On Shaky Ground

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The Book of the Week is “On Shaky Ground, An Invitation to Disaster” by John J. Nance, published in 1988. Prediction of earthquakes is an age-old issue that can be improved, if enough money and political support is thrown at it, in connection with studying the geologic, tectonic, volcanic and geophysical problems that crop up along fault lines.

Even in 1960 when a major earthquake hit Chile, there was disagreement among scientists over the behavior of underground structures. The opposing theories consisted of “steep vertical fault” and “shallow, sub-horizontal dip-slip fault.”

To that time, ivory-tower “experts” at Caltech relied on only seismograph data for ideas. In the coming decades, graduate students looked elsewhere to disprove the old theories. One young scientist personally, physically surveyed a large swath of the topography of the Alaskan countryside. His data disproved the steep vertical fault theory. Another graduate student became a pioneer in paleoseismology, which identify the substances piled up underground in an earthquake zone, showing how they changed and moved over the course of millennia.

In the early 1960’s, the U.S. government and military were the major employers in the city of Anchorage in Alaska. They were eager to urbanize the place, and construction was booming. They ignored a pesky report issued in 1961 by the U.S. Geological Survey warning that the city’s underground foundation– Bootlegger Cove Clay– would be unstable in the event of an earthquake. Building codes were lax on structural soundness.

Alas, a major earthquake hit the area in March of 1964. The epicenter was under Unakwik inlet in North Prince William Sound, ten miles from Valdez, Anchorage and Seward, Alaska. Many structures collapsed, including but far from limited to: docks, warehouses, a newly opened J.C. Penney store and a Four Seasons apartment building.

The underground clay became liquid, causing the location of oil, army and cannery docks, and railroad yards to shift many feet. Fortunately, there had been regulation of natural gas lines. They had been programmed to shut off in an emergency, and they did, preventing explosions and fires. However, wooden buildings swayed instead of collapsing, but they burned in fires when a Texaco fuel tank exploded.

As fate would have it, the Seismological Society of America happened to be holding its annual meeting in Seattle, on the campus of the University of Washington on that very day. But news of the disaster in those days took hours to reach them. As is well known, communications technology has come a long way since 1987, when there were different radio systems for Los Angeles’ more than one hundred and forty police and fire jurisdictions.

The seismic waves generated vibrations in numerous other places around the world. The quake’s severity was “off the charts” given the existing technology for measuring such activity. Four tsunamic waves spanning twelve thousand square miles of Alaska’s sea floor was felt as far away as Hawaii, and swamped Vancouver Island. Seward’s economy was ruined, as it was based on oil, fishing, import/export, railway transportation, and boating.

Sadly, human beings have short memories; possibly because they’ve become desensitized to cautionary tales. Greed eventually results in business as usual. Political candidates in at-risk communities are loath to spend precious campaign time on safety regulations– their donors benefit financially from disasters. In recent decades, American communities have become wise to the fact that they can always apply for federal aid when they are hit by a disaster (whose loss of life and property damage could have been minimized!).

Anyway, read the book to learn about additional disasters in China, California, Mexico, South Carolina, and much more about the science of earthquakes, and the mentalities of the people in connection therewith.