,  Eruption: The Untold Story of Mount St. Helens

It would seem easy to avoid volcanoes.  We know where they are, that they are dangerous.  Yet as we have seen recently in Hawaii, we somehow can’t find it in ourselves to stay away and so, when the inevitable happens, we find lives threatened, ruined or ended and property destroyed. The 1980 eruption of Mt. St. Helens is often described as unpredictable and thus the loss of lives hardly a surprise, but the reality was different.

Olson’s book takes a curious path, wandering through the origins of the Weyerhaeuser empire and the national forest system before reaching the tales from the eruption itself. Reading these when expecting more immediate stories of death or survival, destruction and salvation can feel like assembling the blank parts of a jigsaw puzzle–you don’t feel like you are seeing the picture you are seeking and wondering why you should bother with the effort.

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Mt. St. Helens from closest pubobservation point, Sept. 1982, showing the blowdown forest and steam coming off the growing dome in the crater. (c) Craig Jones

But just as the big blank areas on a jigsaw are critical to the final image, these background stories are essential to the author’s main focus on those killed or nearly killed by the eruption and how they found themselves at risk. Read More…

Fear of Every Geology Prof…

…is death on a class trip.  Going to places with unstable footing and exposure is often part of seeing geology that clarifies understanding, but it carries real risks. For GG, the most terrifying site is Toroweap Point in Grand Canyon National Park where, every time he visits, he breathes a sign of relief when the same number of students pile back into vehicles that had piled out of them. That site has 3000′ of vertical cliff to punish the unwary, but it doesn’t take that much for a fatality, as an environmental studies class from Briar Cliff University found out when they lost a classmate to a 100′ fall.

While family and friends grieve, another discussion is probably going on, if not now then soon. Should the school curtail field expeditions? Given the growing number of deaths by selfie, what is the role (and responsibility) of the instructor who takes students to places with hazards? Should the school dictate what is and is not an acceptable risk? Should students sign waivers, and if so, are they really enforceable?

Geoscience education benefits immensely from seeing what you are studying in the field. And the greatest hazard in field trips is generally the drive to the field or working on roadcuts near highways. But the drama of a fatal fall is more damning in some ways.  GG hopes that future students will get to experience the field safely, hopefully mainly by recognizing and avoiding hazardous situations on their own and with the guidance of an instructor rather than by being blocked from accessing important or memorable sites by fearful administrators.

Reaping Restraint

GG has written a few times about the state of oil and gas regulations here in Colorado. A lot of that is now changing as Senate Bill 181 has passed the Colorado Legislature and heading for the governor’s desk, where it is expected to be signed.

As is typical these days, the public debate was overheated.  Claims that passing this legislation would end petroleum development and cripple the Colorado economy were broadcast in commercials, while some advocates felt that the bill didn’t go far enough and were upset when amendments loosened some of the language of the original bill. Others felt that this was overturning the voters’ rejection of proposition 112 last fall (e.g., comments here). Votes in the legislature were along party lines.

So is this the death knell of oil and gas in Colorado? Best to see what passed rather than rely on public pronouncements. So let’s look at what is in here.

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Spring is Here…

…and while in other places flowers are blooming and trees are leafing out, in the Rockies it is fall.

Falling rocks, that is:

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This is a spot on the road between Boulder and Nederland a little above Boulder Falls that GG has always been very wary of.  Fortunately it appears nobody got hit by a rock, though once you start having rockfalls in a spot there is an increased risk of more.  Probably the state highway department will have a close look in the near future.

Springtime is a big time for rockfalls as solid freezes of the winter give way to freeze-thaw and bigger temperature swings on canyon walls. Occasionally cars get crushed, usually cars parked under steep rocky slopes. More hazardous are rockfalls into dwellings.

The Biggest Disasters

GG recently commented on Lucy Jones’s [no relation] book on the Big Ones, disasters out of proportion to recent experience. An LA Times article on concerns that dams in the Los Angeles basin are not up to dealing with a superstorm brings up an interesting question: how big can you go? Forty days and forty nights?

For seismologists, the magic equation has often been the Gutenberg-Richter equation which basically says that the log of the number of earthquakes of a given magnitude over a specified time is inversely proportional to the magnitude (so log N = a + bM, where N is the number of earthquakes of magnitude M and a and b describe the distribution in some area). The rate of decrease in number of earthquakes with increasing magnitude, the b-value, is close to -1.  So say you have 10 M5 earthquakes in a year, you expect to have one M6. You’d then expect over 10 years to have 100 M5s, 10 M6s, and 1 M7.

If you keep playing this game, you might say that in 100 years you should see a M8, and in a thousand a M9, and in ten thousand a M10. And this is where seismologists see a problem: physically, a M10 is probably impossible (and if the area we’re concerning ourselves with is anything less than a quarter of the globe, it is certainly impossible).

