Monday, January 18, 2010

Can we avoid catastrophes like the earthquake in Haiti?

First, manners. Best wishes for 2010! Hope you were fortified in body and spirit over Christmas, Kwanzaa and/or Hanukkah, and that you are warm and well and anticipating a peaceful, productive year.

So hard to say that with Haiti on my mind. There’s something apocalyptic about the devastation caused by the earthquake on January 12, which occurred at 4:53 pm and was also felt in Jamaica, in the parishes of Portland and Kingston and St Andrew. The terrible ruin and the rising death toll urge us to consider what can be done, if anything, to avoid its ever happening again, in Haiti or anywhere else.

Haiti is on the Gonave Microplate, a narrow sliver of the earth's crust at the edge of the larger Caribbean Plate which is south of it and extends over most of the Caribbean Sea. Chris Rowan has an explanation of the event at

The earthquake occurred along the Enriquillo Fault, part of a ‘strike-slip feature’ that joins the Yallahs-Plantain Garden Fault and separates the Gonave plate from the Caribbean Plate. (For non-geographers, think of a fault as a fracture or break running along at a certain point in the earth’s crust. Rock on one side of the break can move sideways with respect to rock on the other side, or rock on one side can move up and the other side, down. Sideways movements are called strike-slip; up-down movements are called dip-slip. The earth can do a combination movement as well.)

Rowan says, “There is nothing particularly unusual about this earthquake given the tectonic context. … however, Haiti is a very poor country... so ...its government was not in a position to really do much to prepare for the inevitable large earthquake, leaving tens of thousands to suffer the consequences.”

(One hopes things are being done about the inevitable super quake that is predicted for the San Andreas Fault.)

What is deeply distressing is that, according to a briefing on naturenews

‘…a team led by Paul Mann at the University of Texas at Austin has been monitoring this fault for some years. In a presentation to the 18th Caribbean Geological Conference in 2008, the team pointed out that their models showed a slip rate of around 8 millimetres per year on the fault. ...they warned that this, combined with the fact that the last known major earthquake near Haiti was in 1751, could add up to yield "~2 meters of accumulated strain deficit, or a Mw=7.2 earthquake if all is released in a single event today".

One of the team members, geophysicist Eric Calais of Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, said in an e-mail to Nature: "Unfortunately we were pretty much right on."’

So there was some advance warning. The truth is of course that all the countries on the edge of the plate – which includes a big chunk of the northern coastline of South America as well as central America and most of the islands in the Caribbean – ought to be on continuous earthquake watch.

But what does the state of watchfulness entail? What can people who live in earthquake-prone zones do? We know some of the things: have adequate building codes that are rigorously enforced; conduct regular earthquake drills in schools and workplaces so people know what to do when they feel the first tremors; have medical kits widely available and encourage people to get basic training in first aid; maintain emergency services that have protocols in which they are well versed and the resources to execute them. Perhaps, adapt some of the building styles of the Japanese who have endured this kind of seismic activity for ages...

The ideal thing, though, would be to know when the earthquake is coming.

There is one famous case where the successful forecasting of a quake led to the saving of many lives. In 1975 Chinese officials ordered the evacuation of the city of Haicheng (population one million) mere days before a quake that had a 7.3 magnitude. Only a small portion of the population was hurt or killed. If the city had not been evacuated, fatalities and injuries could have been in the hundreds of thousands.

The observation of animal behaviour was in part what led to the prediction of that earthquake. Geologists tend to dismiss strange animal behaviour as a reliable predictor of earthquakes, but biologist Rupert Sheldrake disagrees. He admits that odd animal behaviour doesn't occur before all quakes, but his research on major quakes such as those in California (1994) and Greece and Turkey (1999) identifies peculiar activity in caged birds, dogs and cats preceding the tremors. The Chinese continue to study animal behaviour as a predictor – snakes, horses, cows and pigs all behaved oddly prior to the Haicheng event.

Sheldrake, who feels that more research into this predictor should be done, proposes a hotline or web site where people could report any strange behaviour in their animals. The incoming messages could be analyzed by computer to determine where they originated and pinpoint any areas from which there were sudden surges in incoming calls or e-mails, since these might indicate that a quake was imminent. Checks would have to be made to ensure that the behaviour couldn't be attributed to other sources and, so as to avoid issuing false warnings, the animal data would be used in conjunction with other monitors such as seismological measurements.

Sheldrake feels that "Such a project would capture the imagination of millions of people, encourage large-scale public participation and research... What is holding this research back is not money but dogmatism and narrow-mindedness."

All this, according to National Geographic

There are now many amateur weather watchers worldwide. Perhaps bloggers, tweeters and other internet users could take on the project. Surely there are scientists who would collate the data, and surely it would be better (and less costly) to evacuate and find that an alarm was false, than fail to follow the animal cues and face devastation. The world is full of towns and cities that are not earthquake proof. Haiti is by no means alone in that respect. And increasingly we are being taught that we should listen to the planet. It can speak eloquently to us if we don't decide that we are determined not to hear.

It's hard to imagine that listening to the dogs and cats might have spared Haiti. For sure, our thoughts and prayers are with the people of Haiti.


FSJL said...

Sheldrake's views ("the morphogenetic field") are generally seen as odd by most scientists. Still, they should be looked into, given the caveat that odd animal behaviour doesn't occur before many quakes.

I don't know that we can avoid earthquakes. Certainly, it is difficult, when faced with the kind of human catastrophe that Haiti has faced over much of the past couple of centuries, to deal with what happens when nature shivers a little.

I, for one am appalled at the lies, the stupidity, and the idiotic self-congratulation of the establishment up here. Pat Robertson's description of Boukman the Jamaican's prayer to god for freedom at Bwa Caïman as "a pact with the devil" as if black people's desire to be free of slavery was an evil thing, was, shall we say, less than amusing. It reminded me of Froude's declaration that the anger at Sir Spencer St. John's claim that Haitians salted and ate babies had to be evidence of its truth.

clarabella said...

FSJL: A quick response – I'm up over my ears with EL NUMERO UNO. It's not the earthquake that we can avoid: it's the CATASTROPHE that comes as a result. If houses don't collapse, and landslides don't come crashing down and people have been evacuated and are out of the way of anything that may fall and injure them (as in Haicheng), then there may be some injury and even some loss of life, but we won't have a catastrophe, the total collapse of human habitat and infrastructure and death on a colossal scale,as in Haiti. More on Pat Robertson later.