But when a larger earthquake does hit, the whole world sits up and listens. The Haiti earthquake in 2010 with 230,000 casualties, the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 killing up to 300,000 people, and the 2011 earthquake of Japan killing up to 16,000 people. All heartbreaking occurrences that have reshaped the wider discussion about how a global population moving upwards of 8 billion will be able to handle Mother Nature’s infrequent outbursts in the future.
There is a committed workforce of people out there including scientists, marshalls, and mayors that are constantly trying to improve response systems when that next disaster does take place.
One person that stands out amongst this group is world-renowned seismologist Dr. Lucy Jones, based out of California, she has devoted a lifetime studying the heartbeat of the ground underneath our feet. In her latest book The Big Ones, Dr. Jones outlines our frail history alongside these defining events from volcanoes to tsunamis, hurricanes, wildfires, and earthquakes. They all have the ability to change an entire nation forever, but through the work of Dr. Lucy Jones, our nations face a much more prepared secure future.
There seems to be a lot of misnomers out there in the global community about natural disasters. What would you say the biggest one is in general?
I think one of the great challenges – and this is what I talk about in my book – is that we are so afraid of the randomness, the fact that we don’t know when we’re going to get hit, that it keeps us thinking too much about the disaster at that one moment at which it happens. Because that’s the scary part. But to prevent the losses, we need to look at it beforehand, recognise our risk and plan around it.
Natural disasters are natural processes. They are an inevitable consequence of having rivers bring us water and oceans that give us transportation and volcanoes that give us good soil. I mean all of these natural disasters are part of the natural world. And so we need to consider it as that bigger process and plan properly. And we can’t do it if we’re too afraid of the moment. We need to pull back and see it in the bigger picture.
If you look at the last ten or fifteen years, you would be very pressed to find someone that wouldn’t think that natural disasters were becoming more common. Haiti, the Indian Ocean Tsunami, the Kashmir earthquake, the European heatwave. What is happening there?
Well, let me say how about 1976 Tangshan where three-quarters of a million people, or 1920 Haiyuan earthquake with 200,000 people. Yes, there’s one aspect of it that we’re seeing it more.
So, I have three answers. One is a large part of this globalisation and telecommunication allows us to have a more visceral, emotional connection to people going through disasters and therefore we’re much more aware of them. And this is actually a good thing because in any one location the disasters are infrequent enough, so it’s hard to get the energy to focus to prepare for them. By experiencing the loss on the other side of the world we do a better job of coming to grips with our own disasters.
That said there are two other factors that are at play. One is climate change, absolutely real, it means more heat in the atmosphere. Heat is the driver of storms and therefore meteorological disasters are becoming more common. Earthquakes are not. But the meteorological disasters are becoming more common.
Third, we are preferentially living in cities. And cities are complex engineering systems to support life. If you’re living out in a rural area and a big storm comes through and you lose your water and power and sewers, you can dig out half of your backyard and you can cope. It’s a disaster when you’re hit, it’s a catastrophe when millions of people go down at the same time and you stop functioning as a city.
The present and the increased population in cities increases the vulnerability. Because as I said you lose sewers in a modern city you can’t go digging out half of your backyard, you’ve got a public health nightmare on your hands.
Evacuees crowd the floor of the Astrodome in Houston on September 2, 2005, during hurricane Katrina.
But it feels like people want answers. I mean if you just look at what proceeded after hurricane Katrina, what do you think are some of the key constructs that created such an unbelievable disaster in that particular scenario?
If we look at Katrina there are several things at play. Yes, climate change is gradually making it worse, it’s difficult to say that any one storm is related to it. But there’s an ongoing process, because of our attempts over the last hundred years to control flooding on the Mississippi, we are creating a situation where the river itself is getting higher and everywhere around it is getting lower because without floods to redistribute the sediment, New Orleans now just becomes a bowl sitting below sea level. So we’ve created it through human intervention and not taking the big picture about how that happens.
We also have of course a lot of human failures that go on in Katrina, where an already existing system of corrupt government and really systemic racism created a situation where it became much harder to help people recover.
When I looked at the situation one of the things that really struck me was the degree to which we tried to blame the victims in Katrina. You know look at the breakdown of social order, why didn’t those people leave when they were told to leave? Well, 100,000 people didn’t own a car and they didn’t operate buses. But we wanted to blame them. And that’s part of this fear of randomness. If we can blame the victim, then we can say it won’t happen to me.
There’s a human drive to create patterns when faced with danger. To create a pattern that allows you to be safe. And if it’s fundamentally random and there really isn’t something that you can make safe, we make up things and blaming the victims is one of the approaches we take.
"Heat is the driver of storms and therefore meteorological disasters are becoming more common."
Dr. Lucy Jones on climate change and disasters
Countries like Indonesia apparently have 289 natural disasters every year of all different types and all different sizes costing thousands of lives, depending on their proximity to fault lines etc. What do you do in a situation where countries like Japan and Indonesia face so many to threats year after year?
Well, let’s look at Indonesia and Japan as an interesting comparison. Japan has a better economic foundation to operate. They also have a culture that says ‘this is really serious it’s coming all the time we’re going to deal with it’. They had a magnitude 9 that killed only 150 people.
