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Yorba Linda Quakes

There has been a little activity in the Yorba Linda, CA area over the past 24 hours, starting with an M4.5 at 11:23pm local. Another M45 occurred just 10 hours later in the same location, which had M3.7 aftershock not 20 minutes after.

I took some time to put together some quake history into Google Maps.

Small light blue dots are background seismicity. (SCSN catalog 1932-present)

Dark blue dots are the July 29, 2008 M5.4 Chino Hills quake and aftershocks.

Red dots are the September 3, 2002 M4.8 Yorba Linda quake and aftershocks.

The green dot is an October 4, 1961 M4.4 quake.

Orange dots are the current quakes.

Yorba Linda Quake History

Yorba Linda Quake History

Let us say for the sake of argument that nearly perfect earthquake prediction were developed. The date, time, location, and magnitude could be determined up to 6 months in advance.

Now what? What do we do now?

Many have argued that if we had reliable earthquake prediction many lives could be saved. Sure, if we could predict quakes with sufficient warning we could easily move people out of harms way and the only casualties we’d have would be from the evacuation process itself. Certainly those few casualties would be worth the effort as potentially so many more lives could be saved.  But, is it *really* worth it? At what magnitude do we start evacuating? If we know a magnitude 9 quake was headed our way surely evacuation is warranted. Even an 8. A 7? Of course. What about a 6? Very likely. A 5? In some areas it would be worth it as the building codes aren’t so good. A 4.5? A 4?

Next, who decides when to evacuate and when not to? Do we vest that authority with government? To what level? Is it absolute? Do we leave it to scientists and engineers? Some other authority? Or do we leave it up to the individual?

Then, how do we decide at what point the inconvenience, the collateral damages and casualties, the lost income from work, the lost revenue from businesses shutting down, the expense paid by governments to organize, the risks made by those who must implement the plan… At what point is evacuating better than doing nothing?

But even if we eliminated the people problem, what about the infrastructure? What good does knowing a damaging quake is coming if the buildings and bridges are still going to collapse? What good is it if the tsunami is still going to take out whole seaside towns and cities? What about the damage to sea and airports? What about the nuke plants? Even if we know the BIG ONE is coming, it’s still going to happen. There will still be damage and devastation. There will still be a mess to clean up, and it’s going to come with a whopping big bill. Someone will still have to pay.

And who pays? The government? Insurance companies? This is a serious question. If we knew a quake was coming, who in their right mind would insure against the event? Surely many would be upset at their tax monies going to pay for damage that was predicted. What do individuals do when suddenly their insurance premiums spike 500% when a warning is given? After all, if we knew it was coming, why wasn’t anything done about it? Why didn’t anyone prepare? This question is further complicated by the previous question regarding ‘who decides’. If you were told to leave and you didn’t, who pays? If you were told to prepare and you didn’t, should others be responsible for taking care of you? Do you want to pay for other’s who don’t take responsibility and prepare or leave?

The fact is, we already know what the results will be when a big quake strikes. Further, we have a pretty darned good idea where quakes occur and how big they could be. Yes, it’s not perfect, as the recent 9.0(+?) quake in Japan attests. Sure they were prepared, but not for something this big. It was unexpected. But even so, the preparations that were there surely saved many tens if not hundreds of thousands of lives (compare to Sumatra 2004), and much of the infrastructure survived largely intact.

So although we do not know when the Big One is coming, we can still prepare. I wonder if not knowing when a disaster will strike makes the problem much more manageable. Many of the above questions only arise if we know of the event in advance. Take away the predictability and we are left with only one worry, and that is how much we should prepare. Preparedness works, period.

Yes, it will still cost money to enforce stricter building codes and disaster plans, but since we’d have to spend it anyway – either in preparing for a known coming disaster, or cleaning up after it – we really don’t have much room to argue. After all, even with six months warning of an 8.2 affecting Los Angeles, is there realistically much we can do? It would take years if not decades to retrofit buildings to withstand the shaking. Can buildings even be made ‘earthquake proof’? Is it worth the expense?

There is no simple answer. Yet, the disaster in Japan surely should be a motivator. We all must prepare. No corner of the world is safe from disaster be it earthquake, volcano, tornado, hurricane, tsunami, mudslide, flood, or any other calamity. It is up to individuals to prepare for themselves and to insist that their governments, the people whom they entrust to serve their greater needs, to make better efforts to prepare. Yes, preparedness will cost so we all might as well pony up and pitch in. After all, it could be YOUR life that is saved because a stricter building code required the office you work in to be retrofitted, or the bridge you got stuck under to be reinforced.

I do not mean to imply that efforts to develop earthquake prediction are in error or should be stopped. Rather, I mean to point out that there may be unforeseen consequences of such a development. I wonder if any of those who insist prediction is possible have realized any of these questions. Surely there are many more unasked than I have addressed here. As has happened many times in human history, technological developments outpaced mankind’s maturity and responsibility for their use. Is earthquake prediction any different? Does it have to be? Perhaps right along side our efforts to predict mother nature, we should also make an effort to deal with the obvious social and economic changes that would occur from such a paradigm shifting development.

Are we prepared to know the future?


Michio Kaku is a co-founder of String Theory and currently the Henry Semat Professor of Theoretical Physics in the City College of New York of City University of New York. He has written a large number of books on a range of topics and has garnered the attention of the public as well as the media for his ease in explaining complex scientific work to the layperson. He is often called upon for media interviews on many matters scientific.

However, in recent weeks I have become a bit disappointed by Kaku’s performance. Due to the recent devastating 9.2 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, he has been seen in numerous interviews on TV. Recently he was even on the David Letterman Show. Kaku has attempted to explain the process of earthquakes and tsunami’s, and has weighed in on the continuing crisis with Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power plant crisis.

What bothers me is how much information he puts out there that just isn’t quite right. It’s not that he’s outright wrong in his explanations, but he just seems to be winging it for the most part, as if he’s not quite sure of what he’s talking about. And it shows. Some of his statements are less than accurate. For example, he compares the Fukushima nuclear plants to Chernobyl, when in fact the two are practically apples & oranges. They are different designs, and failed for different reasons. Chernobyl was a badly designed reactor and the operators did stupid things with it. Fukushima is a well designed system with quakes and tsunami in mind. Unfortunately, no one foresaw an event like what happened on March 11th. How could anyone? It was practically unprecedented in Japan’s recorded history.

There is a well known logical fallacy known as the “appeal to authority“, which basically states that people will tend to trust the words of an authority even when they are not discussing their topic of expertise. Just because someone is an expert in one or even several regimes does not make them an authority on everything else. In this specific case we have a theoretical physicist weighing in on seismology and nuclear technology. Unfortunately, Kaku appears not to have all his facts straight.

There have been previous scientists who have brought science to the masses, notably Carl Sagan. I grew up watching his TV show Cosmos and credit him for getting me interested in all aspects of astronomy as well as science in general. I have had many years to learn science and never have I discovered that anything Sagan said was in error. No, Sagan was not an expert in all things, but he apparently did his homework.

We need more scientific outreach. We need to get people more interested in what science is and what it can do for the public at large. The United States in particular is falling way behind in the sciences due in large part, in my opinion, to a complete misunderstanding of what science *is*. Pseudoscience is taking hold in our classrooms and in the sensationalistic media.

Although it is great to see an accomplished scientist talking to the public on their level, I am left wondering if he’s helping or hurting science. Surely this is an example of scientific outreach which gets people paying attention, yet what good does it do if the information presented isn’t correct?


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