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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).

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It’s been awhile since the midterm elections and its worth looking at how all those science candidates did.  A Nature article makes it sound like scientists made massive gains in Congress, with 11 Congresspeople with some scientific background (including medicine, which arguably is often quite different). When you consider that more than 50 science-oriented folks tried to get through primaries, that 11 (which includes some incumbents) isn’t all that impressive.  Some of those who lost in the primaries were pretty discouraged, though others felt that they were making progress.

But the descriptions of the campaigns makes it sound like being a scientist was a pretty peripheral aspect of most of the campaigns, and you get the sense that the people who emphasized their science backgrounds had the least success. The funny thing is, if you really believe in representative democracy, scientists should be pretty competitive.  After all, what you want in a representative is somebody who probably shares your overall worldview but who will take the time and effort to study the facts relevant to particular pieces of legislation. So why are scientists doing poorly electorally?

Arguably it is because we don’t want our representatives to think for themselves.  We want them to be our proxy, to vote however we want them to vote despite the possibility that we know a lot less about the topic. And scientists just don’t tend to approach problems this way.  It doesn’t help that both liberals and conservatives have positions that are scientifically indefensible, so an honest scientist is likely to get crosswise with virtually any audience.

So its great there are now some 11 people with science or science-like backgrounds out of the 435 members of the House or the 100 Senators. But when less than 2% of our representatives have science backgrounds, it feels like we could stand to see a few more and a few less lawyers.

Any Adults in the Room?

Many of those who find President Trump’s instincts on foreign policy misguided frequently state that they are relieved that there are “adults in the room” that prevent rash military action by the President. At times, Congress has even stepped in to override the President’s dismissal of intelligence findings from the CIA or FBI. Those relieved “there are adults in the room” point to episodes described in various books on the administration where the President demanded action and others either dissuaded him or simply ignored his wishes; the most dramatic (and hotly debated) version of this was in an anonymous New York Times op-ed earlier this year. Whether such actions are honorable or not continues to be debated, but that is not our topic today.

GG would like to know where the adults in the room are when it comes to science.  Frankly, the answer would seem to be, nowhere. This was underscored this past week by what followed President Trump’s dismissal of a major climate report that the administration tried to bury by releasing it weeks ahead of time on Black Friday.  Basically, nobody stood up and said, you misunderstand what this in.  No, instead we had the EPA misrepresent instructions given to the group assembling the report, we had claims that this was a way for climate scientists to get rich, we had claims that lots of scientists disagree with the report.  All of which is wrong.

What is closer to reality is the necessity of the Climate Scientists Legal Defense Fund, or the  Silencing Science tracker, which is a sobering list of efforts made to ignore, obfuscate, blockade, defund, demean, ridicule or prevent scientific research.  The intense harassment Michael Mann faced, the time lost by two Arizona climate researchers ordered to hand over nearly all their emails–this is the reality of many climate scientists.  There is no big money in doing this work. Most are utterly anonymous and so don’t even get some perk from being quoted in the newspaper. A life of fame and fortune it is not.

While there might be adults in the room to mitigate President Trump’s evident distrust of experts in foreign policy, they are notably absent when it comes to using information from the experts on scientific matters.  And in the long run, that might prove to be more harmful to both the nation and the world than any reckless military adventures.

Mistaking Desire for Solution

As many may have noticed, there has been a big recall of romaine lettuce in the U.S., and this has affected the local school district’s lunch menu.  But there was an interesting quote at the end of the local story about this:

She [Food Services Director Ann Cooper] said this most recent recall is a symptom of a much larger problem of a global and national food system.

“If it was summer, we could get everything locally,” she said. “It’s because we have a broken, un-localized food system that causes these huge problems. If we had a regional system, we wouldn’t have this problem.”

Probably true.  If we had a localized food system, the kids would be eating potatoes, because lettuce doesn’t grow outdoors in the snow so very well. Or there would be a lot of greenhouses with a lot of energy being expended to grow a crop that, well, just grows all by itself in other climates.

Of course if there was any contamination here, we wouldn’t know it until there was quite a bit of illness locally–and by then you’d have no other options for food as well as a pretty severe local outbreak. Sure, you’d be able to go back to the grower and bop them on the head right away, which is undoubtably a big plus, but there are a lot of other costs that would get in the way of replacing our current system.

The food system is broken, but not quite in how Director Cooper is saying. We can’t track back food to its source, and that is indeed hard to understand in this day and age. This means that most of the lettuce that was pitched was perfectly fine, and the disruptions to the marketplace are way out of balance. But it is not because food is transported across the country from places where it is (ahem) dirt cheap to grow to places where it is not. While there is a lot to like about locally sourced produce, cheap and abundant and year-round is not often what is on the table.