Now the Tsunami killed more because it was so much bigger than expected but that’s an example that says if you say ‘this is inevitable we’ve got to plan for it’, you can build buildings that don’t fall down in earthquakes, you build railway systems that don’t derail. And so that is an option.
Both countries sit on plate boundaries and therefore are subject to the earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanoes that are part of sitting in a subduction zone. The rate of physical events is similar between the countries but the number of people dying is different and it’s due to both a better economic base on which to operate and then deciding to believe your scientists.
I remember when the Indian Ocean Tsunami happened, it terrified me. Do you think this was a watershed moment for all of us?
Right well, of course, earthquakes only produce tsunamis when they are underwater and change the shape of the seafloor, but that’s a large subset of the earthquakes.
I think that the Indian Ocean Tsunami in 2004 really changed the global discussion about disasters, and tsunamis even more so and I look at it as our first truly global disaster. Citizens from 50 different countries died in that event. One of the most astonishing features is that the Indian Ocean Tsunami killed more Swedish people than any other natural disaster in their history.
Dr. Lucy Jones after the 1992 Joshua Tree earthquake conducting interviews on live television. Photo credit: KNBC-TV.
Isn’t that strange.
Because so many of them were vacationing in Thailand.
So that’s a global disaster that touched everybody. And that’s this idea that we need to believe, we need to have an emotional story that connects us to the disasters to make it worthwhile investing ahead of time to prevent the losses. Because you know one of the reasons so many people died in that event is because they didn’t have a warning system and now they do, because of this they now do.
So, I’m a little bit confused here. Technology has a great way of allowing us insight into preparing for these horrific natural disasters. But you’re saying that if it’s just random distribution in most cases, are you saying there is absolutely no way we can tell when something will strike? Or haven’t made any inroads in that direction?
It depends upon the type of disaster but earthquakes are completely unpredictable, completely random. So we can predict hurricanes as they come in quite well, but whether this coming year is going to be a really intense hurricane season or a really light one there’s no way of really knowing beforehand. I can’t sit here in 2018 and say 2020 is going to be the bad hurricane year. I can say overall the rate is probably going up because we have more energy in the atmosphere.
So, when is a particular volcano going to erupt? Which generation gets hit by it? That’s completely random too and we hate that. Human beings are evolved to fear randomness. Random is the predator you can’t find. You want a pattern. And so we make up patterns even when they’re not there. And people believe scientists can predict earthquakes and we’re covering it up.
I know you went to college in Taiwan and worked in China, just going through the worse disasters in human history China is up there constantly, their fatality numbers are just astonishing. Why China all the time?
Because they have so many people. You know they lost 850,000 people in one earthquake in 1556. We didn’t have anywhere that had that many people in 1556. So a very large part of it is just the very large number of people.
That goes back to the idea that the more people we put into urban environments, into cities, the sooner we’re going to have the million dead earthquakes.
OK, so the million dead earthquakes you mentioned. We’re talking about India, somewhat undeveloped, and China, growing economically. Billion + countries in terms of population. Natural disaster plus x y z… God only knows what the kind of damage and casualty numbers would be like?
You know the thing is, every place you ever ask me I can say they’re probably better than they were and not as good as they should be.
And so I’m more familiar with what’s going on in China and of course, there’s really rapid modernisation that has made a big difference. But if you really want to prevent the dead in an earthquake you’ve got to build better buildings. And to build better buildings you need the technology to do so and you need to make sure that the developer who’s doing it actually implements those technologies and doesn’t cut corners.
That’s a compromise that seems to happen a little more often in China. You know you think of the Wenchuan earthquake, some of the buildings, well a lot of them, had been built to shabby standards and they had 80,000 dead in that earthquake in 2008.
I think all cultures face that challenge. We know how to do it, you’ve got to get that information there and you have to convince people that it’s worth investing in those better technologies.
"I think that the Indian Ocean Tsunami in 2004 really changed the global discussion about disasters, I look at it as our first truly global disaster."
But it feels like a zero-sum game in a sense because you’re always going to have casualties no matter what, you’re never going to be able to escape that.
It’s not a zero-sum game because you’ll always have some casualties but you can greatly reduce them.
In 1994 we had an earthquake here in California. The Northridge earthquake, 6.7 which isn’t all that large but it was directly underneath the city, there were at least half a million people that received extremely strong shaking, and 35 people died in the event. Our technologies to reduce death have come a long way and they were really working.
On the other hand, we had not historically put a lot of effort into preventing the financial losses and we had 40 billion dollars in losses. At the same time, only 35 died. So it shows that you can build to accomplishing things but you’ve got to decide it’s worthwhile.
So a lot of your work, at least as I understand, is built around the next big one taking place in California. Can you explain?
Well, that’s right, I think that since 1935 we have had building codes that have been trying to reduce deaths in earthquakes, and we estimate that even the really big earthquake on the San Andreas Fault run at about about 1,800 dead.