Read More…

A Peek At Risks

High Country News has a pretty in-depth article online about a couple specific oil/gas fires and explosions in Colorado and just how severe these can be; it includes audio clips from firefighter communications and is built on interviews with workers and firefighters involved. While one event (the exploded Firestone house) got considerable media attention, the other was dismissed as a small, well-controlled fire that injured an employee. See if you agree after reading how it all went down. It is an indictment of the contention of the industry that they are “good neighbors” as the industry is unquestionably a dangerous one for its workers and arguably a significant risk for its neighbors.

Does this potentially influence Colorado voters? We shall see as the politics of industry rights vs. community safety take center stage.

Big Ones (Book Review)

Dr. Lucy Jones has spent her career standing in front of TV cameras and telling the people of Southern California what just happened in the last earthquake and what it meant.  [She is no relation to GG, if you wondered]. She developed over years of practice the ability to issue a soundbite acceptable to newscasters while still containing a scientifically defensible statement that provided useful information to a concerned public.  The number of working scientists with that background probably can be counted on one hand. (GG recalls seeing her do a live stand-up while one of her children wrestled with her leg–she gave no indication to the viewing audience what was going on just below the edge of their screen nor did it affect her delivery). She has recently been leveraging that experience to try to affect public policy through the creation of her own center on science and society.  An outgrowth of this is her book, The Big Ones: How Natural Disasters Have Shaped Us (and What We Can Do About Them).

It is worth reminding you of her scientific work, as many times the public face of an organization isn’t really an authority.  Lucy got deeply involved in the question of just what aftershocks really represent, which includes the question of what is going on when the aftershock is bigger than the original mainshock? This has been a tremendously practical approach to better quantifying short-term earthquake hazard, and she has worked to incorporate it in the messages to the public. This has led her to respond to reporters’ queries with simple yet fact-based responses, like when asked “what should people do after this last earthquake?” she might respond “Don’t leave town, but make sure your bookshelves are securely fastened to the wall and you aren’t sleeping under something heavy that could fall on you.”

It is this clear-spoken and practical approach that informs the book. She concerns herself with disasters of a magnitude large enough to threaten societies, such as the great Lisbon earthquake and tsunami, 1783-4 Laki eruption, the 1861-2 California flood, Katrina, and the Boxing Day and Tohoku tsunamis. (The one category she leaves out is drought). She argues that these events are of a totally different scale than more routine floods, earthquakes, and eruptions and that we are unprepared for just how destructive these things can be. In the end she argues (based on her own experiences with government) that making a more resilient society is the necessary goal and sets out guidelines for how to get there.

The disasters discussed range from the obscure (not many people know of Laki or the Lisbon earthquake these days) and the well known (Pompeii shows up with Katrina). In some instances she can shed light on events in ways most others could not (the Tangshen earthquake tragedy following the fortunate if lucky prediction of the Haicheng quake, the inability of California flood planners to accept the reality and possible recurrence of the 1862 floods, and the mistakes made in the L’Aquila earthquake prediction/unprediction and court case). The summaries of each are placed in a brief social context and provide a human dimension to the catastrophe (focusing on what happened to Pliny the Elder in the Pompeii eruption, for instance). Each has a bit of a moral about what this tells us about such mega disasters.

The book is a success, an easy read with good storylines for the reader and some twists and turns of interest even to seismologists, but there are a couple things that might have made its point more powerful. One is the absence of examples of societies that failed in the face of natural disasters; the closest example in the book is a small society wiped away in the Banda Aceh tsunami. Others seem not to be failures of societies so much as adaptations to some changes (did New Orleans go away? Did Sacramento rebuild? Did Rome fall from Pompeii? Would the Chinese Gang of Four really have ruled in the absence of the Tangshen earthquake?). Real failures might not be a lengthy list, which brings into question whether these Big Ones really are as challenging to societies as Dr. Jones would like us to believe.  Perhaps the collapse of Minoan civilization in the face of the Santorini eruption or the abandonment of Anasazi centers or Chaco culture due to drought might make the case that there is a real to a society’s continued survival. The devastation of Haiti or Puerto Rico might yet make the case, but Haiti’s quake isn’t mentioned and Puerto Rico is a brief aside.

The other loss is Jones’s dodge of the really Big One: climate change.  While Dr. Jones does a nice job of illustrating how the global reach of media and social media in particular is bringing home to all the terror and impact of big disasters, the presence of an ongoing global disaster seems to just not fit her narrative. Was this a decision to avoid alienating parts of her audience with a more politically charged topic, or just a disaster that was in a totally different class? Given concerns about storms described in the book becoming more common with a warmer climate, going beyond the resilient community recommendations in this case would have been welcome.  After all, we can’t lower the intensity of an earthquake, but we can undercut the most extreme storms, making communities more resilient on both ends of the spectrum.

Those are minor objections, though. Dr. Jones discusses her time with the City of Los Angeles working to get a program in place to retrofit the most dangerous buildings in the city. Her perspective is an interesting one for scientists loathe to step into the fray, as she is neither encouraging taking over the role of making policy or simply pitching academic studies over the fence for policy makers to do with what they will. Whether others can follow in her footsteps is yet to be seen, but she has laid out a case that big disasters are in our future and we are far better off preparing to mitigate their effects than preparing to respond once the emergency is underway.