The human race has so far survived the worst disasters our seismically active planet can deliver
Book review: Dr Lucy Jones examines natural disaster in 'The Big Ones'
United States Geological Survey seismologist Lucy Jones and her team of experts in 2007-2008 devised a project called ShakeOut, in which they created a severe earthquake that shook for 50 seconds the southernmost 321-kilometre length of the infamous San Andreas Fault, rippling the ground from the mountains north of Los Angeles all the way to the Mexican border. The purpose was to assess the vulnerability of neighbourhoods and major cities like LA in the face of such a calamity, and those same concerns animate Jones’s new book, The Big One: How Natural Disasters Have Shaped Us (and What We Can Do About Them).
In the interests of scholarly sobriety, Jones painted a conservative picture – the better to get practical minds thinking along practical lines. Her hypothetical event involved only a portion of the San Andreas Fault, and it involved the imagining of countless fires and many broken bridges and roads, the interruption of vital services and the medical infrastructure.
The Big Ones tells the story of a handful of other such calamities, like the eruption of Mount Vesuvius that buried the towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum, or the great earthquake of Lisbon in 1755, or the Tokyo-Yokohama earthquake of 1923, in which 80 per cent of Yokohama’s buildings were destroyed, 60 per cent of Tokyo’s population lost their homes, and at least 140,000 people died, and the great Tangshan earthquake in China in 1976 (subject of James Palmer’s excellent 2012 book Heaven Cracks, Earth Shakes), which was so embarrassing to the Chinese authorities that no foreigners were allowed into the city for five years after the earthquake.
The book’s ambit widens to include other disasters in addition to earthquakes – the ruinous flooding of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, for instance, gets a chapter in which Jones stresses the vagaries of public response and victim-blaming, pointing out how little time the city’s residents had to evacuate, and how few options they had, since a quarter of those in the crosshairs of the storm had no private transport and no means to flee in any case. Likewise, the book would scarcely be complete without a look at the 2017 Atlantic hurricane season, in which storm after huge storm hammered large population centres such as Puerto Rico and southern Florida.
But hurricanes and volcanos notwithstanding, The Big Ones is about earthquakes, the constant bane of any creatures living on a seismically active planet. Plate tectonics never sleep and never rest, Jones reminds her readers, pushing LA towards San Francisco “at the same rate your fingernails grow – almost two inches each year”.
Of all natural disasters, bad earthquakes are the most viscerally terrifying. A close lightning strike is over virtually the instant it begins; volcanic eruptions typically give visually dramatic warnings; forest fires and mudslides can be fled; simple hiding protocols can safeguard against almost all tornados.
But earthquakes happen without warning (“Only fools, charlatans, and liars predict earthquakes,” said Charles Richter, who gave his name to the earthquake-strength scale), and although Jones correctly writes that “destruction is difficult to quantify; terror is impossible to measure,” anybody who’s ever clung helplessly to a desk or a countertop while the entire world shook like a wet dog will have known what total and complete helplessness feels like. And as is made clear over and over in The Big Ones, major earthquakes bring two equally devastating calamities in their wake: aftershocks, which can often be powerful earthquakes in their own right, and tsunamis, massive walls of water triggered by seismic upheavals. In ordinary waves, the most active part of the water is the very crest; in tsunamis, the entire mass of the water is moving, often at incredible speeds. This is a major threat for two main reasons: first, an enormous proportion of humanity is vulnerable – cities, farmlands, and, infamously, nuclear power plants, stand on floodplains all over the world – and second, the vast majority of those vulnerable buildings and cities have little in the way of resilient architecture, thoughtful alternative energy and medical services, or evacuation-savvy inhabitants.
“Knowledge of tsunamis has never been more prevalent,” Jones writes, “the word tsunami means considerably more to us than it did even twenty years ago.”
But there is still a great deal of work to be done and a great mass of complacent thinking to overcome. Preparedness will be key. This becomes especially crucial considering the sobering fact that Jones’s own ShakeOut scenario is far from the worst that could happen.
The San Andreas Fault gets the headlines and appears in movies starring Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, but 112 kilometres off the West Coast of the United States is the Cascadia Subduction Zone, where two rough sheets of the Earth’s crust are steadily abrading each other and are centuries overdue to release their pent-up energy in an earthquake of near-apocalyptic strength, an event that would cause a tsunami that would race across the Pacific towards Hawaii and Japan – and drown largely unprepared cities such as Vancouver, Seattle and Portland.
There is no avoiding what waiting nightmares like the Cascadia will eventually do. But if enough readers pay heed to books like The Big Ones, we may all be able to live with the aftermath.