The next mega-quake

[Still in terror of Methode software and worried that I’ll hit the wrong button and delete tomorrow’s entire newspaper.]

People in Japan are dealing with multiple horrific disasters, with life all the harder because of radiation scares and power outages -- plus aftershocks. Naturally they are worried about another Big One hitting any moment. One earthquake on a fault can potentially increase the strain on an adjacent fault and make another earthquake slightly more likely. But there’s no way to predict this. Anyone saying they can do so is a witch doctor. I’m told that there was a Doctor Disaster type person on Fox News predicting another mega-quake Saturday. Didn’t happen. Will people remember the failed prediction? No, but they’ll remember the wild guess that once in a blue moon turns out to be a lucky one and can claim to be prophecy.

Last week I did a spot on MSNBC and listened to the preceding guest, Simon Winchester, make some good points about our delicate existence on a tectonically active planet. Winchester wrote a book on the 1906 San Andreas Fault earthquake and obviously is well-informed on matters tectonic. But I am confused — to put it delicately — by Winchester’s contention that the event in Japan, combined with earthquakes in New Zealand and Chile, has ratcheted up the likelihood that the next Big One is going to be in the northeastern section of the Pacific Plate. He’s essentially pointing to a spot on the map — specifically, the San Andreas Fault — and saying this is where the next Big One is going to hit.

Winchester made this argument in the lead piece in Newsweek, which you can find under the absurd headline The Scariest Earthquake Is Yet To Come. Um, no, we don’t need to imagine something worse than what we just saw: This is scary enough, and maxes out the horror. The quake and tsunami very likely killed 20,000-plus people . Have you seen the videos? How is that not as scary as it gets???

Winchester’s Newsweek article has the subhed “The tsunami that struck Japan was the third in a series of events that now put California at risk.”

Well, that’s poppycock. I realize that Winchester doesn’t write the headlines. But that headline is pretty faithful to Winchester’s argument.

Here’s what he wrote:

“Even more worrisome than geography and topography, though, is geological history. For this event cannot be viewed in isolation. There was a horrifically destructive Pacific earthquake in New Zealand on Feb. 22, and an even more violent magnitude-8.8 event in Chile almost exactly a year before. All three phenomena involved more or less the same family of circum-Pacific fault lines and plate boundaries—and though there is still no hard scientific evidence to explain why, there is little doubt now that earthquakes do tend to occur in clusters: a significant event on one side of a major tectonic plate is often—not invariably, but often enough to be noticeable—followed some weeks or months later by another on the plate’s far side. It is as though the earth becomes like a great brass bell, which when struck by an enormous hammer blow on one side sets to vibrating and ringing from all over. Now there have been catastrophic events at three corners of the Pacific Plate—one in the northwest, on Friday; one in the southwest, last month; one in the southeast, last year.

“That leaves just one corner unaffected—the northeast. And the fault line in the northeast of the Pacific Plate is the San Andreas Fault, underpinning the city of San Francisco.

“All of which makes the geological community very apprehensive. All know that the San Andreas Fault is due to rupture one day—it last did so in 1906, and strains have built beneath it to a barely tolerable level. To rupture again, with unimaginable consequences for the millions who live above it, some triggering event has to occur. Now three events have occurred that might all be regarded as triggering events. There are in consequence a lot of thoughtful people in the American West who are very nervous indeed—wondering, as they often must do, whether the consent that permits them to inhabit so pleasant a place might be about to be withdrawn, sooner than they have supposed.”

I want to see the footnotes.

Who are these “very thoughtful people”?

The San Andreas can’t rupture without “a triggering event”? Really? I was under the impression it could do whatever it pleased whenever it wanted to. These plates are in motion! They will grind, lock, and eventually break.

I am ready to be corrected — tell me what I’m missing here. But I’m pretty sure that this notion that it’s “our turn” and that California is “now” at risk is simplistic at best. Yes, there will be a major event on the San Andreas Fault one of these days, but where? The southernmost section of the fault, running north from the Salton Sea, east of the Los Angeles basin, hasn’t broken for several hundred years. For sheer destruction, an earthquake on the Hayward Fault that runs through Oakland and Berkeley would be disastrous. There are myriad faults underlying Los Angeles. And as we reported the other day, the Cascadia subduction zone could produce a mega-quake and a tsunami. But there’s nothing deterministic and linear about any of this. The residents of California needed to be ready for an earthquake prior to Chile, Christchurch and Japan.

Nothing has changed. Buy extra batteries.

Joel Achenbach writes on science and politics for the Post's national desk and on the "Achenblog."

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