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Category Archives: Earthquake Management and Mitigation

Take your own Wasatch fieldtrip – from home!


The Wasatch Range looms beautifully behind downtown Salt Lake City, which is dropping off the face of the mountains along the Wasatch Fault, one earthquake at a time.

Today as my final SSA conference event I’m attending a field trip to visit the Wasatch Fault and see Utah’s efforts at understanding and mitigating the risk from this fearsome structure. The trip is being handily led by Utah Geological Survey (UGS) scientists Chris DuRoss and Bill Lund, and involves the contributions of a lot of scientists and engineers. We’ll visit geologic trench sites, seismic stations, and retrofitted buildings all around Salt Lake City, and I’ll have a full report later on. While I’m out seeing the real thing, you all can take your own tour of the Wasatch Fault with this well produced, informative video from the UGS.

The Great Utah ShakeOut – this morning 10:15am!


Today at 10:15am Mountain Daylight Time (UTC -8) tens of thousands of Utahns will Drop, Cover, and Hold On in a massive earthquake drill set to alert the state to the dangers posed by its numerous fault lines.

The Utah ShakeOut is one of many large-scale earthquake scenario exercises (drills) that take place around the country and around the world. It is sponsored by a whole host of federal agencies and corporate partners, and involves not only voluntary public participation but coordinated inter-agency exercises to simulate a post-quake response in the state.

Here’s media to play during your own ShakeOut exercise:

Scientists have calculated a number of potential earthquake scenarios for Utah, compiled here. A quake on the Salt Lake City segment of the Wasatch fault is the most destructive example, but the state is littered with earthquake faults, and so destructive earthquakes could happen anywhere.


Sunday Reading #3

Apologies for the tardiness. I suppose for some of you this is Sunday evening reading, if that’s what people even do on Sunday evenings. Maybe for those of you hunkering down in the U.S. midwest.

Here are two weeks’ worth of seismic tidbits I posted on Twitter, since the first week was a little dry. Catch up on all things quakey!

Overcompensating in L’Aquila
In oh-so-foreseeable news, Italian officials are now trigger-happy with evacuation orders in the wake of the manslaughter conviction of seismic hazard officials. Caution is good… but, this is why we have legends like the boy who cried wolf.

“Why evacuate for an earthquake no one can feel?”

A nice antidote to that painful bit of news is a call to arms about the risky state of building design in such a quake-prone region:

Man-made Earthquakes
The seismic hot-topic of the decade, human-induced earthquakes, gets a summary treatment by Popular Mechanics. The summary is good. You’ll be hearing more about this from me and all of us in the future:

“Rolling” versus “sharp” earthquakes, explained

“The Earthquake Machine”
How do you scale down faults so that you can understand their frictional and mechanical behavior in controlled tests? Popular Science has a neato infographic on the equipment used in rock mechanics tests–earthquake laboratories.

Earthquakes and Society
Christchurch residents and architectural pros alike balk at the rebuild designs for the downtown cathedral:

Nepal introduces an emergency plan for a crucial post-quake lifeline, its airport:

Exposé of an ethically questionable but increasingly common industry–disaster tourism:

Animal earthquake predictors
There has been a modest buzz this week about research on a longstanding legend of seismic phenomena. Animals have occasionally been reported to appear to foretell earthquakes, but anecdotal evidence generally fails any rigorous scientific test, and most such observations are thus dismissed as unreliable indicators of any impending quake. Researchers in Germany, however, have begun to study ants that live in colonies along fault lines. Surprising finding: their level of activity changes from a daily average before small tremors. I wouldn’t make too much of this yet, but I think it’s really cool to finally see some potential for scientific tests of a long-standing, intractable myth/puzzle about quake phenomena. Now if only we could fill all our fault lines with German Redwood ants…. I wonder if they distinguish between magnitude 2 and magnitude 7…

The news release:

The researchers’ website:

