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14 July 2015


The New Yorker piece on the Cascadia Subduction Zone, provocatively titled "The Earthquake That Will Devastate Seattle," sent tremors through the Internet recently. (Oh yes, I will make all the quake puns I want, thank you very much.)

It also happens to be a pile of hot street trash doing irresponsible things with some actual facts, but this is the New Yorker and they spell cooperation as "coöperation" so they're obviously untrustworthy.

Who does the New Yorker talk to?
  • Chris Goldfinger, a paleoseismologist at OSU
  • Kenneth Murphy, director of FEMA for the Oregon-Washington-Idaho-Alaska region
  • Jay Wilson, chair of the Oregon Seismic Safety Policy Advisory Commission
  • Ian Madin, director of Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries 
  • Kevin Cupples, city planner for Seaside, OR 
  • Doug Dougherty, superintendent of schools for Seaside
That's six sources, two of whom are people whose freaking jobs involve planning for the absolute worst, one government guy, and two from an Oregon town of fewer than seven thousand which, to be fair, is totally done for in a oceanic quake situation. That leaves one scientist. Given that the Pacific Northwest is like Disneyland for geologists of all stripes, just one scientist interview is rather shameful. Maybe other seismologists weren't as willing to sign on to such East Coast hyperbole. But we can't be sure, because, you know, they weren't interviewed.

Also, side note: Can we take some dark amusement in the fact that the title is called "The Earthquake That Will Devastate Seattle" and the main disaster-porn concerns the Emerald (and earthquake-vulnerable) City, yet pretty much all of the actual reporting was done in Oregon? Maybe the New Yorker thought that people would too easily confused Portland, OR with Portland, ME? (Side side note, great job using a silent letter in the postal code, guys! Jeez.)

Maybe some actual quotes will be illustrative (emphasis mine):
When the Cascadia earthquake begins, there will be, instead, a cacophony of barking dogs and a long, suspended, what-was-that moment before the surface waves arrive. Surface waves are slower, lower-frequency waves that move the ground both up and down and side to side: the shaking, starting in earnest.

Soon after that shaking begins, the electrical grid will fail, likely everywhere west of the Cascades and possibly well beyond. If it happens at night, the ensuing catastrophe will unfold in darkness. In theory, those who are at home when it hits should be safest; it is easy and relatively inexpensive to seismically safeguard a private dwelling. But, lulled into nonchalance by their seemingly benign environment, most people in the Pacific Northwest have not done so. That nonchalance will shatter instantly. So will everything made of glass.
Lots of "will," not much in the way of evidence. Some lip service is paid, after the narrative, of course, to FEMA, whose simulations apparently formed the foundation for this story. Nothing about error bars, of course; there's just some weirdness about statistics here:
It is possible to quibble with that number. Recurrence intervals are averages, and averages are tricky: ten is the average of nine and eleven, but also of eighteen and two. It is not possible, however, to dispute the scale of the problem.
I'm pretty sure seismological predictions are calibrated a bit better than that; instead of stupid kindergarten facts, I would have been interested to know some sources of uncertainty, for example. That's Goldfinger's area of research, he could have laid out some of the best evidence.

Moreover, the piece doesn't clarify any of the parameters of the FEMA simulation. As the New Yorker may or may not be aware, living back in the geologically-stable civilized world, the Earth is three-dimensional, so quakes happen at various depths and locations. There would be a big difference if a large quake happened in the northern or southern half of the CSZ, for example. As this FAQ from UC Santa Barbara explains:
Q: How does the depth of the earthquake effect the amount of damage?
A: The depth of the earthquake has a very strong effect on the amount of damage. The 1994 M6.7 Northridge earthquake started at a depth of about 18 km (12 miles) and ruptured up to a depth of 5 km (3 miles). It caused damaged estimated to be between $20 billion and $40 billion and killed about 60 people. In contrast, the 2001 M6.8 Nisqually earthquake near Seattle occurred at a depth of 51 km (33 miles). No one was killed and damage was on the order of a few $million. A large part of this difference was the greater depth of the 2001 earthquake.
Hey! I experienced the Nisqually quake! That'd make for a great real-world case study in the New Yorker piece...


