CVIndependent

Fri12132019

Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

At 8:29 a.m. on Nov. 30, part of the rock slab underneath the water 7 miles north of Anchorage, Alaska, shifted, causing a magnitude 7 earthquake. As Anchorage was preparing for the day, the quake ripped apart roads, shattered windows and ruptured water and gas lines in and around the city. While officials are still assessing the damage, the biggest impacts appear to be to infrastructure—there were no reports of deaths caused by the quake.

The response to such an event is extensive and wide-ranging: Across the globe, seismometers—instruments that measure tiny ground movements—recorded the earthquake’s signals. Scientists at the Alaska Earthquake Center and elsewhere started piecing together what happened and monitoring the hundreds of aftershocks that followed. Federal officials briefly issued a warning for a tsunami, until the danger passed. Later in the day, the Federal Emergency Management Agency helped coordinate disaster relief efforts, such as opening up shelters for Anchorage residents displaced from their homes.

In some areas, the earthquake caused the ground to liquefy and flow out from underneath roadways, collapsing the pavement into jagged chunks. That process, called liquefaction, happens when a quake shakes earth saturated with groundwater and made of a less-rigid material than solid rock, like sand or mud.

“It’s very important for us to recognize what areas are prone to liquefaction so that we can either avoid building there, or engineer around it,” said Jackie Caplan-Auerbach, a geology professor at Western Washington University.

A federal program called the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program supports all of those activities and more. Last week, a bill reauthorizing the program—bolstering support for it in the future—landed on President Donald Trump’s desk after both the Senate and the House passed it.

The bill was co-sponsored by several Western lawmakers, including Sens. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. Congress’ explicit directive to fund the earthquake program expired in 2009; since then, lawmakers have been allocating money for it in a piecemeal fashion, year-by-year. The new bill authorizes Congress to spend millions of dollars over the next five years, including at least $30 million per year to a U.S. Geological Survey program responsible for monitoring earthquakes and developing an earthquake early warning system so sensitive that it could issue alerts to communities several seconds before they’re hit by strong shaking. The USGS is rolling out a prototype of the alert system this year, limited to California, Oregon and Washington.

The legislation also includes a few updates to the 1977 law that created the national earthquake program. One of the most significant revisions, said Michael West, the director of the Alaska Earthquake Center, is the explicit inclusion of tsunamis in federal earthquake assessments. That’s important, because in Alaska and the Pacific Northwest, tsunamis can be the most deadly impact of an earthquake: Of the 139 people who died because of a magnitude 9.2 earthquake in Alaska in 1964, 124 were killed by tsunamis.

“If you’re leaving out the tsunami risk, you are short-selling those areas,” West said.

The relatively small impact of Friday’s earthquake stems from a history of preparation: Experts praised Anchorage’s building codes, which were bolstered after the 1964 quake, for the lack of widespread building collapse. Still, the region sustained extensive damage to infrastructure and roads, which the USGS estimates could cost tens to hundreds of millions of dollars to fix.

Alaska will still be dealing with the aftermath of the quake—and preparing for the next one—long after the attention of the nation and its lawmakers has moved on.

“That’s where legislation helps,” West said. “It says, ‘Hey, let’s keep this on the radar so we’re ready, or as prepared as we can be.’”

Emily Benson is an assistant editor at High Country News, where this piece first appeared.

Published in National/International

In 2015, Kathryn Schulz, a writer at The New Yorker, published “The Really Big One,” a meticulous evocation of the oceanic earthquake that will someday drown the Pacific Northwest beneath a tsunami.

I lived in Seattle then, and the quake was all anyone talked about: at coffee shops, in elevators, on buses. Many articles and books had been written about the coming 9.0, but Schulz’s Pulitzer-winning story was the first to grab the slumbering Northwest by the shoulders and shake it awake—until, that is, the news cycle shifted; people got on with their lives; and earthquakes receded again in society’s consciousness.

Earthquakes, writes another Kathryn—Kathryn Miles—in her new book, Quakeland, are our most confounding natural disaster. We can watch hurricanes spinning in the Atlantic weeks before they land; we usually detect the rumbling of volcanoes months pre-eruption. Earthquakes, though, often provide no warning at all. Our grasp of what triggers them is tenuous; we are flying blind when it comes to predicting them. Hence the complacency: Why stress the incomprehensible? “How could we know so little about our planet and the risks it poses to all of us?” Miles asks.

Quakeland is a sprawling, painstaking attempt to answer that question. The author travels the country, from quake-overdue New York City to Yellowstone National Park, whose slumbering caldera, if we’re lucky, will hold off on annihilating us for a few more millennia. She is primarily concerned with how various sectors—schools, hospitals, oil tank farms—are preparing, or failing to prepare, for Big Ones in their own backyards. No facility goes untoured: Miles descends into an Idaho silver mine, wanders the bowels of the Hoover Dam, and visits the Berkeley seismology lab where researchers are designing quake warning systems for your phone.

You can’t write a book about quakes, of course, without dwelling on California. The San Andreas Fault, which we all know passes right through the northern Coachella Valley, plays a starring role in Quakeland. Miles wanders West Hollywood with an engineer who exposes alarming construction vulnerabilities. (Wood, counter-intuitively, is more resilient than stone or concrete, which “tends to explode.”)

But it’s the obscure hot spots—the intraplate faults, far from the junctions of colliding tectonic masses—that seem scariest, precisely because we’re so ill prepared for their rupture.

