Criminalizing Scientists for Inexact Earthquake Predictions

I thought litigation was out of control in America. In Italy, seems it’s even worse. They’re putting scientists on trial for failing to predict an earthquake.

Do you realize how hard it is to predict an earthquake? It’s impossible to predict exactly when “the big one” will it.

This will have a chilling effect on Italian scientists. Many of them won’t want to get into the business of predicting earthquakes. Those who do may overcompensate and over-predict them, leading to widespread evacuations, then turn out to be wrong. That could open them up to litigation for causing needless evacuations, and also bring on a boy-who-called-wolf effect, where a number of false alarms are sounded, then people don’t evacuate when the big one does happen.

Let’s hope they don’t start doing the same thing to scientists here.

Scorecard: Wacked-Out Earthquake Theories

Crazy theories about the Haitian earthquake. Right vs. left:

2 to 1 left.

Pat Robertson, Jan. 13: He said a “pact with the devil” by Haiti caused the quake.

Danny Glover, Jan 15: Global warming caused the earthquake.
Hugo Chavez, Jan 21: quake caused by secret U.S. weapon, which also triggers floods, droughts and hurricanes.

Two Centuries With No Quakes? That’s Nothing.

The earth hiccups, and humans die en masse.

Yes, a quake for mother earth is the equivalent to a hiccup or knuckle crack for a human. In the geologic scheme of things, pieces of the earth’s crust are constantly sliding toward, away, and past each other – just as natural for the earth as, say, you moving your arm from here to there. And just as sometimes you may feel a little crack in your elbow joint when you move your arm, sometimes there’s a crack when the pieces of the earth’s crust get a little stuck and then pop free. Looking at it from a geologic timeframe, the pops or earthquakes are a very routine and frequent occurrence for mother earth. If you were to watch a time lapse movement of the tectonic plates, there would be these constant little (for the earth) pops everywhere.

But humans are tiny compared with mother earth, so the pops shake us to our core. And our lives on this planet are so short compared with geologic time that what’s common and routine for the earth seem like rare and major events to us. So in most places around the world we don’t plan for them well.

In Haiti there hadn’t been a large earthquake in two centuries. That seems like eons to us humans, but it’s a brief flicker of time for the earth. It only represents a few feet of movement for the tectonic plates – again, tiny compared with the thousands of miles the plates move in geologic time.

So without a major quake in two centuries, we humans get complacent and carry on as if quakes are a thing of the past. We couldn’t be more wrong. Of course, the same applies to humans elsewhere on the earth – not just for quakes but all sorts of other geologic phenomena like volcanoes and tsunamis.

There were the great earthquakes of 1811-1812 centered near New Madrid, Missouri that shook most of the eastern U.S. (because it’s one big plate here – not broken into pieces like in the western U.S.). There even was damage as far away as Washington, D.C. Those of us in the East are complacent because that happened two centuries ago. But from the earth’s perspective it was just a few seconds ago. And at any second, the same thing could happen again.

Unlike in places like California where there are strict building codes to mitigate the impact of quakes, we in the East aren’t prepared, because we’ve become so complacent.

The other factor is population. Two centuries ago, both in Haiti and the eastern U.S., the population was tiny compared with now. The number of buildings, especially multi-story ones, were scant compared with now. Earthquakes were far less consequential back then. The population explosion over the last two centuries has really made us vulnerable to earthquakes – especially in third world countries like Haiti where population growth has been particularly fast and where the quality of buildings and infrastructure has been poor. Given that earthquakes are a sure thing – when not if – mass death in Haiti and elsewhere is a sure thing. When, not if.

But it’s only a sure thing when there’s no planning for earthquakes. There’ve got to be building codes and implementation thereof that result in high-enough quality structures and infrastructure so that earthquakes can be withstood.

Of course, in a desperately poor and underdeveloped place like Haiti and other third world locales, there’s not much room for optimism. To make the place earthquake proof you need economic development. How to achieve that in Haiti is the big question – certainly not enough room in this blog post to go into that now.

But at least we can learn the lesson here at home. No major quakes in the last two centuries here in the eastern U.S. isn’t saying much. Another major quake could happen at any time. Federal, state and local governments should revamp building codes to ensure that any new building is quake proof. And existing buildings should be evaluated.

Find out how earthquake proof the buildings are in which you live and work. If they fall short, then start rattling some cages.