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Disaster Deferred

Disaster Deferred: A New View of Earthquake Hazards in the New Madrid Seismic Zone

Seth Stein
Copyright Date: 2010
Pages: 296
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  • Book Info
    Disaster Deferred
    Book Description:

    In the winter of 1811-12, a series of large earthquakes in the New Madrid seismic zone-often incorrectly described as the biggest ever to hit the United States-shook the Midwest. Today the federal government ranks the hazard in the Midwest as high as California's and is pressuring communities to undertake expensive preparations for disaster.

    Coinciding with the two-hundredth anniversary of the New Madrid earthquakes, Disaster Deferred revisits these earthquakes, the legends that have grown around them, and the predictions of doom that have followed in their wake. Seth Stein clearly explains the techniques seismologists use to study Midwestern quakes and estimate their danger. Detailing how limited scientific knowledge, bureaucratic instincts, and the media's love of a good story have exaggerated these hazards, Stein calmly debunks the hype surrounding such predictions and encourages the formulation of more sensible, less costly policy. Powered by insider knowledge and an engaging style, Disaster Deferred shows how new geological ideas and data, including those from the Global Positioning System, are painting a very different-and much less frightening-picture of the future.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-52241-0
    Subjects: General Science, Geology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-xii)
  3. Chapter 1 Threshold
    (pp. 1-8)

    Stretched out on a sun-warmed rock, I admired the hawks circling lazily in the bright-blue sky. It was a perfect October day in 1997 in Petit Jean State Park, high in Arkansas’s Ozark Mountains. About 50 yards away, I could see a five-foot yellow-and-orange wooden tripod topped by a shiny metal disk that looked like a large Frisbee. The disk was an antenna receiving radio signals from Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites orbiting thousands of miles above the earth (fig. 1.1). An expensive, high-precision GPS receiver about the size of a personal computer recorded the signals and used them to...

  4. Chapter 2 The Day the Earth Stood Still
    (pp. 9-16)

    December 3, 1990, was a very strange day in the little town of New Madrid, Missouri. Dozens of television trucks filled the streets (fig. 2.1). Reporters and camera crews roamed around, filming and interviewing residents, tourists, and each other. Residents filmed the television crews. T-shirt and barbecue sales were brisk. Hap’s Bar and Grill did a booming business that proprietor Jack Hailey described as an all-day party. Dick Phillips, mayor of the town of about 3,200 people, described the day as a three-ring media circus.

    Usually, New Madrid is a small, quiet community in Missouri’s southeast corner,far from St Louis’s...

  5. Chapter 3 Think or Panic?
    (pp. 17-29)

    A teacher’s most satisfying moments are when students “get it.” One of my favorites was when a student said, “I heard on TV that last weekend four people were killed in accidents caused by the ice storm. Then I thought about what we did in data analysis class and wondered whether that was more than in a typical weekend.”

    That’s exactly what scientific education is supposed to accomplish. Although courses teach facts about faults, earthquakes, waves, rocks, minerals, and so on, they’re only useful once students learn to think critically. Thus, our goal as educators is also to show students...

  6. Chapter 4 The Perfect Mess
    (pp. 30-46)

    Sebastian Junger’s book The Perfect Storm describes how several different features of weather in the North Atlantic combined to produce an unusually powerful storm. That’s a good analogy for how the earthquake hazard at New Madrid got exaggerated to the point that it was being called bigger than in California.

    This “perfect mess” grew from interactions between groups of people focusing on different scientific and policy issues. Each group’s natural and usually healthy tendencies somehow got taken to excess and fed on each other. The result was a case of groupthink in which a few people convinced themselves and then...

  7. Chapter 5 Earthquake!
    (pp. 47-65)

    To most Americans in 1811, the Mississippi valley was a strange and remote world. The new nation—the Constitution had been ratified only 24 years earlier—stretched along the Atlantic coast. Its economy, culture, and politics centered on seaports surrounded by prosperous farms. These cities, like Philadelphia, Boston, New York, and Charleston, had fine public buildings, colleges, and newspapers that rivaled Europe’s. Philadelphia was the second largest English-speaking city in the world after London. American ships traded worldwide.

    The frontier lands west of the Appalachian Mountains were very different. Since the American Revolution, tough individualists had been making their way...

  8. Chapter 6 Breakthrough
    (pp. 66-77)

    Life remained hard along the Mississippi even after the largest earthquake on February 7, 1812. Smaller earthquakes continued for months, as described by the famous naturalist John James Audubon, “Shock succeeded shock almost every day or night for several weeks, diminishing however, so gradually, as to dwindle away into mere vibrations of the earth. Strange to say, I for one became so accustomed to the feeling, as rather to enjoy the fears manifested by others.”

    The aftershocks left people fearful for the future. Some had lost homes and were living in tents. Some farms were significantly affected when land plunged...

  9. Chapter 7 How the Ground Shakes
    (pp. 78-94)

    Accounts of the ground shaking in the New Madrid and San Francisco earthquakes seem almost unbelievable. To make sense of them, we need to ask three questions. First, how did solid ground shake enough to do so much damage? Second, what happened on the fault during an earthquake? Third, what made the fault move?