Its hard to remember sometimes that humanity moved from everyone collecting their own food to specialization, allowing most of us to do something other than farm.  And so farmers specializing in what they can grow more cheaply than others is no surprise either. Is that why people get sick and it takes weeks to figure out why? No. Let’s try to recognize the actual problem and solve it, not impose our personal desires on top.

Green Trees, Ash Houses

Living in the west, sad stories of families losing their houses–or their lives–in wildfires is an all-too-common occurrence.  And as a geophysicist, GG is familiar with the old geoscience adage that earthquakes don’t kill people, but built structures failing in earthquakes kill people. It would seem we should adjust the second adage for the first situation: wildfires don’t kill people; flaming buildings kill people.

Have you noticed how often the pictures of destroyed houses includes green trees nearby? How often the description of the burned down house includes the oddly unburned things nearby? Although there are certainly fires so intense they take everything in their path, all too often it seems like houses burn when little else does. And this applies even to the devastation in Paradise California this week. The Los Angeles Times has a piece noting those still-standing trees and finds that the devastation in Paradise was because the fire became an urban fire. Houses were igniting other houses.

Basically the issue is that western houses catch burning embers with things like debris-filled gutters, exposed eaves and ventilation grills, and wooden porches. Once lit, houses tend to go up all at once. This is not new news–anybody with a house in the forest hears about it from their insurance and local fire officials. Yet new houses continue to be built with the same weaknesses, even in fire-prone areas. (At least most areas ban wood-shake roofs). Clearly more thought should be given to eliminating the ways houses catch burning embers.

Does this mean we’re off the hook on forest health? Well, probably not, though exactly what that means looks to be up for grabs more than ever. What seems certainly true is that frequent, low-intensity fires reduce the risk of intense damaging fires: the experiences in both Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks is that major fires lie down (lay down?) when they hit areas previously burned in a controlled manner.

But controlled burning isn’t a great option within the rural subdivisions now present in many forests. Thus many advocate for other kinds of treatment, ranging from wholesale clearcutting to selective logging to mechanical thinning of understory (to…raking???). One study recently highlighted in a CNN op-ed concluded rather strongly that more heavily managed forests are forests that burn more intensely–the opposite of what is usually claimed.  And GG can attest to how mundane it can be to encounter a natural wildfire in the unmanaged backcountry, having hiked through or right next to such fires on at least three occasions. But there are confounding factors in play, some of which are noted in the study. Certainly one is ignition: wilderness areas usually see fires starting from lightning strikes.  Such fires occur under conditions less apt to drive monster fires: the forest has often been wetted, and long periods of strong, dry winds are less likely. In contrast, managed forests are in more heavily used areas where neglected campfires, power lines, driving over dry grass, and sparks from machinery or gunfire are capable of starting a fire when strong, dry winds are present.

[As an aside, the above is all in reference to forests; Southern California chaparral is nearly immune to controlled burning, and unlike the forests, any such burning would leave the ground bare and hydrophobic. Chaparral is a whole different ballgame.]

What remains disturbing to GG in the forestry studies he’s perused is that the assumption remains that “pre-settlement” (apparently the currently favored term for c. 1840s western U.S.) is equal to “natural”. In some places, this will prove true, but in the Sierra foothills it is almost certainly a false equivalence. Pretending that Native American management was “natural” is likely to lead to poor decision making.  Better if land mangers simply sought to restore pre-settlement fire frequency and intensity rather than assuming it was natural. The reality is that many of the places most at risk in the Sierra foothills were occupied by people who had many generations of experience in burning the landscape. We might just want to recognize that as, in some instances, their management goals might not match ours, but when they do, odds are pretty good that their management schemes would be a good place to start.


One wonders whether there will be payback down the road for the dismantling of the scientific advisory system in the federal government.  This game can be played both ways, after all.  A liberal administration could decide to punish industries with expensive, unrealistic and ineffective restrictions by avoiding scientific review under the guise of reducing pollution.

But that’s for another day (or an alternate universe).  More recently we have the former employee of a major coal lobbyist now disbanding the science panels reviewing particulate pollution limits. Particulate pollution is, of course, a rather prominent part of pollution from burning coal. And particulate pollution is increasingly seen to have an important impact on human health. So who will oversee this aspect of pollution science now? An oversight panel that, as one member of the disbanded science advisory panel told Greenwire, consolidates input “to a small, and in some cases unqualified, group of individuals, and ultimately opens EPA up to the charge that it is politics, not science, that is driving this new policy.”

Um, you think? This from folks involved in a failed lawsuit to dismantle the existing regulations? Naaah….

Again, science advisory panels tell administrators what the state of the science is. That opponents choose to oppose this scientific input not by refuting the science but by silencing the scientists is an extraordinarily shortsighted approach to government regulation. But then we’ve said that before…and before…and before. With the public’s focus on such trivia as the heritage of a member of Congress and the antics of a rapper in the Oval Office, you get the feeling that the bread and circuses approach to governing works well for those with an active but probably unpopular agenda.

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.