Seismic hazards: Japan earthquake and other tectonic surprises challenge scientific assumptions
What happened last March 11 wasn’t supposed to be possible. The seismic hazard maps didn’t entertain the idea of a 9.0 magnitude earthquake off the Tohoku coast of Japan.
But the Earth paid no heed to scientific orthodoxy. A massive slab of the planet’s crust lurched 180 feet to the east. It rose about 15 feet, lifted the ocean and tipped the Pacific’s waters onto the Japanese coast.
The quake and the resulting tsunami killed about 20,000 people, wiped out entire towns and triggered power outages and then meltdowns at the Fukushima nuclear power plant.
It also humbled the scientific community.
Since 2004, earthquake scientists have been caught off guard, or to some extent consternated, by huge killer earthquakes in the Indian Ocean, Haiti, China, Japan and New Zealand.
Now the geologists are in a state of soul-searching. They want to do better, get smarter and help save lives on a shaky planet. But they feel chastened by what happened in Japan and are reexamining their basic assumptions about earthquakes.
Humans can be gifted at perceiving patterns in nature. We can also imagine patterns that do not exist. We can focus our attention on too narrow a frame. It is the special challenge of earthquake scientists that they must contend with terrestrial forces that exist outside the frame of human lifetimes, or even the lifetimes of entire civilizations. Some geologic faults may endure thousands of years of strain before a catastrophic rupture.
There’s no difference in this last paragraph between “earthquake scientists” and the global-warming alarmists.