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Will an Impending Earthquake "Devastate Seattle"? About That Terrifying New Yorker Article

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While seismology may seem to take us somewhat afield from our usual concerns at Evolution News & Views, the manipulation of science in the service of some unstated cultural or philosophical agenda is very much on topic. So I'll mention the science story of the month here in the Pacific Northwest. No, it's not Pluto. It is earthquakes and tsunamis, occasioned by a devastatingly vivid article in The New Yorker by Kathryn Schulz.

The Northwest indeed faces a very serious, off-coast subduction-zone earthquake threat, in the neighborhood of 9.0 in magnitude, that seems certain to powerfully impact life in this beautiful region of the country somewhere between one moment from now, and five hundred years. A quake of that size is referred to as "full-rip," which makes me think incongruously of a family friend of ours who was keen on knowing whose kids got into which colleges and on what kind of scholarship. Her often-repeated phrase for a full tuition scholarship was a "full-ride."

There's no way of telling when the Pacific Northwest will enjoy its full-ride, and that's part of what has scared people around here.

Including me. As a parent of small children, you are obliged to be ready for such things, and I admit I had not taken the need of emergency supplies and plans seriously up till now. The day Kathryn Schulz's article started lighting up social media, my local QFC supermarket experienced a run on gallon jugs of spring water. I bought the last seven.

With seven people in our household and an estimated requirement of one gallon per person per day for a minimum of a possible seven days of disrupted water supply, that means I need a total of 49 gallons. The storage problem alone is a challenge. That is leaving aside food, flashlights, first aid, and more.

So I'm glad Kathryn Schulz wrote her article, which has now been read I'm sure by every adult in Seattle and Portland who isn't high on legal pot half the time. But something in her tone made me suspicious that Ms. Schulz was maybe playing things up just a little for dramatic effect:

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. Anything indoors and unsecured will lurch across the floor or come crashing down: bookshelves, lamps, computers, cannisters of flour in the pantry. Refrigerators will walk out of kitchens, unplugging themselves and toppling over. Water heaters will fall and smash interior gas lines. Houses that are not bolted to their foundations will slide off -- or, rather, they will stay put, obeying inertia, while the foundations, together with the rest of the Northwest, jolt westward. Unmoored on the undulating ground, the homes will begin to collapse.

Without questioning her facts, everyone knows that a journalist can take a subject and a set of observations, interviews, notes, etc., and turn it one way or another depending on her inclination.

Schulz relied heavily on paleoseismologist Chris Goldfinger at Oregon State and, in her most widely quoted citation from an authority, Kenneth Murphy of FEMA who contributed the warning that in the wake of a mega-quake, our region will be "toast."

By the time the shaking has ceased and the tsunami has receded, the region will be unrecognizable. Kenneth Murphy, who directs FEMA's Region X, the division responsible for Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Alaska, says, "Our operating assumption is that everything west of Interstate 5 will be toast."

That's a striking choice of words. Since when does a Federal employee talk that way?

Soon after the article appeared, three local experts got together for a Reddit "Ask Me Anything" session. This made for an enlightening contrast. The experts included John Vidale, director of the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network, who also teaches at the University of Washington and is Washington State Seismologist. That's interesting -- Kathryn Schulz's article was titled "The Really Big One" and, alternatively on the New Yorker website, for a maximum fear factor, "The Earthquake That Will Devastate Seattle." And here is presumably the top earthquake expert in our state and either she didn't interview him, or if she did, she doesn't quote him. Why not? Not quite scary enough? Vidale's message, while not completely reassuring, is still clear:

Overall, it was a well-written and documented article. The scenario left an impression of much greater devastation than is anticipated to occur, however.

Regarding the comment about "toast":

Yes, you put your finger on the quote most easily taken out of context. Communications may black out, transportation may grind to a halt, stores conceivably could run out of goods for a while, but that doesn't constitute "toast" in one's mind. The speaker must have been referring to some aspect of those problems, not to smoking rubble.

Regarding the odds of seeing this thing happen:

If the chance it will come is 15%, the chance it won't come is 85% (if we're expecting to live another 50 years). However, there are plenty of "pretty big ones" to worry about as well, so you're overwhelming likely to see some action in the [Pacific Northwest].

Elsewhere he commented:

"The article had a lot of good information in it and there is a lot of real risk and a lot of preparation we need to do, but it was a little 'Hollywood' because it made it seem like it was going to be burning rubble if we had an earthquake," said Vidale.

