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On The Necessity of Geology

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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There is an urgent need for talking and teaching geology.

Many people don’t know it. They think geology is rocks, but if they’re not rock aficionados, it’s nothing to do with them. So our K-12 schools inadequately teach the earth sciences (pdf). People don’t learn about geology, and they grow up to move to hazardous areas without being aware of the risks. They grow into politicians who feel it’s smart to sneer at volcano monitoring. They become people who don’t understand what geologists can and cannot do, and imprison scientists who couldn’t predict the unpredictable.

 

L'Aquila, Abruzzo, Italy. A goverment's office disrupted by the 2009 earthquake. Image and caption courtesy The Wiz83 via Wikimedia Commons.

L'Aquila, Abruzzo, Italy. A goverment's office disrupted by the 2009 earthquake. Image and caption courtesy The Wiz83 via Wikimedia Commons.

So we need to talk geology, anywhere and everywhere we can.

A while ago at work, we got on the subject of earthquakes. I don’t remember how it happened, but suddenly, I was surrounded by a gaggle of people whilst I pulled up a diagram of the local subduction zone and delivered a mini-lecture on how it works.

You’d think such pontification would drive people away. It didn’t. They were riveted.

Cascadia Seismogenic Zone. Image courtesy R.D. Hyndman, Geological Survey of Canada.

Cascadia Seismogenic Zone. When it finally comes undone, the Pacific Northwest will experience catastrophe on a scale that will make Mount St. Helens look like a sneeze. Image courtesy R.D. Hyndman, Geological Survey of Canada.

Granted, it’s a fascinating subject. But there’s a huge amount of misinformation floating about in the aether. I had to do some gentle correction – and a bit of putting the fear of Cascadia into folks. It reminded me how critical it is to be aware of what’s going to hapen here – and how few people realize it.

One of my coworkers had vaguely heard that there was a dangerous fault that could lead to a big earthquake near Oregon. He didn’t realize Washington was also at risk – and we’re not ready for something so huge. Everyone I was speaking to looked extremely surprised when I told them we will get hit with a subduction zone earthquake on the order of the Tōhoku Earthquake that devastated Japan in March 2011 – and that we are far more vulnerable than Japan was, because we haven’t done what they have to prepare.

A close-up view of the ripped and twisted metal on a Japanese dock that washed ashore at Agate Beach, OR. The March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami ripped this 47 ton concrete and metal structure from its moorings and sent it to sea. It floated across the Pacific to land in Oregon over a year later. Author's photo.

A close-up view of the ripped and twisted metal on a Japanese dock that washed ashore at Agate Beach, OR. The March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami ripped this 47 ton concrete and metal structure from its moorings and sent it to sea. It floated across the Pacific to land in Oregon over a year later. Author's photo.

That’s when the fear started. It’s a healthy fear, a realistic one I wish more citizens shared. We don’t need paralyzing fear, but the galvanizing kind, the kind that forces us to get informed and do what it takes to prepare for the inevitable.

We discussed some of the risk we’d face here in our particular corner of the Seattle area. We’re far enough inland and high enough in elevation that we won’t have to worry about being washed away by a tsunami. But some folks were under the impression we’d be safe from earthquake damage here. That’s not true. We won’t suffer the worst of it, unlike the coast, but a look at the shake map shows we’re going to get a shaking strong enough to cause damage; we’ll experience several minutes of severe shaking, and those earthquake waves have a terrible potential to get trapped and amplified by the basin we’re in, making that shaking worse. We are going to get hit: that’s a certainty (pdf). It could be today, tomorrow, months or years, but the Cascadia subduction zone will eventually slip catastrophically. And many of the residents don’t even know it’s there. Most of our emergency services aren’t prepared for an event of that magnitude (pdf). They don’t realize that “The Big One” isn’t going to be a single event, but a series of severe shocks that could go on for years after the 9.0. Ignorance of geology will lead to a greater catastrophe, because we didn’t know enough to prepare our cities against seismic threats.

Looking toward shore on Agate Beach, it becomes obvious we haven't prepared for the 9. Note the shiny new hotel nestled right in the low point of the tsunami hazard zone. This is why we need to talk geology: so that people don't risk their lives and fortunes by building in the path of inevitable destruction. Author photo.

Looking toward shore on Agate Beach, it becomes obvious we haven't prepared for the 9. Note the shiny new hotel nestled right in the low point of the tsunami hazard zone. This is why we need to talk geology: so that people don't risk their lives and fortunes by building in the path of inevitable destruction. Author photo.

Ordinary people who are not rock-obsessed have a need for geology. It’s a necessity, not a luxury. Here’s what a basic knowledge of geology can do for a person:

Those of us who know geology need to talk about it, write about it, wax lyrical over it and fight for it. And for those of us who’ve given it short shrift in the past, it’s time to reassess our relationship to the rocks beneath our feet. It’s never been more important than now.

USGS National Seismogenic Hazard Map. Image courtesy USGS.

USGS National Seismogenic Hazard Map. Image courtesy USGS.

Dana Hunter About the Author: Dana Hunter is a science blogger, SF writer, and geology addict whose home away from SciAm is En Tequila Es Verdad. Follow her on Twitter: @dhunterauthor. Follow on Twitter @dhunterauthor.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. lrickard 8:35 am 03/21/2013

    I’m not a geologist, but have taught it as part of Natural Science. I found that the greatest interest was when talking about local features. Fortunately, Albuquerque is in a rift valley, so it’s quite interesting. I think that we need to have individual universities encourage their geology faculty to do public outreach focused on their local geological structures. But they need to be encouraged to take the time away from research to do it. Universities and professions need better ways to provide incentives for public outreach.

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  2. 2. Malachite 10:11 am 03/21/2013

    Great post, thanks!

    New curiosity: what the heck is that danger zone where Missouri meets Tennessee? (I’m not from the US, if this is a dumb question please don’t laugh too loudly!)

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  3. 3. icifuentes 11:27 am 03/21/2013

    People in Seattle not only need to worry about the magnitude 9 earthquake but also the magnitude 7′s which are closer. These can cause a lot of damage and injuries (possibly deaths). Children in Seattle schools need to learn that they live on a plate boundary and what that means. They also need to learn what they can do to protect themselves and their families.

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  4. 4. MHerod 11:31 am 03/21/2013

    Great article Dana and your point is well illustrated by the natural disaster angle! This is why geologists not only should, but have a responsibility to communicate with the public. Your article also illustrates how important it is to blog about geoscience and actively take part in science outreach with schools. As members of the geoscience community we need to act to fill the gap in geology education that appears to exist across North America. It certainly does in Canada as well, where the last/only time our citizens learn about geology is Grade 4!

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  5. 5. Geotripper 12:33 pm 03/21/2013

    Exactly! Excellent post, should be required reading for politicians especially.

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  6. 6. DanaHunter 4:46 pm 03/21/2013

    Thank you for the kind words, all! Much appreciated, and I’m grateful to see so many people willing to talk geology. (Also, everyone, pay attention to icifuentes: Seattle does indeed have faults. I’ll try to get a post up on that soon!)

    I’ve answered Malachite’s excellent question here: http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/rosetta-stones/2013/03/21/danger-zone-the-new-madrid-seismic-zone/

    Again, thank you. I don’t often have a chance to join you in comments, but I read and appreciate each one. You inspire me!

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  7. 7. Geotripper 5:25 pm 03/21/2013

    Malachite, the danger zone in Missouri and Tennessee is the site of the New Madrid earthquakes of 1811-12, in which three magnitude 7.5-7.8 quakes happened in a period of two weeks.

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