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Rosetta Stones

Rosetta Stones

Adventures in the good science of rock-breaking.

On The Necessity of Geology

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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.

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

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