Shaken, and Stirred

Plumbing a millennia-old human relationship with seismicity

The world’s most famous earthquake occurred on the San Andreas Fault in northern California early in the morning of April 18, 1906, in two shocks separated by a pause and lasting between 45 and 60 seconds in all. The lower part of San Francisco’s City Hall collapsed almost instantaneously, as did many other buildings. But the fire that started after the earthquake had disabled the main water supply was what destroyed the city. Despite heroic efforts from firefighters and dynamiting of buildings to create fire-breaks, the fire burned for three days until it was at last deprived of fuel. By then it had devoured 508 blocks and more than 28,000 buildings, extending over 12.2 square kilometres (three quarters of the city and about eight times the area destroyed by the Great Fire of London in 1666), killed more than 3,000 people and cost at least $500 million. Combined with the earthquakes, it left 225,000 people—more than half of San Francisco’s population—homeless.

Nearly a century later, it seems, we had not come much further in our understanding of earthquakes, or our preparedness for them. On December 26, 2004, when an area of seabed off Sumatra of staggering dimensions—similar in size to half of California—slipped about ten metres, the event came, once again, out of nowhere. The tsunami it produced famously created havoc in several countries around the Indian Ocean, as far away from the earthquake’s epicentre as Sri Lanka, and caused about 230,000 deaths. The country worst affected was Indonesia, especially the province of Aceh at the northern end of Sumatra, where the coastal regions were flattened by a wall of water and almost 170,000 people perished. Perhaps the most famous photograph of the disaster shows a ship lying on top of a ruined house in Banda Aceh.

Neither the San Francisco earthquake nor the one that caused the 2004 tsunami was predicted, and at present there is no realistic possibility of seismologists predicting the timing of great earthquakes, despite more than a century of scientific research. Earthquake forecasting is like weather forecasting would be, if all the clouds were hidden deep underground. Even the world’s leading scientists and technologists working in Silicon Valley and the California Institute of Technology (home of Charles Richter, famous for his Richter scale)—both of which lie right by the San Andreas Fault—have made little progress with successful earthquake forecasting.

This dark chasm in our understanding is one focus of Andrew Robinson’s contemplative book Earth-Shattering Events: Earthquakes, Nations and Civilization. Robinson is the author of more than 25 books issued by leading general and academic publishers and covering three main areas: science and the history of science, archaeology and scripts, and Indian history and culture. His books have been translated into 13 European languages, as well as Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese. This newest work is a scholarly but terrifying book examining how humans and earthquakes have interacted, not only in the short term but also in the long perspective of history.

From earliest times, Robinson notes—at least as far back as the ancient Indus civilization of the third millennium BCE—humans have cohabited with seismicity in a “fatal attraction” (the evocative phrase of geophysicist James Jackson), because the advantages of living in many earthquake-prone regions, such as Greece, Italy, California and Japan, easily outweigh the disadvantages. In the 21st century, more than half of the world’s largest metropolises—as many as 60 cities—lie on plate tectonic boundaries, such as California’s San Andreas Fault, in areas of major seismic activity. They include Ankara, Athens, Beijing, Cairo, Caracas, Delhi, Hong Kong, Istanbul, Jakarta, Karachi, Kathmandu, Lisbon, Lima, Los Angeles, Manila, Mexico City, Naples, Osaka, Rome, San Francisco, Santiago, Shanghai, Singapore, Taipei, Tehran and Tokyo. Many of them have suffered major destruction from earthquakes during the past two or three centuries.

Nevertheless, they have all recovered remarkably quickly, and sometimes prospered as a result of the recovery process—as happened in San Francisco after 1906. This, combined with the infrequency of great earthquakes in exactly the same place—even in California and Japan—and their unpredictability mean that they tend to be underestimated as a threat by residents of these cities. As Robinson wisely points out, “this neglect of future earthquakes by the general public is not simple to explain, especially when we recall that archaeologists and historians, too, generally neglect earthquakes.”

Earthquakes tend to be forgotten and subsumed into wars, economic cycles, epidemic and environmental abuses. Also large earthquakes are infrequent events, but they are no less dangerous or inevitable. And people wrongly suppress their awareness of earthquakes out of anxiety at their helplessness. The events strike with only minimal if any warning, and no effective protection. Perhaps that is why we do not think too much about them. We think, quite incorrectly, that we are in control of our own destinies. Yet “amnesia makes for poor history,” as Robinson says.

In some cases, the physical devastation of earthquakes has been followed by cataclysmic decline. Consider the Tokyo earthquake of 1923, which helped to trigger the militarization of Japanese society in the late 1920s and ’30s, and pave its subsequent path to world war. The probability of this happening again is quite likely as people, in search of attractive landscapes and economic prosperity, seem to have made a Faustian bargain with the risk of ruin and destruction. Interestingly enough, even in the 21st century, earthquakes are “acts of God,” inherently totally beyond human control—and seismologists have not been able to monitor the impending probability of earthquakes with any degree of certainty. Robinson’s stimulating study puts the impact of earthquakes on history into proper perspective, and the case studies he has chosen to write about lead us not only to a better understanding of how seismology has developed as a science but also to the very real probability that these terrible disasters can happen again.

Nevertheless, by paying some attention to earth-shattering events and how they have affected history and modern civilization we could perhaps learn how to coexist more securely and creatively with seismic hazard.