Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Huge Quake in Next 30 Years

Okay, so where have we heard this one before?

Every so often the seismic scientific community crawls out of its cave deep under Cal Poly, blinks up at the sun, and pronounces that California is in Big Trouble. The "Big One" is gonna hit. Soon. Next thirty years, tops.

We've been hearing this for at least the last thirty years.

I'm not mocking the seismologists, you understand. No one knows better than Woody that we live in a hot quake zone. It also has not eluded Woody that the ability to accurately predict quakes in any region of the world is still a lot more guess work than actual scientific ability. Predictions of this nature are like self-fulfilling prophecies. It's easy to say that California will have a huge earthquake because California has had them before. The seismologists look for patterns that are verifiable. They point to the recent swarm of quakes off the coast of Oregon and note that this is "unusual" activity. "Something" must be happening, but they can't pinpoint just what that something may be. Couple of plates getting a little too snug, I guess, and need to release some energy. Instant swarm.

The highly unpredictable nature of tectonic activity puts the seismologists in a bad spot, really. People have this unreasonable need for predictions. We want plenty of warning if a hurricane is going to hit our house so we have time to put up the shutters, buy plywood to cover our doors, buy water at the store before it runs out. Anything but actually MOVE OUT OF A HURRICANE ZONE. Likewise earthquakes. We seem to want warning, even though we have never, in thousands of years of trying, been able to figure out how to get warning. People who watch their animals for unusual activity seem to have the best record so far, but animals only give you a few minutes' worth of warning. Barely enough to get out of the house in most cases.

So we pound on scientists when they fail to warn us adequately. When those tsunamis hit several years ago (has it been that long already??) the scientific community was ridden out of town on a virtual rail. How could they have failed to give fair warning that such an event was about to strike? Only after long, hard debriefs did we discover that there were multiple errors along every step of that process. Warning was given, but the ability to disseminate that warning was seriously lacking. Then there were those who willingly chose to ignore what warning they were given, especially if that warning came from a local shaman who'd been reading the signs and knew they were in trouble. Those who listened to the shaman lived to grieve over those who didn't.

In response to our unreasoning need, the scientists in turn stick their fingers in their mouths, hold them up in the air, then predict that a quake will hit "with 99% probability" in the next thirty years. A big one, mind you. At least 6.7 on the scale. If you want a bigger one — say, 7.5 or more — we have to lower the probability to only about 46%. Sorry.

About all this accomplishes is giving the Talking News Heads something to justify their Frowny Faces. They will gleefully regurgitate this particular Dire Warning over and over for the next several days, all the while hiding their glee with a masterful combination of acting school and enough makeup to make their faces permanently stiff. "Look concerned," they say in acting school, "but don't forget that little ironic half-smile at the end of your report."

Look, let's get real. We live in California. There are (and always have been) earthquakes in California. We have tremendous things going for us in this state. We have miles of beaches. We have fabulous weather most of the time. It doesn't rain much, generally, and we occasionally get those Santa Ana winds that make us wonder if St. Anne had digestive trouble. Enough to cause 75 MPH wind, at any rate. Still, it's a beautiful state. Unless you don't like desert. If you don't like desert, stay north of, say, Monterey.

California also has its dangerous side. We have lots of gangs here. Freeway shootings ebb and wane, and seem to be ebbing at the moment. We have Nancy Pelosi and Barbara Boxer, not to mention Berkeley. We also have numerous tectonic faults (as opposed to our political ones). They run up, down, and across the state in nearly every valley or plain. The San Andreas is the best known of these, and seems to be a contributor to most of the others. (Andrew, it must be noted, was a fisherman. No idea how he came to be associated with an earthquake fault.)

People driving into California should be presented with this sign at our borders:
Welcome to California

We have earthquakes. Be prepared.

There will be no warning.
The point is, if you live in California, be prepared for a quake. If you really want to be prepared, prepare for the Big One. The one that will finally allow the scientists to say "toldja so!" The one that will finally convert San Bernardino into beach-front property. Otherwise, don't act surprised and get all bent out of shape when the next quake hits and you want to whine about never having been warned.

Consider this your warning. Sometime in the next thirty years.

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