Monday’s announcement of the winners of the Pulitzer Prizes didn’t pack many surprises. The Associated Press came away with the most coveted award — the one for public service — via its investigation of labor practices in the industry that sends seafood to the United States. The Post scored a national award for its phenomenal work on police shootings. The Los Angeles Times secured recognition for its San Bernardino coverage. Have a look at the whole field.
The Erik Wemple Blog would like to make particular mention of the winner in the feature writing category. “The Really Big One,” in the July 20, 2015, issue of the New Yorker, had a lot going against it. It was about fault lines; it was written under the tagline “Annals of Seismology”; it concerned an event that hadn’t yet happened; it contained a lot of highly technical material. It had all the makings of a forgettable piece of journalism.
Someone forgot to tell Kathryn Schulz. Under her fingertips, the story was a riveting trot through the underpinnings of the Pacific Northwest — which just so happen to be very dicey, though this blog didn’t know a thing about it at all. Ignorance about this dynamic is one of its features, as Schulz wrote in the piece: “Thirty years ago, no one knew that the Cascadia subduction zone had ever produced a major earthquake. Forty-five years ago, no one even knew it existed.”
Okay, so that stuff was really good. What was better were the instructions built into the story. Instead of trying to explain in the abstract the seismology of the Cascadia subduction zone, Schulz walked her readers through the nitty-gritty. Here’s how she did it:
Take your hands and hold them palms down, middle fingertips touching. Your right hand represents the North American tectonic plate, which bears on its back, among other things, our entire continent, from One World Trade Center to the Space Needle, in Seattle. Your left hand represents an oceanic plate called Juan de Fuca, ninety thousand square miles in size. The place where they meet is the Cascadia subduction zone. Now slide your left hand under your right one. That is what the Juan de Fuca plate is doing: slipping steadily beneath North America. When you try it, your right hand will slide up your left arm, as if you were pushing up your sleeve. That is what North America is not doing. It is stuck, wedged tight against the surface of the other plate.
Without moving your hands, curl your right knuckles up, so that they point toward the ceiling. Under pressure from Juan de Fuca, the stuck edge of North America is bulging upward and compressing eastward, at the rate of, respectively, three to four millimetres and thirty to forty millimetres a year. It can do so for quite some time, because, as continent stuff goes, it is young, made of rock that is still relatively elastic. (Rocks, like us, get stiffer as they age.) But it cannot do so indefinitely. There is a backstop—the craton, that ancient unbudgeable mass at the center of the continent—and, sooner or later, North America will rebound like a spring. If, on that occasion, only the southern part of the Cascadia subduction zone gives way—your first two fingers, say—the magnitude of the resulting quake will be somewhere between 8.0 and 8.6. That’s the big one. If the entire zone gives way at once, an event that seismologists call a full-margin rupture, the magnitude will be somewhere between 8.7 and 9.2. That’s the very big one.
Flick your right fingers outward, forcefully, so that your hand flattens back down again. When the next very big earthquake hits, the northwest edge of the continent, from California to Canada and the continental shelf to the Cascades, will drop by as much as six feet and rebound thirty to a hundred feet to the west—losing, within minutes, all the elevation and compression it has gained over centuries.
Got it? The Pulitzer folks surely did. Consider the accomplishment here: In the age of the ubiquitous YouTube video explainer, Schulz showed how to illustrate a complex principle with text. When we first read those graphs, we followed precisely the instructions of Schulz and vowed never to consider relocating to the Pacific Northwest.
Though Schulz, a New Yorker staff writer, brought home the Pulitzer for the feature category, her work could well have won in the explanatory or national categories. Read it.