Comment: The mega quake is coming and we're missing the big picture

By Jason Murphy

Does it ever feel like we are missing the big picture? Like a frog in a pot we fail to notice changes that happen slowly, and by the time we realise, it's too late.

Take the growth in the world's population, for example.

This six minute video shows how quickly the world's population has got huge. It took millions of years to hit a billion, then got seven times bigger in just the past 200 years.

Human population through time

It feels fine from where I sit. My frame of reference is shorter than 200 years, and anyway, I don't notice all those billions of people and their busy, complex lives.

But that doesn't mean they are irrelevant.

This next graph is interesting too. It shows a sharp change has recently occurred.

Around three million square kilometres of sea ice are missing, compared to what we might expect in a bad year. (That area is a bit bigger than Western Australia). This has been sneaking up on us.

Polar bears are getting very good at swimming as the amount of ice they have to live on shrinks. They can only go 2km/h, but most bears now have to do swims of more than 50km to survive, which takes them all day.

We humans tend to miss the slow build up of signs and then get shocked by the sharp reactions. For example, we love to watch the finance news on the TV each night. There's always a good reason given to explain why the share market went up or down each day. But we still get very surprised when the big crashes come along once every 40 or 50 years.

We seem to be bad at understanding patterns that operate at a level beyond one generation's memory.

As a very recent example, some young Americans seem to be falling in love with the idea of the Nazis, just as the last living soldiers from World War II fade away.

But let's not talk about that. Instead, let's talk about the fault line under Seattle.

The quiet quake zone
We know all about fault lines that go off regularly, like the New Zealand ones and the San Andreas Fault that runs under Los Angeles. But we can live for generations and whole civilisations can develop on top of fault lines that move more slowly.

In the last little while, Seattle has discovered it sits above a fault line nobody knew about. Called the Cascadia Subduction Zone, it is a whole different kind of fault line. It builds up pressure for a really long time, and when it goes, it tends to goes big. Really big.

The last real quake there was around 300 years ago. That is long before the Western part of the USA saw European settlers, and there are only a few stories, passed down through generations, from the indigenous people who lived in the region - many died in the event.

There is a written record of the earthquake though, which researchers discovered far away. In Japan, samurai, merchants, and villagers wrote about a mystery tsunami that occurred in 1700 - a tsunami that arrived without them feeling an earthquake. The quake in the USA had been big enough to send an enormous wave all the way over the Pacific Ocean.

The Cascadia Subduction Zone that lurks below Seattle is able to release an earthquake greater than magnitude 9 on the Richter scale. That's nearly 1000 times more powerful than the 2011 earthquake that flattened central Christchurch.

As Kathryn Schulz wrote in her Pulitzer Prize winning article for The New Yorker, a quake there will kill thousands. It will also collapse or compromise over a million buildings, including two thirds of all railways, airports and hospitals. "The sloshing, sliding, and shaking will trigger fires, flooding, pipe failures, dam breaches, and hazardous-material spills," she writes.

"Then the wave will arrive, and the real destruction will begin."

Earthquakes measuring in the nines are rare. There have only been a handful of magnitude nine quakes in recorded history. Two of them, however, happened recently. One devastated the Pacific on Boxing Day in 2004 and one ruined eastern Japan in 2011. Combined, they killed approximately 250,000 people.

A magnitude nine would devastate Seattle. Unlike LA, it was never built to withstand an earthquake at all - the area was assumed to be geologically stable. But geologists have discovered the risk of a very massive quake and tsunami hitting Seattle is about 20 per cent in the next 50 years.

The city doesn't seem to care too much though. It keeps occupying and even developing the land closest to the sea that will be wiped out when the tsunami hits. That, we notice time and again, seems to be human nature.

The lull before the storm
I'm not trying to be a misanthrope or a calamatist. The rapid recent growth of human population is not the same as an earthquake that will kill us all. But it might be very unpleasant if we don't do two things:

• The first is to pay attention to the big picture. We shouldn't let the disappearance of sea ice in 2016 pass unnoticed. The world is reacting to the increased mass of people on it.
• The second thing is not to be like the people of Seattle, stuck in our ways and unwilling to actually respond to what we know.

Human history is full of great civilisations that faded away. Biologists believe more than 99 per cent of the species that ever existed are now extinct.

We are not immune to these risks. But we are not destined to succumb to them either, so long as we pay attention to the big picture, and have the courage to take action.

• Jason Murphy is an economist. He publishes the blog Thomas The Thinkengine

- news.com.au

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