Landslide in Utah Copper Mine

Quarry collapse at the Bingham Copper Mine, Utah

Quarry collapse at the Bingham Copper Mine, Utah

A noteworthily massive collapse occurred this week at a quarry outside of Salt Lake City, Utah. The event is outside of my scientific jurisdiction, but Dave Petley has been covering it with great interest, and has reported a bit about the seismic signature of this mighty landslide:

Honshu quake


A modest but substantial 5.8 tremor rattled the southern Japanese island of Honshu this week, doing a fair bit of damage on Awaji island and the densely populated area surrounding it. A collection of videos record the shaking from a few urban cameras, the second of which demonstrates the noise created by a rattling city:

YouTube user KOJI PEI posted a video showing a real-time (actually ~2 or 3x speed) animation of shaking intensity at each of Japan’s seismometers during this quake. I’m not sure where this video came from nor how specifically it was generated (it appears to be maximum acceleration averaged over a several second time window), but I’m hoping to find out and to find more like it. You can see seismic waves radiate outward from the epicenter, with the relatively gentle P-waves leading the charge, and swishy S-waves ringing outward behind them.

Seismic engineering – For your Office, Museum, or Bedroom!
Scaled down base isolators can secure servers, lab apparati, antiques etc. on specialized tables. 

The principle of base isolation is already successfully applied in buildings around the world, and this mini-version may be hugely popular with companies and museums whose equipement and specimens need to be seismically protected. One of the commenters also has some insightful things to add, including the major deficiencies in maximum displacement and vertical protection.

Big news on a big move this week – I’ll update you all shortly!

Sunday Reading #2

Here’s the second installment of my now weekly series in which I compile all the neat-o earthquake things I’ve relayed via Twitter over the prior week.

National Tsunami Week

From March 24-30, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) teamed up to raise awareness of tsunami hazard, assembling a huge number of resources. Get informed about the tsunami risk to your coast line, and learn what you should do–I compiled their compilations here.

Earthquake Anniversaries

There were some notable earthquake anniversaries this past week: in 1983 a hefty jolt shook Portland–the “Spring Break quake.” In 1964, the largest earthquake in North America’s modern history, the M9.2 Good Friday earthquake, shook Anchorage for several minutes, jostling loose all kinds of landslides and faults, and sent a massive tsunami racing across the Pacific.

Fluid Injection & Induced Earthquakes

A paper was published this week documenting the striking correlation between the timing/location of damaging earthquakes and the timing/location of industrial fluid injection. Oklahoma has this problem, Arkansas has this problem, and the Netherlands has this problem.

Turkey’s Urban Renewal/Quake Retrofitting Plan Kicks In

Earlier this year, the government of Turkey initiated an urban renewal project in Istanbul that will replace deadly apartment blocks with housing built to withstand their inevitable temblor(s).
– info from Turkey’s gov’t
Earthquake Hazard for Istanbul – blog article summarizing the policy

Some are not as happy as others about this:

Seismic Engineering (failures)

The new eastern (Oakland) span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge may have had a bit of a setback this week when dozens of enormous bolts used in its seismic joints failed during seismic testing. Ooops. They’ll be fixed/replaced… but the grand opening may be pushed back. :(

Earthquake Footage

YouTube’s “EarthquakeVideoMex” compiled a few new videos of earthquake footage, one from a M6.3 in Mexico a few years ago (with some amazing standing waves in an upper story pool):

…and one from the M6.5 that jolted Taiwan earlier this week.

Earthquakes and Cheese

In potentially the most important earthquake-related development of the week, we learned how the Parmagiano-Reggiano industry recovered from a devastating earthquake that struck almost a year ago and wrecked millions of dollars worth of cheese.
The Miracle After Italy’s ‘Parmesan Quake’ – WorldCrunch news

See you next week! Or hopefully before then. Happy reading. Join in the fun and get these in real time @TTremblingEarth on Twitter!

National Tsunami Awareness Week – March 24-30, 2013

The Great Wave by Hokusai

This week the United States has been recognizing National Tsunami Week, an awareness campaign by NOAA, the USGS, FEMA, and a whole host of other emergency response agencies to ensure that the American public is aware of the tsunami hazard facing our coasts, and that we know what to do about it.