    Answering these questions lets us understand what happened in the earthquakes of 1811–1812 and what could happen if such an earthquake happened again. The next few chapters explore these questions, starting with how the ground shakes.

    Ground shaking happens when the energy that was stored...

  10. Chapter 8 How Earthquakes Work
    (pp. 95-115)

    We’ve talked about seismic waves and how they shake the ground in earthquakes. The next question is how earthquakes generate these waves. Knowing this lets us figure out what could have happened in the 1811–1812 New Madrid earthquakes. That in turn lets us explore what caused them, whether and when they might happen again, and how dangerous that might be.

    An earthquake is a complicated process, so describing it involves a number of questions. Let’s start with the basic ones seismologists are used to being asked. Where was it? When did it happen? How big was it? What fault...

  11. Chapter 9 Plate Tectonics Explains(Most) Earthquakes
    (pp. 116-135)

    In the past two chapters, we’ve seen what seismic waves are and how earthquakes produce them. These results let us understand what happened in the 1811–1812 New Madrid earthquakes. The next question is what causes earthquakes. Why are faults where they are? What makes them move? Answering these questions is important for trying to decide if another big New Madrid earthquake is likely any time soon.

    After coming up with the brilliant idea that elastic rebound—the release of motion stored on the locked fault—caused the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, geologists studying it hit a dead end. They...

  12. Chapter 10 Earthquakes That Shouldn’t Happen
    (pp. 136-147)

    We’ve just seen that almost all of the world’s earthquakes occur along the boundaries between plates. That’s because earthquakes happen when forces in the earth make faults move. Plate tectonics explains that many faults are part of the boundary between plates and that the force to move them comes from the motion between the plates on either side. Earthquakes inside plates are rarer because the movements between plates are much faster than motion within plates. If plates behaved perfectly there’d be no motion within them, and earthquakes wouldn’t happen there. Places like New Madrid wouldn’t have earthquakes.

    That’s almost true....

  13. Chapter 11 What’s Going on Down There?
    (pp. 148-160)

    The idea that the New Madrid earthquakes happen on fossil faults formed in a failed rift is a “model.” In science, a model isn’t a small replica, like a model train. It’s a fleshing out of an idea into something more specific. Sometimes it’s a set of equations, and in other cases, it’s a picture. Either way, a model should have enough detail to guide our thinking. It should be “testable,” meaning that it predicts things that can be tested with new data to decide whether the model is any good and to change or discard it if it isn’t....

  14. Chapter 12 Guidance from Heaven
    (pp. 161-177)

    The rift model for New Madrid developed in the 1980s was a huge advance. Still, seismologists couldn’t say whether a large earthquake like those of 1811–1812 would happen in the next few hundred years. All we could say was that there had been earthquakes in the past, so they might happen again.

    Since the 1980s, an incredible, almost magical, new technology has changed everything. The magic wand is GPS, the Global Positioning System. GPS sounds too good to be true. Simple GPS receivers that are the size of a cell phone—or even inside a cell phone—give location...

  15. Chapter 13 Faults Turning On and Off
    (pp. 178-191)

    The GPS data showing that the ground in the New Madrid seismic zone wasn’t moving meant that we had to rethink ideas about Midwest earthquakes. We had hit one of the most exciting situations in science: a paradox where two different kinds of data seem to disagree. This means that at least one kind of data is wrong, or that both are right but need to be looked at differently.

    One kind of data are the GPS results. Because year after year the data keep showing no motion, with even smaller uncertainties, it’s hard to see how they could be...

  16. Chapter 14 More Dangerous than California?
    (pp. 192-217)

    The paper my coauthors and I published in 1999 presenting the GPS results showing no motion ended by stating, “It seems that the hazard from great earthquakes in the New Madrid zone has been significantly overestimated. Hence predicted ground motions used in building design there, such as the National Seismic Hazard Maps which presently show the seismic hazard there exceeding that in California, should be reduced.”

    This conclusion seemed obvious. Many geologists outside the USGS thought it made sense because they were skeptical of the hazard maps’ claims that New Madrid was more dangerous than California. Even within the USGS,...

  17. Chapter 15 Chemotherapy for a Cold
    (pp. 218-235)

    The legal concept “fruit of the poisonous tree” says that if police acquire evidence illegally, for example by tapping telephones without a warrant, then neither that evidence—the tree—nor any fruit resulting from it can be used in court. In the same way, because earthquake hazard maps for New Madrid are developed by assuming that a major earthquake is on the way, everything based on these maps has problems.

    Questions should have arisen when the 1996 hazard maps were being made. If I’d told a seminar audience in my department that new results showed that Memphis was more dangerous...

  18. Chapter 16 What to Do?
    (pp. 236-254)

    As we’ve seen, the New Madrid earthquake issue has become a perfect mess. Some organizations, notably the federal government, have convinced themselves that billions of dollars should be spent to defend against large earthquakes that are on the way. However, the more we learn about the science, the less sense this makes. Now what?

    As an old saying goes, “when you’re in a hole, stop digging.” When something isn’t working, stop, think, and come up with a better approach. It’s not easy, but it’s the only way out. In that spirit, this last chapter gives some ideas that I think...

    (pp. 255-260)
    (pp. 261-268)
    (pp. 269-270)
  22. INDEX
    (pp. 271-284)