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).
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.
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.
A op-ed-ish piece at CNN takes the devastation of hurricane Michael and seeks it to be labelled something other than a ‘natural disaster’. The main argument is that human emissions have led to warmer ocean waters, a warmer atmosphere and higher sea level, all of which allow for stronger and more impactful hurricanes. This is not news in the climate community, which has been striving the past few years to be able to say something about the effect of global warming on major storms, heat waves and droughts. But, of course, this is not the only way that humanity makes disasters worse.
A seismological aphorism is “earthquakes don’t kill people, buildings kill people.” Although an approximation (tsunamis are pretty capable of dealing death, as are quake-triggered landslides and avalanches), this does highlight the other way that humanity makes nature even more powerful. As a result, geoscientists often walk around shaking their head and muttering under their breath “Why’d they do that?” Adobe buildings in earthquake prone areas. Beach houses on barrier islands. Developments at the base of landslide-prone mountainsides–or on active landslides themselves. Cities in floodplains. Insurance designed to force the reconstruction of things in the same hazardous places. Frankly, it is so bloody obvious that these are stupid things that you want to throw your hands up in the air and embrace the inevitable extinction of such an incompetent species.
Of course these are all things that make natural disasters worse for people, but they don’t actually make the actual trigger worse, right? Um, true, but we already do plenty more than just supercharge hurricanes. Injection of waste water into deep wells has produced quite the swarm of earthquakes in Oklahoma. Paving over wetlands made floods in Houston that much worse than they would have been without paving. Human-caused fires set the stage for catastrophic landslides and mudflows that might not have happened without the fires. Subdivision have been crushed and roads destroyed because bulldozers removed the toe of stable landslides that then failed. Excessive watering and water from septic systems is likely the cause of the Portuguese Bend landslide in Southern California as the old slip planes got lubricated and the soils above increased in weight.
In sum, we’ve been at this business of making our own “natural disasters” for some time. All we’ve done with global warming is to carry our local disaster mania on the road. Arguably we’ve reached the point where a truly natural disaster is a rarity.
One of the fixtures of modern life seems to be the hearty embrace of uninformed certainty. People who just know that certain things are an unqualified bad and will go to any lengths to fight those things seem to make up the vast majority of social media contributors. Although there are many fine examples of this on the political right, let’s complain about some on the political left.
Two such issues are centerpieces of complaints here in Boulder. One is the presence of genetically modified organisms used in crops (GMOs) and the other is the practice of fracking. Neither warrants the blanket condemnation they receive.
Most opponents of GMOs know little about how we’ve ended up with the food crops we have now, though occasionally you get clues, like if you stumble on wild strawberries and wonder why they are so tiny. Our food crops are the products of generations of hit or miss efforts of artificial selection (picking the outcomes you like best) and crossing of different plants to get useful hybrids. The genetic tools now available remove a lot of the hit and miss part of the effort allowing scientists to directly target the aspects of a plant that are causing trouble.
When you say that all GMOs are bad, you might as well say all spot welds in a car are bad and you only want a car assembled with no welds. The use of genetic tools is a technique and not an end per se. A spot weld might make a tougher car, but it will not make a better computer. It is what you do with the tool that matters.
Does this mean all GMOs are good? Hardly, if for no other reason than the law of unintended consequences. For instance, there was a desire to have a variety of common golf green grass be resistant to Roundup; as High Country News tells the story, the new variety was successful–but when it escaped from where it was being grown, it became a troublesome weed along irrigation ditches in eastern Oregon. Human endeavors are filled with such mistakes, many having nothing to do with GMOs (think of all the times an exotic species was introduced and found to be a pest, and then the effort to use the pest’s natural enemy simply created another problem). Just as we recognize that bringing exotic species into someplace requires some forethought, development of GMOs needs to face similar scrutiny.
Fracking is a slightly different issue, though it shares the same blanket opposition that has little to do with what it is and does. Most of the concerns with fracking have nearly nothing to do with the actual process of fracturing rock deep in the earth to release hydrocarbons. Instead when you hear the actual harms people complain about, it is the industrial noise and associated air pollution of the drilling and fracking operations, the greater density of drill pads often needed for the current “non-traditional” horizontal drilling, surface water pollution from spills, aquifer contamination from improperly sealed wells, earthquakes from injection wells disposing of accessory fluids from production, or even the antiquated forced pooling laws that greatly limit the options for those holding both surface and mineral rights. When people talk of banning fracking, it would be like a city banning a car company from using welds–it is not the welding that is the problem, it would be the noise and impacts of the car factory that are being opposed. Fracking is really being used as a proxy for resurgent oil and gas development.