The bottom line is that we face threats on all fronts, although they’re greatest along the Pacific shore. Local megaquakes in the Pacific Northwest will one day wash torrents of water ashore in Washington, Oregon, and Northern California. More frequently than that (we have two examples from this decade alone), giant quakes elsewhere around the Pacific will send tsunamis racing across the ocean to flood our shorelines and swirl around our harbors. Large quakes in the Caribbean and landslides out in the Atlantic pose a tsunami threat to our Gulf and Atlantic coasts.

Fortunately we’re familiar with this risk because we’ve seen the effects of even 1-meter-high tsunamis on our coastline:

NOAA maintains several tsunami warning centers (including Pacific and West Coast/Alaska), and we’re ever striving to improve our detection capabilities as well as inform the public.

Take the opportunity to inform yourself this week, and “be Tsunami Ready!”   There are tons of resources, listed below.

Tsunami Awareness Week from the National Tsunami Hazard Mitigation Program:

What to do to protect yourself:

Tons of tsunami resources from California

USGS report on “Community Exposure to Tsunami Hazards” [pdf document]

NOAA’s Center for Tsunami Research has a ton of cool models and animations (their YouTube channel is chock full, at that represent the best measurements and calculations from actual tsunami events that have happened. One recently released model shows the best estimate of what happened during the Good Friday earthquake of 1964 in Alaska. The tsunami from that quake ravaged the U.S. coastline in Alaska, Hawaii, Washington, Oregon, and California and caused fatalities. Get informed! These things happen.

Sunday Reading

This is the inaugural post of a weekly series I promised to start that will supplement my more in depth but sporadic blogging about topical seismic events. A couple months ago I joined Twitter to broadcast some of the interesting seismic news snippets I come across daily, including lots of content that didn’t really warrant drawn out posts. As I promised then, I’m now compiling my full week of Tweeted links into a “weekend reading” sort of post, to let you catch up on all the earthquake news you missed as it flew by on Twitter. So here goes: a bunch of articles about earthquakes to read, and why to read them.

Earthquake Early Warning

The biggest U.S. quake news was the tremor that rattled L.A. a couple weeks ago and spawned renewed lamentations about the stagnant state of California’s earthquake early warning system. The New York Times had the most comprehensive story:

…but some local media outlets had their own lamentations to add:

To me the highlight of the New York Times piece was the imaginative explanation of what benefits early warning of an earthquake could provide:

“[Japan’s EEW system was able to] activate computerized programs to slow commuter trains so they did not go off their tracks, stop elevators so passengers were not stranded between floors, flash highway warning signs instructing motorists to slow down and avoid overpasses, and open doors at fire stations so they would not be stuck shut should power be lost.
The warning would go out to home computers and personal cellphones, giving surgeons a moment to withdraw scalpels, workers at Disneyland time to shut down Space Mountain, home cooks an opportunity to turn off the gas and everyone a moment to… dive under a desk.
If you are cooking, you can step away from the boiling water… it would help people psychologically, decreasing the surprise that can freeze people in confusion and fear when the ground starts moving, or lead to panicked and dangerous reactions, like running outside a building.”

I like the introduction of the intangible psychological benefits of reducing the paralyzing suddenness with which earthquakes set upon us.

Emergency Kits

A bunch of articles have just come out regarding earthquake survival kits.

Oregon Live asks where to put them (the answer is “everywhere… and make sure they’re accessible”).

The USA Today introduces us to some particularly dedicated preppers:

And the New Zealand Herald describes an effect I think most seismologists would be ecstatic to learn of: small tremors have a huge impact on emergency kit sales (up 300%), signaling that people really do treat the benign moderate jolts as reminders of real hazard.

Prediction vs. Mitigation

On a subject intimately related to the prior two, The Guardian published an article by Dave Petley, director of the Institute of Hazard, Risk, and Resilience at the University of Durham (and perhaps known more familiarly as the author of AGU’s Landslide Blog). Dave presents the elusive ideal of earthquake prediction through a simple and plainspoken set of thought exercises, which ultimately illustrate that prediction isn’t truly what we want. Mitigation, preparation, and a few moments warning should suffice… and may have to.

