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The Science of Predicting Earth's Deadliest Natural Disaster

by Roger Musson

Pub Date: Oct. 16th, 2012
ISBN: 978-0-230-11941-3
Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan

A British seismologist explains earthquakes.

The rumbling and shaking of earthquakes puzzled people for centuries, writes Musson, chief spokesman at the British Geological Survey. Aristotle blamed the noise on roaring winds forced through subterranean caverns. The people of Lisbon, Portugal, racked by a massive quake in 1755, felt certain God was punishing the wicked. Shortly thereafter, working with limited data, scientists began to develop an understanding: British geologist John Michell posited that earthquakes transmitted on elastic waves; his colleague Charles Lyell found evidence of moving faults. Based on observations of the archetypal San Francisco quake of 1906, Johns Hopkins geologist Harry Fielding Reid accurately defined an earthquake as a violent movement of rocks that releases energy in the form of waves that spread outward at high velocity. Musson describes the evolving science of seismology, including the development of today’s global seismological networks. Analyzing the most significant earthquakes of all time—Lisbon, San Francisco and Sumatra (2004)—he explains what we know about these “strange and uncanny things” and scientists’ “persistent failure” at predicting them. Based on the growing population of urban areas, especially in developing nations, where buildings are not designed to withstand violent shaking, scientists are able to predict that a massive future quake will eventually result in 1 million deaths. In villages in seismically active areas, builders generally use available materials and follow traditional practices, which can lead to high death tolls. In earthquake-savvy cities, builders prevent collapses through reinforcement and other techniques. Musson urges national governments to mandate earthquake safety programs. In the meantime, he writes, the safest place to be during a quake is under a solid piece of furniture.

An authoritative and accessible investigation of one of nature’s most destructive forces.