Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Que será, será

I've discussed here more than a few times the problem of low probability, high impact events. To be more precise, we are often talking about events that are nearly certain to occur, but at unpredictable times that might be far in the future. It also so happens that without even trying, I've learned a little bit in the past few days about U.S. Pacific coast geology.

It seems the Cascadia fault runs offshore near Washington and Oregon, much like the fault that just broke near northern Honshu. It is right now a little bit past the historically average interval for a major rupture, which would likely produce a tsunami. Fact.

So what should be done? I use the passive voice advisedly because the first problem is thinking of who it might be who might do something. Suppose the governor of Washington, Christine Gregoire, decided to write to everybody who resides, owns a business, or owns property near the Washington coast, and that would include Seattle. She might say something like, "You should know that geologists believe it is likely that sometime in the next 100 years or so, an earthquake and tsunami will devastate a large stretch of coastline in Washington and/or Oregon. It might happen tomorrow, it might happen long after you are dead. It might hit right where you are, or it might be centered far enough away to affect you less severely. But everything in the path of the tsunami will be destroyed and anyone who fails to evacuate (and you might have, at most, 30 minutes warning) will die. So, do whatever you think is wise."

She would become an Enemy of the People. She would be universally excoriated for sowing panic, damaging property values, giving little children nightmares, and probably being nuts. But, all this does happen to be true. Yet, obviously, nobody is going to do anything about it. Yes, they have toughened building codes so new construction in the area is more earthquake resistant, but as we have seen, absolutely nothing can be made tsunami resistant. When you are all of a sudden in the middle of the ocean, that's just not a place your house and minivan can be.

People are not going to abandon their communities, and they certainly aren't going to abandon Seattle. So, there you have it. And by the way, Mt. Vesuvius will probably destroy Naples. Some day. Maybe tomorrow. Too bad, huh?

1 comment:

Daniel said...

You've summarized this quite accurately.

I live about 30 miles downstream from a series of dams. If the dams failed I'd be a surfer for sure. The dams are about 150 miles from the Yellowstone Calderon so...

In the mean time the irrigation water allows us to grow corn, beans, chilies and squash, a welcome respite from my otherwise tech world.