...where is it...?
The Pacific Northwest sits squarely within the Ring of Fire. Off its coast, an oceanic plate is slipping beneath a continental one. Inland, the Cascade volcanoes mark the line where, far below, the Juan de Fuca plate is heating up and melting everything above it. In other words, the Cascadia subduction zone has, as Goldfinger put it, “all the right anatomical parts.” Yet not once in recorded history has it caused a major earthquake—or, for that matter, any quake to speak of. By contrast, other subduction zones produce major earthquakes occasionally and minor ones all the time: magnitude 5.0, magnitude 4.0, magnitude why are the neighbors moving their sofa at midnight.
What...? So Nisqually wasn't from the Juan de Fuca plate or the CSZ...?
 The Puget Sound area, where this earthquake occurred, is prone to deep earthquakes due to the Juan de Fuca tectonic plate's subduction under the North American Plate at 3.5 to 4.5 cm. a year[3] as part of the Cascadia subduction zone, which causes stress in the former as it sinks into the mantle. As an intraslab earthquake, it was produced by a change in volume as rock changed from one form to another. Similar significant earthquakes occurred in the same general region on April 29, 1965 (magnitude 6.5, depth 63 km (39 mi)), and April 13, 1949 (magnitude 7.1, depth 53 km (33 mi)).
Sigh. Needless to say, the Pacific Northwest experiences earthquakes at a good range of magnitudes with pretty decent frequency (especially during Seahawks home games). The Pacific Northwest Seismic Network even has a page for displaying recent earthquakes—Eugene, OR had a magnitude 4.2 quake on the Fourth of July!

It seems dishonest of the New Yorker to ignore these events. Maybe it was pedantry to leave out everything that didn't come from the actual faultline (i.e., everything that isn't the hasn't-happened-yet Very Big One), but that doesn't excuse spinning the whole story as "The Pacific Northwest hasn't had a quake in so long, they've forgotten what seismic events are," or more specifically:
You can spend a lifetime in many parts of the Northwest—several, in fact, if you had them to spend—and not feel so much as a quiver.
It's worth going on about the piss-poor disaster management plans in the region, which are maybe even more problematic since the Nisqually quake should have been a wake-up call, but come on. We do have little quakes! Quite a lot!

There's one other problem with this section, too: "Not once in recorded history has [the Juan de Fuca] plate caused a major earthquake," it says. But whose recorded history, because analysis of Japanese records was a crucial piece to figuring out how frequent major quakes are supposed to be in the first place! The piece even says so!
[T]he Japanese have kept track of [tsunamis] since at least 599 A.D. In that fourteen-hundred-year history, one incident has long stood out for its strangeness. On the eighth day of the twelfth month of the twelfth year of the Genroku era, a six-hundred-mile-long wave struck the coast, levelling homes, breaching a castle moat, and causing an accident at sea. The Japanese understood that tsunamis were the result of earthquakes, yet no one felt the ground shake before the Genroku event. The wave had no discernible origin.
Make a pedantic defense if you will, but this is recorded history of a seismological event, since (again, as it says right freakin' there) the Japanese knew that earthquakes cause tsunamis. On the other side of the Pacific we have a ghost forest, soil and rock, the oral history of Native peoples to round out the story of the mega-quake that, for lack of a better word, fucked up the Pacific coast in 1700 CE.

And now we come to the other bit of smugness about this whole thing: Native accounts. The Stranger, Seattle's local alternative press thingy, has a follow-up piece called "The Story of Cascadia's "Really Big One" Has a Lot to Do with Colonial Hubris," in which the author upbraids white people for not taking Native oral history seriously:
As Schulz explains, the "discovery" of the CSZ's violent underpinnings just a few decades ago wasn't really a new discovery at all. Local tribes had been passing down accounts of earthquakes and tsunamis that rocked Cascadia for centuries. In that way, Schulz's story also shines a harsh spotlight on a major scientific blindspot: the aspect of the discipline that's consistently valued one type of knowledge (colonial) over another (indigenous). [...] Her story also goes to show that cultural ignorance, too, will have made Cascadia all the more vulnerable when the Really Big One hits.
I can't help but sense a flirtation with Noble Savage mythicism here: are Native Americans preternaturally gifted with superior risk-assessment reasoning? Or powers of prediction? The New Yorker adds this interesting note:
It does not speak well of European-Americans that such stories counted as evidence for a proposition only after that proposition had been proved.
Europeans and their colonial descendants have enough problems with their own stories-as-sufficient-evidence epistemology: big examples include UFO contact stories and, well, Christianity. Moreover, modern geological science is young (only slightly older than the theory of evolution), and the theory of plate tectonics is even younger (only really solidified in the 1960s). Though racism was almost certainly a factor in discounting tribal narratives, the stories alone constitute weak evidence at best.

