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A Response To “All These Earthquakes”

@geologynews wanted to know where he could find “a list of all earthquakes from 2010 (say, >M5.0+), not just from the past week or month.” At the Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology (IRIS) Earthquake Browser, of course!

The following map shows all 3228 earthquakes between January 1st, 2010 and today.

In two months, a tiny fraction of a percentage of a blink of the geological eye, there were around three thousand recorded movements of the lithosphere. They nicely outline Earth’s plates and some intra-plate activity: Oceans subducting under continents, the mid-Atlantic rift quietly creating new crust, the furious Pacific Ring of Fire, the East African Rift, India ramming away at Asia and America unraveling at the Basin and Range. The Earth is alive and doing its thing. Earthquakes aren’t oddities, they are the natural norm. Never forget that.

Next up are all earthquakes of Magnitude 5.0 and above for the same time frame.  These make up around 20% of all earthquakes in the last two months.

The IRIS Earthquake Browser uses the Google base map and interface, so you can zoom in on particular earthquake-hit regions and look at satellite imagery and terrain data along with regular map view.

I urge everyone to donate as much as they can to the victims of the earthquakes in Chile and Haiti, and also ask you to take an objective stance towards why natural disasters happen. As I explained to my physician brother who was concerned about the frequency and severity of recent earthquakes and attendant natural disasters, think of the earth as the human body, i.e. it’s all inter-connected and there is a perfectly plausible reason for all “ailments,” even ones we don’t yet fully understand.

Let’s use Haiti and Chile themselves as examples. Haiti is an impoverished and deforested former French island colony sitting on the steep, clayey soil over an active strike-slip fault which just moved in a catastrophic manner in the lead-up to the rainy and hurricane seasons. I hope to still be alive when the nation is rebuilt and recovers from its ongoing and upcoming physical, emotional and social trauma. The geographic shape of Chile could not have been fashioned more disastrously by the gods themselves. The nation parallels an active subduction zone to the west and a highly-explosive mountain range to the east.  When were this earthquake and associated tsunami NOT going to happen? (As it happened half a century before. And how long until the Andes let one loose?) Thankfully, Chilean buildings are more sturdy in build and the earthquake occurred offshore and not directly underfoot as in the case of Haiti. This also highlights the difference between the magnitude and intensity of an earthquake and why a 7.0 in Haiti wreaked more havoc than an 8.8 in Chile. Again, this time around, the generated tsunami did not take as many lives as in 2004.

Each new natural and unnatural disaster definitely weakens our collective will, but it’s not an excuse for brain rot. This is why I’m glad to be alive in the internet age. We use this interconnectedness to give and get help, hope and knowledge. Vive Haiti. Vive Chile.

8 comments… add one
  • Tim March 1, 2010, 7:30 PM

    And Vive Science! Amazing how so much information–credible, rational, verifiable information–is so readily available to anyone and everyone who makes an effort to learn. I appreciate your informed voice.



  • Blair March 2, 2010, 8:33 AM

    Go to Economist.com and check out the 2/27 series on “Data, Data everywhere” for a god overview of the data flood.

  • Cousin Pat from Georgia March 2, 2010, 11:17 AM

    Came across an interesting Christopher Hitchens quote, and wanted your opinion on something.

    “Seismology in this decade is already emerging as the most important new department of socioeconomics and politics.

    The effects of upheavals of the earth can now be quite expertly studied, and even predicted, along a series of intersecting graphs that measure them against demography, income level, and—this is a prediction on my part—the vitality of democratic institutions.”

    Seismic sociology? Catastrophic social science? Are there already studies or authors I can look at for this, or is it something new?

  • Maitri March 2, 2010, 12:05 PM

    Pat, you touched upon something I almost mentioned in this post but didn’t, mostly to avoid a rational response from being marred by something very important but also extremely subjective and divisive.

    When you consider an earthquake’s Mercalli intensity (damage it caused) versus its Richter magnitude (number measured using seismographs), you are looking at a qualitative assessment versus a quantitative one. But again, that Mercalli intensity number is still very scientific in that it simply looks at damage and puts a number on it, much like an insurance adjuster. That said, I almost asked in the post if someone had gone beyond Richter and Mercalli to create a new intensity scale which considered variables such as soil type and building height and density, and also sociological factors, e.g. whether buildings were built to code, presence of emergency response measures and overall level of development. To answer your question, I don’t know if such a field exists, but I also don’t want to know.

    What good does such a scale do besides place a false sense of human control and constraints on something much, much larger than us? Chile is better-developed and is a democracy of sorts, so suffered much less destruction and will bounce back quicker from a higher-magnitude earthquake than poor, post-colonial, dictator-run Haiti? Do we need “seismic sociology” to see that? Additionally, Chile has geologic and geographic mitigating factors like stronger bedrock and a spread-out population and, yet, we still don’t know the actual death toll because of downed communication lines, and how will they recover in these crappy economic times? On the other side of the world, China develops at a rapid pace but with very low quality of construction, hence buildings that topple at the slightest tremor and river dams that are ripe for collapse. To bring it back home, my house is a fraking fortress (exactly because it was not built by a developer, ha!) – should I put this datum on a graph and demand a cookie for it? But, should a whopper of a midwestern tornado come along, I am screwed because such is the nature of living where atmosphere and earth meet.

    All this is to say: When a big one kicks the demography, high income level and vital democratic institutions of, say, sits-on-pudding San Francisco, in the rear, social science’s intersecting graphs are immediately null and void. Have we learned nothing from the “response” of our democratic institution after Katrina and during the Flood? Yes, science can, does and should help the public and governments make informed policy decisions, but I am very uncomfortable with it being dragged into half-baked pet social-Darwinian theories that do not consider all factors and possibilities and are ultimately useless.

    Their time would be better spent coming to terms with the fact that rich, poor, black, white live at the mercy of the earth and that development should not entail just money and quantity of stuff but money earned and spent responsibly and the quality of stuff.

  • Tim March 2, 2010, 11:25 PM

    Science shows the way. It’s up to politics to turn it into action. That’s why leaving politics to lawyers and other liberal arts majors is so dangerous.



  • Maitri March 3, 2010, 8:34 AM


    Science explains realities and provides guidelines, but scientists are not necessarily good implementers. Idea implementation requires technologists, logisticians and communicators – these folks can have any degree or no formal education at all, as long as they fully understand what’s going on and Get Things Done.

  • Holly March 9, 2010, 2:00 PM

    First — I am totally a behavioral scientist, but you make earth science way cooler than I ever thought it could be.

    And, though you say many things in your post that are great, within your comments, this: “What good does such a scale do besides place a false sense of human control and constraints on something much, much larger than us?” was brilliant. Though you stated it within the context of earthquake impact (social and geophysical) measures, it actually applies to so many measures. What is most interesting to me about the way we measure things is that they often go more in line with our socio-political leanings than with scientific ones. What makes sense to measure, how to measure it, and how to analyze that measure is perhaps best understood through a socio-political lens (i.e. what makes sense to us) versus what is scientifically supported. So when you say that measures place a ‘false sense of human control’ — yes, but they also can create human control, because those measures are the same things that trigger response.

    Anyway, well said and very much enjoyed.

  • Maitri March 17, 2010, 8:05 PM

    Thanks as usual, Holly, for the behavioral take on disasters.

    “What makes sense to measure, how to measure it, and how to analyze that measure is perhaps best understood through a socio-political lens.”

    Let’s split the difference – what makes sense to measure is discussed and agreed upon by scientists and socio-politicians, scientists measure it and report back, the measure is analyzed through a socio-political lens and WE ALL are responsible for implementation and follow-through.

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