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Impearls: 2003-05-11 Archive

Earthdate 2003-05-12

Earthquakes in Developed Countries II

Jay Manifold has posted a reply in A Voyage To Arcturus to my earlier article.  Jay disagrees with my conclusion (which he correctly summarizes as "earthquakes with Kobe-class body counts are still a possibility for the US"), continuing to believe that the higher death tolls due to earthquakes in places like Japan are a result of institutional and cultural differences rather than, basically, luck.  (I'd originally included a response to his reply under the Update to my earlier article, but since I kept revising and adding to it, I've split it off into a separate posting.)

I found the additional information and quotes that Jay posted to be of much interest, and even to mostly argue against his position, in my view.  Thus, my conclusion with regards to earthquake dangers in the U.S. (as well as Japan and indeed a vast array of other places) hasn't changed, and I must confess to some mystification as to why Jay doesn't draw what I see as the reasonable conclusion from the chain of logic presented earlier.

Granted, Jay's focus is somewhat different than mine, zeroing in on the building of earthquake-safer new dwellings to house additional millions of folk to come in new generations in India and elsewhere.  While I emphasize again that we don't really know yet what's safe to build with regard to the magnitude 8.x super-quakes which (as Jay notes) are predicted for northern India (and what he's trying to guard against), I certainly agree that we can do a lot better than has been done in the past with regard to the homes and buildings of people in those areas — and across much of the U.S., for that matter.  At a minimum, we know pretty well what's not safe to build (unreinforced masonry and concrete, for a starter), and one can, at least theoretically, avoid these like the plague.

Nonetheless, my viewpoint here is to emphasize the earthquake dangers posed by old structures which still pervade (and will continue to for a long time) both Asian and American (etc.) material societies.  To recall the logic chain that Jay objects to, let's repeat it in a nutshell, using once again the magnitude 7.1 Loma Prieta quake as a yardstick:

  1. The Loma Prieta quake took place in a remote area where there are few people and even fewer unreinforced masonry and concrete structures;
  2. A similar earthquake occurring in a highly populated area with many unreinforced masonry and concrete structures must experience a far greater death toll; and
  3. The California Division of Mines and Geology, FEMA, and U.S. Geological Survey all acknowledge the foregoing with death estimates in such a situation in the same magnitude as the Kobe toll.

I'm tempted to say “Q.E.D.”  Note that this (approximate) Kobe-sized death-toll prediction assumes a Kobe- or Loma-Prieta sized (i.e., 7.x magnitude) earthquake.  Given the order-of-magnitude increase over 7.x earthquakes in the violence of an 8.x magnitude quake, I'll go out on a limb here, beyond Jay's summation of my position, and suggest that given an 8.x earthquake in a heavily populated region of the U.S. (especially outside of California with its strong earthquake construction codes), I believe that Armenian level (25,000 deaths in 1988) — though perhaps not T'ang-shan level (240,000 dead in 1976) — fatality rates aren't beyond the realm of possibility or even probability here in these United States.  I say once again: much of the U.S. is covered by earthquake deathtraps!

Postscript:  I vividly recall after the Kobe quake, shocked Japanese weeping “they told us this couldn't happen!”  I very much doubt the Japanese equivalent of the USGS ever stated that such an earthquake could not occur there — if they did, they should be fired and replaced by more competent geologists, because modern geology knows better.

Likewise, if a Kobe-magnitude death toll is ever endured following a major quake here in the United States, I'm sure there will be many here who similarly weep bitter tears, blaming the USGS for “not telling them.”  But as anyone can see in the USGS publication from which I quoted (available up front and prominent on a stand at the USGS bookstore in Menlo Park, California), we have been warned!


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