Most environmental issues we hear about are caused and controlled by humans, but earthquakes happen whether we’re here or not. But just because we can’t stop them doesn’t mean we can’t significantly reduce the injuries, casualties, and economic damages. Today, we discuss why earthquakes happen, why they’re so hard to predict, what problems they cause, and how earthquake-prone cities can better prepare for them. We’re joined by Joe LoDuca (University of Connecticut), Mollie McGrann (University of California, Los Angeles), and special guest Dr. Robert Buchwaldt: Earth & Environment Research Professor at Boston University specializing in geology.
When I first embarked on research for this episode on earthquakes, my initial thought was this is weird. Humans don’t cause earthquakes, so is it even an environmental issue? And I came to realize that yes, it is an environmental issue, just one prompted by natural causes.
That observation got me thinking about climate change. For decades, people argued over whether it is due to human activity or natural causes. Scientists have reached a clear consensus that it is caused by human activity, but even today, some non-scientists dissent from that conclusion. But here’s what confused me: let’s say that hypothetically climate change were completely due to natural causes and unaffected by human activity. It would still cause a ton of damage!! We would still need to find every possible way to mitigate and adapt to the rising sea levels, increased tropical storms, ecosystem changes, extreme weather, increased mosquito-borne illness, etc. If Mother Nature is doing it to us or we’re doing it ourselves, we still have to protect ourselves from it, right?
But climate change is human-caused, which does make our job a little easier since there’s a clear (albeit challenging and pricey) path to fix it, whereas earthquakes are caused by nature and cannot be stopped, nor should they be—we need the movement of magma in our mantle to keep our planet at a temperature suitable for human life. Like that hypothetical though, just because we don’t cause them doesn’t mean we do nothing. What I did not know when I began researching is that there’s actually a LOT we can do to prepare for earthquakes to reduce the future damages.
I knew Los Angeles was earthquake-prone, but was shocked to hear scientists like Michio Kaku express 100% certainty that a 7.8-magnitude earthquake would hit Los Angeles in the next thirty years, racking up $200 billion in economic costs and thousands of lives. That is absolutely terrifying. I could barely sleep the next few nights. I’m so glad I dove deeper into this topic because even having been studying environmental policy for three years, I had no idea about this upcoming event. It seems that more people know out in Los Angeles, but certainly not all. If you are interested in learning more about The Big One, I really enjoyed listening to NPR’s podcast “The Big One: Your Survival Guide.” I have no affiliation (unless you want to hire me, NPR!), but I took a lot from it and many chunks of the monologue were inspired by it.
It was also really cool to interview Dr. Buchwaldt, our first scientist interviewee! As someone who likes to listen to what the scientists tell me and then go talk policy, it was new to have such a science-heavy conversation, but I think it really helped put the issue in context, and I was relieved that his answers lined up with my explanation of the science in the monologue. It was also great to chat with Joe and Mollie. Joe is an engineering student in UConn’s Air Force ROTC program, so he had both an interesting take as an engineer and a stake as someone who may be providing disaster relief one day. Mollie goes to college in LA, so hearing a little more about how earthquakes are perceived in her circles was so helpful too.
Earthquakes are so scary, but if there’s one thing I took away from this episode, it’s that we can absolutely be ready and save jobs, money, and lives if we act. Thanks for listening!