I think the places where we’re afraid of the really large human losses are depth cities that are not built to the modern technologies and having the faults run right through the city. Because one thing about earthquakes: a lot of people feel them, but the shaking dies off with intensity with distance really quite quickly, and so it’s when you put the fault through the city that it becomes much worse.
A 7.8 on the San Andreas which is just outside of Los Angeles, we estimate 1,800 dead but a 7.5 on a fault that lies underneath Los Angeles the estimate is 18,000 dead.
An Indonesian local surveying the damage to his community days after the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake. Photograph: Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images
How do you predict the 7s, 8s, and 9s? I mean what if the San Andreas Fault had a particularly bad day, and potentially tipped over 10.0, is that possible and what would happen?
No, it can’t. So the magnitude of an earthquake is telling you how long a piece of fault broke in the earthquake. To have a magnitude of 8, the fault needs to be over 400km long. To be a magnitude 9 it would have to be well beyond 1000km long. It’s not long enough to do it. So we do actually have a limit to how big the earthquakes can be.
So you’re using history as a predicated model for that assumption?
This is actually very very solid seismologic history and you know we’ve been recording earthquakes for a hundred years. In fact, the magnitude is defined by an equation. It’s the area that moves in the fault times how much one side slips past the other.
Can you just talk a little bit about Yellowstone? There’s a lot of hearsay around this potentially cataclysmic volcano. The fact that 60 million years was the last time it blew and its ready to go again.
Being 60 million years means it’s not a very active volcano. Yes, there is a hot spot there. As I worry about volcanoes in the United States, there are 169 active volcanoes in the United States and it’s not in the top half in terms of probability exploding.
It did 60 million years ago but that is long enough in geological time to mean you’re now in a pretty different tectonic setting.
"The more people we put into urban environments, into cities, the sooner we’re going to have the million dead earthquakes."
Dr. Lucy Jones on preparing for a denser future
OK, it seems like it causes a lot of drama when people talk about it for some reason.
I know, I don’t quite understand it. To be honest as a geologist I look at that and go, OK somebody wants to hype something. I think it’s because of the fact that we can document that there was this huge eruption at a time in the past, but it really tells us nothing about it happening now.
So what does ‘the next big one’ mean?
I mean ‘the big one’ obviously isn’t a technical term, I use it for my books, I say ‘The Big One’ is the name of my book because those are the really big disasters in a particular area that changed the nature of society, that’s the way I use it. It’s big enough to really change what you’re able to do.
So I look back and you know, the Lisbon earthquake in 1755 changed Portugal from a major colonial power to a minor country. The Laki eruption in Iceland killed a quarter of the population and destroyed essentially all the cropland.
So if you take that sort of definition, in the Pacific North West, we do know that there was a magnitude 9 in approximately 1700 and a place that’s had that 300 years ago that does tell you it’s likely to happen again, geology doesn’t change on that timescale. But it’s been a challenge for the Pacific North West because the geologists have been able to say look we did have this earthquake in the past, we’re going to have them in the future but they don’t have many small ones along the way. We get good laws changed here in California because we kill somebody in an earthquake, people remember it, it’s very traumatic, we get that change to happen. And the Pacific North West has had a much bigger challenge getting that accomplished.
When will California’s San Andreas faultline experience its next major shift?
So the alarm goes off, you’re in the Pacific North West region where the earthquake actually happens. Just take me through what the average person on the street should do.
Well, it does depend on where you’re located. So assuming you’re in Portland or Seattle, if you get the early warning, you’ve got to do something which doesn’t feel right to a lot of people which is to find a place to protect yourself close to where you are. Because trying to run in an earthquake is one of the most dangerous things you can do.
The most dangerous place to be in an earthquake is the outside of a building. If you’re inside and you try to run outside you put yourself through the most dangerous zone there is. We’re always seeing people die because they run out into the open during an earthquake. When you get to those bigger surfaces, what do you think being outside is going to do? You’re going to be at risk from all of the things falling down around you. You’re going to be safer staying in a building and trying to be under a table making sure that there is space around you if things indeed come down.
The other difference is if you are near the ocean, a tsunami is just a sudden increase in sea level, and therefore if you are 200 ft about sea level, you are not going to be hit by a tsunami that is less than 200 ft high and we’ve never seen a 200 ft tsunami. So one of the things that has happened is this fear of tsunamis that’s led to people being unduly anxious in areas that really can’t be hit by a tsunami. But if you are below 50ft elevation and you’re near the ocean, then as soon as it stops shaking you should be running for high ground.
How do you think we should be evaluating the future, how are we supposed to deal with the influx of constant meteorological disasters?
We have to stop adding carbon to the atmosphere as well as figuring out how to remove carbon from the atmosphere we’ve already put in. Otherwise, we’re just getting hotter and hotter and sea level is rising and the number of storms is increasing. Given that we don’t seem to be able to do that effectively, and it’s already now too late to stop it all, we have to be preparing for an increased rate of all of those disasters, hurricanes, floods, droughts, wildfires, tornadoes, extreme storms.
The Big Ones: How Natural Disasters Have Shaped Us (and What We Can Do about Them) is out on April 18th through Penguin.