The Stranger quotes one such account, as published in an article for the American Indian Cultural and Research Journal (emphasis the Stranger's):
An elder of the Cowichan people of the eastern coast of Vancouver Island, for example, told ethnographer Charles Hill-Tout that "in the days before the white man there was a great earthquake. It began about the middle of one night... threw down... houses and brought great masses of rock down from the mountains. One village was completely buried beneath a landslide."
Or this Hoh account, from that same journal article (titled "Finding Fault" because of course), which interpreted the event as a battle between Thunderbird and Whale:
My father . . . also told me that following the killing of this destroyer . . . there was a great storm and hail and flashes of lightning in the darkened, blackened sky and a great and crashing “thunder-noise” everywhere. He further stated that there was also a shaking, jumping up and trembling of the earth beneath, and a rolling up of the great  waters.
Compare to, say, 1 Samuel 14, specifically verse 15:
And there was trembling in the host, in the field, and among all the people: the garrison, and the spoilers, they also trembled, and the earth quaked: so it was a very great trembling.
Or, Acts 16 specifically verse 26:
And suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken: and immediately all the doors were opened, and every one's bands were loosed.
What makes any one of these accounts more weighty than others? Is it somehow shameful that "giant battling animal-spirits" or "a nighttime of prayer to God" don't actually do much explanatory work? Methodological naturalism isn't just a Western Enlightenment construct.

Comparison to UFO contactee reports may seem more flippant, but consider: Lots of people believe that an alien spaceship crash-landed in Roswell, NM in 1947, and that similar stories of unidentified craft or even abduction into such craft demonstrate that the United States is a hotbed of extraterrestrial activity. Without other sources of evidence (in particular, the kind of extraordinary evidence that would point unambiguously to "aliens" as the best explanation) they're nothing but stories.

Scientific investigation into Native accounts faces a different problem. It's not usually the case, as far as I know, that Native people claim that earthquakes are exclusively caused by Thunderbird and Whale and not by plate tectonics. But even in the best-case scenario of inter-cultural sensitivity, there are a lot of tribes, and a lot of stories in each tribe. Conducting geological surveys to corroborate all those stories is, well, expensive. So to a large extent we're looking at the general problem of basic science funding in America, and not necessarily "colonial hubris."

The portrayal of complacent scientists shocked by sudden events is somewhat amusing, too:
Although the CSZ had been identified soon after the rise of plate tectonic theory, most geologists imagined that it slipped slowly, evenly, and imperceptibly—essentially, they imagined that Cascadia was relatively safe. Then, in the 1980s, a series of events took place that challenged these basic assumptions.
If geological events are common, then it's not so unlikely that events will overtake theory, especially given that any theory that might actually predict such events (e.g., plate tectonics) is so young (e.g., only since the 60s or so).
Thus [in the verification of the 1700 Cascadia earthquake], interdisciplinary inquiry resuscitated, and ultimately vindicated, indigenous and local forms of knowledge while science, which in its literalism had hitherto been deficient in its ability to grasp the metaphorical meanings of Whale and Thunderbird, began to “catch up” with indigenous environmental knowledge.
I'm sure science, "in its literalism," can be forgiven for not realizing that Whale and Thunderbird were actually the Juan de Fuca and North American plates, respectively.

Look, one can talk about indigenous "forms of knowing" all day, but some forms correspond better to reality (and are therefore better knowledge) than others. In particular, the earthquake accounts say "there was a big, devastating earthquake here X generations ago" which is then corroborated by "literalist" scientific data: tree rings, seafloor deposits, and so on. Native stories do have a big role to play in public policy conversations! Human-impact stories are far more powerful than scientific models, as the New Yorker piece itself demonstrates, and so we should value the stories of people whose ancestors were here during those old disasters.

And indigenous people should be compensated for their knowledge, their cultural traditions leveraged for scientific data. The Stranger piece highlights a few really cool partnerships; I feel like this post should end on just that sort of high note:
New indigenous-scientific collaborations are taking root, particularly here in the Pacific Northwest. Just look at the US Geological Survey's seven-year partnership with the Salish Canoe Journey, in which tribal canoes traveling hundreds of miles are able to take snapshots of ocean health every 10 seconds with attached water quality monitors. In 2008, the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community won funding from the US Department of Health and Human Services to launch a two-year study of climate impacts on tribal resources. A year later, the journal Ecology and Society even cited a timeless, living document from the Heiltsuk First Nation in its study of grizzly bear migration throughout British Columbia.
 Yay cooperation! That oceanic study in particular sounds particularly inspired.
And just this past spring, the Puyallup Tribe of Indians bought the Seattle Cancer Treatment and Wellness Center and opened the "first tribal-owned cancer care center in Indian Country and the United States," offering treatment to all.
 Yay medicine...!
Treatments will be offered on an outpatient basis only and will combine traditional chemotherapy and other, alternative therapies.

“We have a strong ancestral bond with nature and creation,” Sterud stated in a news release announcing the center.

“We believe that natural healing through traditional roots, berries, herbs and traditional healing can blend with modern oncology practices. We are building upon traditional oncology — chemotherapy, radiation and other pharmaceutical treatments — with whole person integrative medicine, such as naturopathy, Native American treatments, acupuncture and Chinese medicine,” he said.

I'm afraid there's not yet a happy ending where public interaction with science is concerned.

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