Tsunamis Galore

On the 2nd anniversary of the March 11, 2011 M9.0 Tohoku earthquake, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reminded us that twenty eight other tsunamis have struck various parts of the world since then.

Earthquakes Rock the Atmosphere

A widely circulated research result this past week was the discovery of significant signals from the Tohoku earthquake… recorded by satellite gravity measurements as pressure waves passed through the edge of the atmosphere. There’s a great animation of the data here:

That should do it for now. Tune in again next weekend, or Follow me on Twitter! @TTremblingEarth

Twitter and the 21st century earthquake

You thought seismic waves were fast… you should see Twitter! The social microblogging service increasingly serves as a communication conduit between emergency management agencies and individuals during crises. The USGS has begun to exploit Twitter, both to dispatch earthquake information and in turn to collect tweets that show an earthquake has occurred, potentially before the relatively sparse network of seismometers detects and reports it. A couple of years ago USGS scientists Paul Earle, Michelle Guy, and their colleagues reported their preliminary evaluation of a system that culls tweets containing the word “earthquake” from the vicinity of a known quake epicenter. The results were strikingly effective at highlighting the epicentral region of the quake, indicated by the largest jump in the frequency of “earthquake”-related tweets. Their article is publicly available and explains the benefits and drawbacks of a Twitter-based earthquake detection system. It’s well worth a read. OMG Earthquake! Can Twitter Improve Earthquake Response? The article contains perhaps my favorite sentence of any academic paper I’ve read:

The first geocoded tweet about the earthquake arrived 19 seconds after the origin time and reported omfg, earthquake.”

Their supplemental material makes for an entertaining read, listing 360 seconds of tweets containing “earthquake” that followed the 2009 M4.3 Morgan Hill quake in the Bay Area. Electronic Supplement to Earle et al., 2010 While thoroughly exploring the caveats of twitter quake detection such as the general lack of true shaking records, including the fact that shaking intensity is unreported or unreliable, the authors demonstrate the powerful comparison of Twitter response times to the average reporting delays of even our fastest instrumental networks. Whereas tweets are published with a lag time of ~5 seconds, official USGS earthquake solutions are only made available minutes after an earthquake. Commonly in disasters, small data transmissions via mobile devices offer the only functional way to disseminate information, since power and telephone lines may be disrupted and data-heavy voice calls may overwhelm cell networks. Many people on both coasts may have a familiar experience in mind following moderate earthquakes: even with light shaking and no damage, the excitement stirred up by a temblor results in an overloaded cell network incapable of supporting your phone calls. It can be hours before phone calls go through.

Click to access www2010.pdf

60 hours until the Not-pocalypse

This morning I woke up to this alarming warning, reminding me that the world as we know it will come to an end on Friday.

As seen on the internets.

As seen on the internets.


Fortunately my nerves have been calmed by all manner of authorities reminding me in official terms that the world is in all likelihood not going to end on Friday. Phew. Dodged a bullet there.

what could have been...

A new subway? In L.A.??

First off, the U.S. government says it’ll be okay:

Scary Rumors about the World Ending in 2012 Are Just Rumors –

The modern Maya themselves are downplaying the concerns:

Even the Maya are getting sick of the hype – MSNBC

And finally, even more authoritative sources weigh in with some informed messages, just in case you have really detailed concerns to dispel:

USGS: Will the World End on December 21? (“beliefs aside, what we know with certainty is that Earth has a tremendous capacity to generate natural disasters on any day of any year.”)

NASA: The Great 2012 Doomsday Scare (this one includes great historical examples of not-pocalypses past)

NASA and the USGS are both well versed in the doomsday phenomena that threaten our planet. Other than the changing climate, most of these natural catastrophes are local or regional doomsdays, not the end of “the world” per se, but certainly the end of the world for some. It’s encouraging to see these agencies step forward and use the hype (as silly or as serious as it may be) as an opportunity to inform and do some checking in about what we really do know can harm us and what we really do know about how to deal with it.

