Earthquake hits a town

Book interview: Lucy Jones, ‘The Big Ones’

Image credit: Dreamstime

Statistical seismologists have moved on from predicting when earthquakes will occur to what will happen when they do. They need to, says author Lucy Jones, because a colossal Los Angeles earthquake is inevitable.

This isn’t science fiction. At some time in the future there will be an earthquake in Los Angeles on such a scale that, in terms of destruction to critical national infrastructure, it will outrank “pretty much anything that we’ve seen before”. Dr Lucy Jones, author of ‘The Big Ones’, is describing the magnitude of an event in which there is a catastrophic “disruption of the fundamental functions of society”.

If you think of a city as being a “system of systems”, she says, there is a water system, a waste water system, an electrical system, communications, transportation and so on, all of which need to continue to function for the city to continue.

When a big earthquake happens, all of these systems are affected at the same time, raising the possibility of this ‘system of systems’ grinding to a halt. What’s interesting for Jones is that “we have a technical and scientific understanding of what’s going to happen, and we have reached an understanding of how that will affect all the things that we build. But the real question is how this affects the functioning of society. And that is a combination of what happens to the infrastructure and how humans cope with it.”

One of the most likely outcomes when the earthquake hits Los Angeles, she says, is that those still alive “will give up and leave”. We know it’s going to happen. We just don’t know when.

We read it for you

The Big Ones

When the forces of nature that rule our planet exceed our ability to withstand them, they become disasters. Big natural events happen all the time, but they only become disasters when they affect humans. So says Lucy Jones in her new book, ‘The Big Ones’, which gives a scientist’s view of some of the world’s most significant natural catastrophes, from the eruption of Vesuvius in AD79 to the Tohoku earthquake in Japan as recently as 2011.

These milestones tell us as much about governance and globalisation as they do geophysics, as well as providing a snapshot of the state of the technological art when it comes to predicting, defending ourselves from and responding to disaster. But, ‘The Big Ones’ isn’t just history. It’s a warning. Because nothing is more certain than the earthquake tragedy that awaits Los Angeles. And we’ve got to get ready for it.

In her fascinating new book, Jones tells the stories of 11 catastrophic disasters in human history. “This is to convey several types of information in one hit. First there is the story of these disasters, along with the history and cultural context in which they happened. This is important because people like stories, and if you tell them what happened, they’ll be more willing to listen to the rest of what you have to say.” Then there is “the science that helps you to understand why a natural event becomes a human catastrophe. Third, I look at how we respond to these disasters, in particular the psychological and emotional responses that prevent us from being as prepared as we could be.”

When predicting disasters – earthquakes in particular – “we absolutely cannot tell you when they will happen. The fundamental problem is that the public doesn’t want me to predict every earthquake. It wants me to predict which, of the millions that happen in the world every year, will be the few that will be large enough to do damage.

“So, you are asking to predict the magnitude, and the problem here is that, as far as we can tell, all earthquakes begin in the same way. The information about how big an earthquake will be is not clearly written in the earth before it begins. It may be determined dynamically, and is still a research question. But it is clear that careful statistics show no pattern. We have a theoretical reason for why there should be no pattern, which is that we are randomly selecting out of an available distribution of earthquakes each time one starts.”

On the other hand, “we can tell you where they’re going to happen. Although we know they are spatially predictable, they are temporally random.”

‘We’ve got a couple of hundred years of experience of watching bridges come down’.

Dr Lucy Jones

The exception to this is when one earthquake triggers another, a phenomenon that comes up several times in ‘The Big Ones’, meaning “there are times of increased probability, which in absolute terms is still low. But the ‘probability gain’ is quite high. These are the ones that present a significant communications challenge.” This challenge relates to the public perception of whether scientists and government agencies know what they’re doing. Or not.

Having spent 33 years as a federal scientist with the US Geological Survey in Southern California, Jones can lay a greater claim than most on being an expert in earthquakes. After a third of a century as a statistical seismologist she jumped ship in order to “give myself the time to do something outside the constraints of federal research science, including writing ‘The Big Ones’”.

Moving beyond these constraints, she is now founder and chief scientist at the Dr Lucy Jones Center for Science and Society and a research associate at Caltech. The centre has the mission of “fostering the communication and application of science towards resilient communities”, which is corporate-speak for “bridging the gap between researchers in their ivory towers and policy people to try to get them to use the stuff that scientists and engineers are coming up with to make us safer”.

When it comes to disaster mitigation and damage limitation to critical national infrastructure, Jones says that the standard engineering approach is to “look at what went wrong and to try to figure out ways of making sure it never happens again”, which she describes as a successful long-term approach. “And so we’ve got a couple of hundred years of experience of watching bridges come down,” which means that we have “evolved better tools and materials, and computer models of what’s going on.” This is counterbalanced by the fact that “the disaster that is big enough to disrupt our society by definition doesn’t happen very often”.

Through our developing engineering techniques, “we’ve come up with ways of dealing with smaller ones that happen more often. Thirty years ago engineers had their own way of describing ground motions, and the seismologists were saying: ‘Wait a minute. What are you doing?’ But in the past few decades we’ve done a good job” in aligning these separate ways of looking at disasters.

“This is one of the reasons why I switched from analysing earthquake probability to looking at scenarios. It’s one thing to say that this is what’s going to happen to a bridge or a building, but it’s another to say what’s going to happen to a city.” What we are doing today, says Jones, is trying to integrate knowledge from different disciplines to produce more accurate pictures of the future. 

‘The Big Ones’ by Lucy Jones is out now from Icon Books, £12.99


A ‘normal’ disaster

I was one of the scientists who provided information after earthquakes. I found people were desperate for science, but not for the reason I expected. I saw the ways it could be used to halt the damage. But in times of natural disaster, the public turns to scientists to minimise not just destruction, but also fear. When I gave the earthquake a name and a fault magnitude, I found myself serving the same psychological function as priests and shamans have done for millennia. I was taking the random, awesome power of Mother Earth and making it look as though it could be controlled.

Natural disasters are spatially predictable – where they occur is not random. Floods happen near rivers, big earthquakes (generally) strike along big faults, volcanic eruptions take place at existing volcanoes. But when they happen is random. We know, in the very long term, how many will take place. We know enough about a fault to know that earthquakes occur with a certain frequency. We can study a region’s climate to the extent that its average rainfall becomes predictable. But whether this year brings floods or drought, whether the largest earthquake along the fault is magnitude 4 or 8 is purely random. And we humans don’t like it. Random means every moment presents a risk, leaving us anxious.

Psychologists describe this as a ‘normalisation bias’, the human inability to see beyond ourselves, so that what we experience in recent memory becomes our definition of what is possible. We think common events are all that we have to face, and that, because the biggest one isn’t in memory, it isn’t real. But the earthquake that ruptures through the full length of a fault, the flood described as Noachian, the full eruption of a volcano, we see as more than the common disaster. We face catastrophe.

Edited extract from ‘The Big Ones’ by Lucy Jones, reproduced with permission

Recent articles

Info Message

Our sites use cookies to support some functionality, and to collect anonymous user data.

Learn more about IET cookies and how to control them