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Don’t fall for the burning ring of fire

Author Simon Winchester has a piece in Newsweek under the terrifying subhed, "The tsunami that struck Japan was the third in a series of events that now put California at risk." I’ll give Winchester the benefit of the doubt and assume his editors got a little overexcited with the presentation, but still, he does seem ...

CHRIS WILKINS/AFP/Getty Images
CHRIS WILKINS/AFP/Getty Images

Author Simon Winchester has a piece in Newsweek under the terrifying subhed, "The tsunami that struck Japan was the third in a series of events that now put California at risk." I’ll give Winchester the benefit of the doubt and assume his editors got a little overexcited with the presentation, but still, he does seem to be making the dubious assumption that recent major quakes around the Pacific "Ring of Fire" mean that California is likely next:

Even more worrisome than geography and topography, though, is geological history. For this event cannot be viewed in isolation. There was a horrifically destructive Pacific earthquake in New Zealand on Feb. 22, and an even more violent magnitude-8.8 event in Chile almost exactly a year before. All three phenomena involved more or less the same family of circum-Pacific fault lines and plate boundaries—and though there is still no hard scientific evidence to explain why, there is little doubt now that earthquakes do tend to occur in clusters: a significant event on one side of a major tectonic plate is often—not invariably, but often enough to be noticeable—followed some weeks or months later by another on the plate’s far side. It is as though the earth becomes like a great brass bell, which when struck by an enormous hammer blow on one side sets to vibrating and ringing from all over. Now there have been catastrophic events at three corners of the Pacific Plate—one in the northwest, on Friday; one in the southwest, last month; one in the southeast, last year.

That leaves just one corner unaffected—the northeast. And the fault line in the northeast of the Pacific Plate is the San Andreas Fault, underpinning the city of San Francisco. All of which makes the geological community very apprehensive. All know that the San Andreas Fault is due to rupture one day—it last did so in 1906, and strains have built beneath it to a barely tolerable level. To rupture again, with unimaginable consequences for the millions who live above it, some triggering event has to occur. Now three events have occurred that might all be regarded as triggering events. There are in consequence a lot of thoughtful people in the American West who are very nervous indeed—wondering, as they often must do, whether the consent that permits them to inhabit so pleasant a place might be about to be withdrawn, sooner than they have supposed.

Whenever multiple geological catastrophes happen within a short period of time, questions are always raised about whether they are connected — though there’s little to no evidence to suggest that they are.

One member of the "geological community" I contacted, Professor Frank Spera of U.C. Santa Barbara, — who was also kind enough to help me with an explainer on this topic last year — called Winchester’s "four corners" thesis "pure speculation."

It’s a bit like dowsing for water. Almost any place one drills one will find some water. So to say that there will be a large ring of fire quake in next few years is a cheap prediction. There will be quakes, no doubt. But are they triggered by other quakes? That is a more open question.

The article also only seems to infer that the three high-profile quakes discuss are the only major events that have occurred recently on the ring of fire, suggesting a recent uptick in activity. In fact, geological activity in this region is the norm — hence the name — but earthquakes only get headlines when there are high body counts.

So, Winchester mentions the devastating Chile quake of Feb. 2010, which killed more than 500 people, but not the also-severe but less deadly quakes that hit the same country on March 11, 2010; March 16, 2010; July 14, 2010; January 2, 2011; Feb. 11, 2011; and Feb 14, 2011. All of these quakes were above 6.0 in magnitude but occurred either offshore or in sparsely populated regions — limiting international media coverage.

California is also hardly "unaffected" by recent geological activity. The U.S. Geological Survey has tracked at least seven quakes in the state or just offshore since the beginning of 2010, including an offshore 6.5 on January 10, 2010 and a 4.4 in the Bay Area three days before that.

So yes, the Pacific Rim is known for earthquakes and the risk of human catastrophe is always present when large numbers of humans live in geologically active areas. San Francisco is always at risk, as anyone who lived in the city in 1989, to say nothing of 1906, is already well aware. Preparedness is always a good idea, but suggesting that the city is biding its time as major earthquakes work their way around the Pacific in a circular, but non-periodic, fashion, seem pretty irresponsible.

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