Is fracking then an unalloyed good? Well, no. There are some very positive aspects of it: by increasing the recovery of hydrocarbons from an existing field, it can slow the desire to expand production into virgin areas. The recent application in associated with horizontal drilling has opened up a lot of natural gas, which has been replacing dirtier coal in electricity generation as a result. But there are some instances where fracking is indeed a direct evil. In a few places, it has indeed caused larger earthquakes (though far, far fewer than injection wells). There is an indication that fracking in some shallow rocks immediately below an aquifer in Wyoming has indeed directly contaminated fresh water. And no doubt a few fracking operations have spilled fracking fluids into surface waters. And, of course, the application of the technique has opened up areas that previously were uneconomic (which is a mixed bag depending on where you are and what the land use looks like).
Most folks would probably like the world to be black and white, good or bad. But there is gray all over the place, and GG earns his nom de plume when encountering absolutism. This desire to polarize to the extreme removes all sensible middle ground. We would all win if GMOs were not so misrepresented but also if the regulation on their development made more sense. We would all win if oil and gas development was throttled back by a more driven effort to move on to renewable energy sources. Recognizing the strengths and weakness of things like GMOs and fracking could focus our attention on the specific instances that are most troublesome. But when you just paint the whole thing one color, you lose the ability to separate the dangerous from the innocuous.
GG has from time to time wandered on a bit about some of the contradictions surrounding public lands (as a geoscientist, GG has spent a fair bit of time on said lands). So three articles in the latest issue of High Country News (their “Outdoors and travel special issue”) caught his eye as they threw light on three different aspects of our varying and changing views of wild lands. In a sense, all three pieces reflect views that would probably have distressed John Muir and other 19th century celebrators of the wild.
The first (and cover) story documents the growing disconnect between realities: that on the ground, and those developed in social media. The story recounts the five 2017 deaths on Capitol Peak in the Colorado Rockies, focusing on one in particular where the temptation from social media wore down any resistance to doing something very risky. In a real sense, this documents the continuing replacement of wilderness as a place for reflection and understanding of our place in the big wide world with a handy backdrop for our social media musings. This has made the great outdoors nothing more than a different edgy stage for our narcissistic self-promotion (“Look at what I did!”). Unfortunately the real world has taken little notice, and so bad injuries and deaths can pile up as the temptation of one-upmanship continues. Although the piece lays the blame on our obsession with social media, it is worth pointing out that this has gone on far longer. Once cell phones started getting signals in wilderness areas, people would just assume they could march out and get into any fix they liked and they would be rescued.
The second deals with another aspect of the wilderness as personal gym mentality, suggesting that outdoor equipment companies might not have the best interests of the land in mind when they advocate for preserving landscapes. In particular, the author, Ethan Linck, points out that these companies are far more interested in saving places with dramatic and photogenic places than ecologically more valuable lands. He buttresses this with some insights from research showing that outdoor recreating is only weakly related to broader environmental concerns. Thus people who recreate outdoors can be passionate about preserving access to the lands they use but are far less likely to care about other places and other threats. The author goes on to note how older distinctions between consumptive and appreciative uses of wild lands are increasingly confused. The result is something of a fraying of the coalitions that advocated for Wilderness Areas over the past 50 years; deferring to corporations to take up the slack might not be the best way to preserve what should be preserved. At the same time, the way companies glorify wild lands in advertisements acts in a way similar to social media trivialization of these places.
The last is more of a current news item: legislation in Congress would remove restrictions on bikes in Wilderness Areas (along with motorized wheelchairs and a few other wheeled vehicles). This bill splinters the mountain biking community: the Sustainable Trails Coalition supports the bill while the International Mountain Biking Association opposes it. This is again moving to further trivialize the wild, to say it is really only useful as a free gym. While there are legitimate complaints from the biking community about how some Wilderness areas are drawn, there are some good reasons for excluding bikes from Wilderness.
All three stories point to nature becoming little more than a scenic backdrop for feats of derring-do, for getting pumped up, for setting records and personal bests. And if that is all we want, that is all we’ll save, and we’ll lose a lot more than we’ll know.
(Updated on 5/15 with links to the HCN stories now online)