While you’re preparing for the fake end of the world, take a moment and make sure you know what to do if a real disaster struck your home.

Conviction of Italian seismologists – a nuanced warning

The painfully symbolic photo-op. Credit: Alessandro Bianchi/Reuters

The big seismological news that started off this week was the guilty verdict in the trial of Italian seismologists and government officials indicted for multiple manslaughter after the M6.3 L’Aquila earthquake of April 2009.

Natural hazards scientists the world over greeted this news with shock and dismay, and science-savvy folks of all stripes have expressed outrage about the verdict, let alone the trial itself. Angry scientists commonly lament this “trial against science,” and bewildered editorialists decry the absurdity of convicting and imprisoning seismologists for failing to warn people of an impending earthquake, a feat which I’m confident people generally understand to be impossible.

The problem is… Much of this outrage grossly oversimplifies the case, and in fact is commonly based on a fallacious understanding of the trial. It behooves everyone editorializing upon it to understand the nuanced details of the situation. A news feature from the journal Nature last year illuminates these details, providing a complete narrative of the unfortunate incidents that led to this dismaying conviction.

Scientists on Trial: At Fault?Nature News Feature

In fact the trial was not about failure to predict an earthquake. Rather, the scientists were prosecuted for not fulfilling their alleged duty to properly prepare the populace for an earthquake. This is not so subtle a distinction. This reality shows the case to have more merit than the straw-man accusation of “failure to predict an earthquake,” but it still raises some important questions about how scientists should be expected to act when communicating to the public.

A fantastic synopsis of the incident, the trial, and its implications for the future of expert-to-public communication is publicly available to listen to from the Seismological Society of America, and is an essential prerequisite for informed discussion about this trail.

In that recording, Tom Jordan, director of the Southern California Earthquake Center and chair of the international group commissioned by the Italian government to report on the status of earthquake forecasting operations (ICEF: the International Commission on Earthquake Forecasting for Civil Protection), presents the short history of this incident and discusses the sophisticated questions it raises. His commission’s report is also available to view and is a more technical document, but an important read if your profession involves natural hazard or risk assessment.

Operational Earthquake Forecasting – State of Knowledge and Guidelines for Utilization – ICEF report

Okay Then, What Happened?

I highly encourage you to read the Nature article or listen to Tom Jordan’s SSA talk, but if you can’t muster the patience for those, this synopsis of those synopses may serve as a rough outline of the incident.

Post-quake L’Aquila from above. Photo credit: Guardia Forestale/AP Photo. Via the Boston Globe.

L’Aquila, a city in one of Italy’s most earthquake-prone regions, had a series of tiny earthquakes beginning in October 2008. The series escalated through March 2009, during which time a local man started issuing earthquake “predictions” based on radon measurements. These unfounded warnings had no scientific merit but began to alarm the populace as the region continued to suffer frequent small tremors. On March 30, fearing an unwarranted panic, civil protection officials cited this man for inciting public alarm and “forbade him from making any public pronouncements.” In an untimely misfortune, a 4.1 earthquake then struck the region.

Fearing further alarm, the head of the Department of Civil Protection called for an immediate meeting of the National Commission for Forecasting and Predicting Great Risks, in L’Aquila. Given the fluctuating spread and suppression of misinformation, the lack of accurate information, and thus the context of alarm and confusion, it’s not surprising that the press’s involvement at and around this hastily arranged meeting spelled doom for reasoned communication of the real risks. As Tom Jordan et al.’s report mildly explains,

“[during an earthquake sequence] earthquake probabilities may vary over orders of magnitude but still remain low in an absolute sense (<1% per day). Translating such low-probability forecasts into effective decision-making is a difficult challenge.”