Seattle readers also came away with the impression that a huge offshore earthquake would threaten them with being drowned by a tsunami. In fact no -- though Washington's sparsely populated Pacific coast would certainly be threatened. ("The tsunami from a coastal megaquake will be insignificant in Puget Sound.")

Other media outlets seemed eager to cash in on and even boost what was already a scary article. So while Kathryn Schulz estimated a tsunami as traveling some 14 mph or more, which is bad enough, a report for CBS This Morning piggybacking on her article and interviewing physicist Michio Kaku boosted the speed to 500 mph!

That 9.0-magnitude quake could trigger a 500 mph wave and put 70,000 people in the "inundation zone" in serious risk. Depending on their location within that zone, Kathryn Schulz writes in her article, people will have between 10 and 30 minutes to evacuate.

How do 70,000 people evacuate in such a short window?

"You can't," Kaku said.

It often seems that when it comes to reporting on the environment, there's more than a tinge of the author's worldview that comes into play. Kathryn Schulz herself writes at the end of her New Yorker article that earthquakes are a "parable" for other environmental concerns:

That problem is not specific to earthquakes, of course. The Cascadia situation, a calamity in its own right, is also a parable for this age of ecological reckoning, and the questions it raises are ones that we all now face. How should a society respond to a looming crisis of uncertain timing but of catastrophic proportions? How can it begin to right itself when its entire infrastructure and culture developed in a way that leaves it profoundly vulnerable to natural disaster?

Ah, now this is starting to come into focus. If you click through the byline for Ms. Schulz at The New Yorker you see, beside the photo of her with a sardonic half-smile, that she was formerly the editor of an environmental publication called Grist, which I'd never heard of. But the folks at Grist approve her message in the New Yorker article and added their own disturbing spin. In an article titled, "The good news about the earthquake that will destroy the Northwest," author Katie Herzog gives as her final reason for looking on the bright side:

7. Climate

The Pacific Northwest may be home to more hemp-wearing, compost-toileting tree-huggers than the rest of America, but we also use our fair share of resources (it takes a lot of electricity to keep these marijuana farms running). Thousands of fewer bodies to feed and homes to power can only be good for the climate. Yes, it's stressful to know that you're going to die in one of Seattle's 30,000 predicted landslides, but look on the bright side: The carbon footprint of your lifeless body sliding downhill is zero.

See? Even the continent's worst natural disaster has a silver lining. Granted, we may not be around to enjoy these perks, but as we were walking into the death zone that is downtown Seattle this morning, it was hard not to look at this beautiful, intact city -- Mount Rainier in the distance, a bright, cloudless sky above, Puget Sound waiting calmly in her bed -- and think: Well, if we've gotta die, it may as well be here.

Wesley Smith, call your office. So "thousands of fewer bodies to feed and homes to power" is a "perk," is it? While tongue in cheek, the underlying touch of anti-humanism here is hard to miss.

Seattle's vile alternative weekly, The Stranger, also greeted the article with excited posts ("The Five Scariest Takeaways From the New Yorker Article About the Earthquake That Will 'Devastate' Seattle"). Whereas the Washington Military Department was serious but reassuring:

"Don't be scared of earthquakes and tsunamis. Be informed, educated, prepared and then be confident that you are ready," said John Schelling, the Earthquake/Tsunami/Volcano Programs Manager for the Washington Emergency Management Division.

As I said, the same basic set of facts and comments from sources can furnish material for a writer either to seek to terrify readers, or to soberly inform them. The picture of the world you carry around in your head, of what nature is at bottom, what our place in the world is, likely will determine which course you choose.

Had someone asked our Discovery Institute colleague Michael Denton, for example, he might have pointed out that earthquakes are a byproduct of a very good thing -- the tectonic cycle that, along with the water cycle, is responsible for the continual refreshment "of the Earth's crustal material, including the many elements essential for life" (as he writes in Nature's Destiny: How the Laws of Biology Reveal Purpose in the Universe).

Evidence for design in nature comes from the Earth, the cosmos, and from life. Tectonic activity, Denton observes, for all its destructive power, is intimately tied up with the terrestrial evidence for ID. He observes:

The cosmos may be uniquely fit for life on earth, but this does not mean that it is so crafted to ensure that every individual living organism will exist in a nirvana-like state of absolute contentment and plenty.

That is a way of looking at convulsions in the earth's surface that is fully compatible with seeing our lives as reflecting purpose and meaning beyond ourselves. A certain materialist view, by contrast, would see only the destruction -- a vengeful Earth lashing out at puny, arrogant humans -- and relish it.

Image: � Oleksandr Dibrova / Dollar Photo Club.