Salt Lake City overlays the Wasatch Fault Zone, where a 7.0 would be catastrophic: The region could expect 2,000 deaths, 9,000 injuries and 200,000 rendered homeless. Miles is ruthlessly pragmatic about the attendant logistical nightmares: “How would (building) inspectors get into a city whose highways and runways had crumbled? … How would the city get its dead and injured out?”

We’re not just unready for disaster—we’re exacerbating the risk. Miles is especially concerned about induced seismicity, earthquakes caused by human industry, particularly the injection of fracking wastewater into the ground. The phenomenon’s epicenter is Oklahoma, which went from one of the least seismically active states to the most active after a drilling boom. Agencies, beholden to industry, denied the connection until the evidence became irrefutable; other states still skirt the problem. The debate uncannily resembles the conflict over climate change: Fossil-fuel interests exploit uncertainty about the magnitude of the problem to justify inaction—never mind the overwhelming scientific consensus about the threat’s reality.

Occasionally, Miles’ reporting is so thorough it’s exhausting: I have no doubt that a Southeastern quake would cause headaches for FedEx’s Memphis headquarters, but I’m not sure I needed a chapter to belabor the point. In leaving no seismic stone unturned, though, Quakeland discovers alarming Achilles’ heels in our infrastructure and emergency systems. That at least 30 faults underpin Nevada’s Yucca Mountain does not make me feel more comfortable about someday storing nuclear waste there.

Fortunately, there are success stories as well as potential apocalypses. Though most Northwesterners may have again forgotten that they live in a future flood zone, disaster managers have not. Near Quakeland’s end, Miles visits a school in Westport, Wash., that constructed a $2 million rooftop tsunami shelter. No grim detail had been overlooked: “Surrounding the platform is a 6-foot-high parapet … mostly to protect the kids from witnessing the devastation.”

Quake preparedness is partly a matter of personal responsibility—but it’s something every Coachella Valley resident should heed: Stock an emergency kit with food, water and warm clothes today. Mostly, though, it’s a public policy problem. We must invest in modernizing bridges and developing early warning systems; retrofit our schools and hospitals; and advocate for regulations to reduce induced seismicity.

Gearing up for inevitable earthquakes won’t be easy, and it won’t be cheap—but we can’t bear the cost of doing nothing.

Ben Goldfarb is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News, where this piece first appeared.

Published in Community Voices

It's nobody's fault that the Coachella Valley happens to sit on top of the San Andreas Fault. Experts believe we're overdue for the Big One, which would cause a lot of shaking and baking here in the desert.

When it comes to natural disasters, people in other parts of the country have time to prepare, as meteorologists can issue warnings as a storm approaches the area.

In the case of earthquakes, however, you never know when one is going to hit. Some scientists believe there are subtle changes happening underground just prior to a quake, and special devices are being developed in an effort to create an early warning system, giving residents a precious few extra seconds to get out of harm's way. But until these devices are ready to be implemented, there are alternatives we could use to warn us of impending disaster.

The most difficult issue is determining whether the shaking is going to be a small temblor or a major earthquake. The best way to make that distinction is to find a person who can tell the difference between a false alarm and a big deal. The only person who fits that description would be Vice President Joe Biden. Using Biden for this purpose would involve moving his office to the Coachella Valley, of course.

If the shaking becomes strong, Biden would get on a loudspeaker and yell, "This is a big f---in' deal!" That would allow residents to take shelter immediately.

People who study earthquakes are familiar with P-waves, or primary waves, and S-waves, or secondary waves. Under the Biden System, a new F-wave would be added.

Another method we could use to warn us of earthquakes would be to study animal behavior. Most people have heard stories about how animals act unusually before a quake hits.

P-waves travel faster than S-waves, which are the ones that cause damage during an earthquake. Some animals can detect P-waves 60 to 90 seconds before the shaking starts. In the case of dogs, we could utilize their unique pee-wave warning system: If a dog begins to pee uncontrollably, that would be a good indication that a quake is on its way.

Another solution would be to distribute wild animals to every household in the Coachella Valley. Scientists have noticed that elephants move to higher ground before any shaking happens. If a resident wakes up to find an elephant on the roof of the house, it would be a good idea to take shelter.

Of course, there will always be people who prefer to be warned the traditional way, by watching the Emergency Alert System on their local TV station. Here in the Coachella Valley, we're very fortunate that tuning into almost any station will provide us with just about the same information: For example, KESQ Channel 3 and CBS Local 2 use a similar script for both of their newscasts. If a viewer tunes in to either channel and sees footage of Biden dropping an F-bomb, or an elephant stuck on a roof, they would know an earthquake is just moments away.

Watching these two channels would be a huge advantage over watching NBC affiliate KMIR Channel 6. Most scientific news is reported by meteorologists, and KMIR's weather reports are pre-recorded from Las Vegas. You can always tell if an earthquake is happening "Right Here, Right Now" (KMIR's slogan) if you see the ceiling of the studio cave in on the weather forecaster's head on KESQ or CBS Local 2.

So, remember, if you want to survive the Big One, make sure your canned goods have a long continental shelf life before you serve them on your tectonic plate. After all, we're all in the same boat, which would come in handy in case California falls into the ocean. "Better get ready to tie up the boat in Idaho," as the song says.

Published in Humor

Well, as we all know, there was an earthquake this morning. It was a magnitude 5.2, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Or maybe it was a swarm of 5.1 quakes. Ooops, just one 4.6.

We'll get back to you when the USGS finally makes up their mind.

After we checked for damage to Independent World Headquarters (and there was none, save one somewhat frazzled cat), we did what any modern journalists would do: We got on Twitter to see what was going on.

Scroll down to see what we found.

Published in Local Issues