Indeed the seismologists and civil protection authorities apparently grappled with how to explain that this ongoing earthquake swarm did not substantially increase the already substantial regional hazard of earthquakes. They discussed the empirical history of earthquake swarms and how they rarely (<2% of the time) resulted in large mainshocks, but were careful to state that that specific risk couldn’t be excluded. They turned their focus instead to dispelling the alarm caused by untested and poorly vetted prediction schemes. Unfortunately, they let the audience guide their discussion. When faced with the unanswerable question of whether there was an imminent large earthquake to worry about, phrased with disarming cultural charm–“so we should go have a nice glass of wine?”–the vice-director of the Department of Civil Protection was jovially lured into a fatal appeasement of the citizens’ fears. “Absolutely.”

Then the most unfortunate coincidence of all occurred. This was one of those <2% when the swarm unleashes a big one. That night (April 6) the M6.3 roared out from the hillsides and collapsed 20,000 buildings in and around L’Aquila, killing 309 people.

Hai Sentito Il Terremoto? The Italian Instituto Nazionale di Geofisica e Vulcanologia’s crowd-sourced shaking map of the April 6 L’Aquila quake.

The prosecution was brought by several men who had lost their entire families after deciding notto sleep outside as would have been customary after the small preceding shocks. As one of them claimed,

“[the messages from the commission meeting] may have in some way deprived us of the fear of earthquakes. The science, on this occasion, was dramatically superficial, and it betrayed the culture of prudence and good sense that our parents taught us on the basis of experience and of the wisdom of the previous generations.”

Of course it is absurd to lay this loss on the shoulders of scientists, when so many individual decisions and uncontrollable instances led to these specific deaths. A more direct culprit that comes immediately to mind is earthquake-vulnerable construction. The twist here is that the populace had already accounted for that in their cultural custom of sleeping outside after quakes. In their eyes the “official word”–twisted and accidental as it had been–contradicted their understanding of safety “procedures” and misled them into harm. In essence, the scientists failed to fill an information vacuum: they dispelled the alarmism but didn’t replace it with the facts, or even appropriate guidance about the existing earthquake risk. Whether it was their civil duty to do so, and whether their failure to constituted criminal negligence or worse, was subsequently left up to the courts, and now we see how that turned out.

The ICEF report explains the problem precisely:

“Information vacuums can spawn informal predictions and misinformation, and … relying solely on informal communications between scientists and the public invites confusion. In this context, the deployment of systematic and transparent procedures for operational earthquake forecasting must be seriously considered.”

The series of unfortunate incidents and hastily orchestrated public outreach that led to this dismaying conviction invite challenging questions about the role of scientists in public policy and the complicated endeavor that is risk communication and mitigation. They also underscore the need for unified (or uniform) and culturally aware procedures, and offer some lessons that will guide the development of these. Understanding what to tell people about inherently unpredictable risks is hard enough, but when colloquial notions about the risk supplant proper information from authoritative sources, the reversal of these culturally ingrained practices becomes truly formidable.

At the end of the ICEF report, the authors lay out a roadmap for responsible operational earthquake forecasting. Their guidelines are informed by current technologies and practices, and call for continued efforts to test quake forecasting models. In the end they leave us with a sort of mantra of the seismological community:

While the responsible scientific research on earthquake predictability should be encouraged and operational forecasting capabilities should be developed, these activities cannot substitute for civil protection actions well in advance of earthquakes, for example in the design and planning of new buildings, or retrofitting of older ones identified as being at risk. Preparing properly for earthquakes means being always ready for the unexpected, which is a long-term proposition.

With a full understanding of the L’Aquila debacle, I expect that seismologists and the public can maintain a productive and orderly discussion as we develop more useful ways of understanding and communicating earthquake hazard. California’s got a big head start, since we’ve been training you for decades what it means to live in Earthquake Country.


The Great ShakeOut is happening now! Millions of people across the country are practicing their Drop, Cover, and Hold On, using the video below to guide their drills. Take this opportunity to think about, talk about, and practice what you would do in an earthquake. Think about it everywhere you go today: what would you do if an earthquake hit now? The Earthquake Country Alliance has some answers for you.

Happy ShakeOut!

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