Learning to Appreciate Earthquakes

The 5.1-magnitude La Habra earthquake on March 29 demonstrated the typical average-sized temblor Southern Californians should be accustomed to.
| Photo: U.S. Geological Survey

Things got a little shaky around here last month.

Many in the Los Angeles area were awakened with a top o' the morning 4.1-magnitude "Shamrock Shake" on March 17, which was centered in the Santa Monica Mountains above Encino. Just 12 days later, on the evening of March 29, a series of tremors centered in La Habra that began with a 3.6 foreshock and peaked with a 5.1 quake that was felt around much of Southern California added to the seismic show beneath our feet. It was the biggest earthquake to rattle the Southland in six years.

Whenever these things happen, it invariably becomes a numbers game, with magnitudes reported on traditional and social media to keep everything in perspective as we anticipate the dreaded "Big One."

We humans fear what we cannot really understand. So maybe it's time for us Southern Californians to understand earthquakes a bit more. Or maybe even appreciate them.

Like snakes and sharks, earthquakes are seemingly menacing things that we tend to fear due to the perceived danger they can bring. But like snakes and sharks, the vast majority of them are rather harmless -- Southern California experiences some 10,000 earthquakes annually, though only a few hundred of them measure above 3.0 in magnitude.

Perhaps the most unsettling thing about earthquakes is that they challenge our incorrect notion that the ground is solid.

The theory of plate tectonics, the most widely-accepted scientific explanation for the formation of our planet's landmasses and oceans, suggests the ground is in fact not a solid object, but something that is in a constant state of change, albeit one that cannot be as easily detected by the relatively short span of human recorded history, much less within the relatively short lifespans of humans themselves. In author John McPhee's 1993 book, "Assembling California," where he tags along with geologists who show him how much of the geophysical profile of the Golden State was formed, he wrote, "Fifty thousand major quakes will move something about a hundred miles. After there was nothing, earthquakes brought things from far parts of the world to fashion California." -- The latter sentence also being an interesting parallel to our state's human composition.

But I've always thought of the notion of "Earthquake Country" as somewhat silly, as well as inaccurate, given the context of the East Coast vs. West Coast dichotomy many Americans subscribe to. It's as if it suggests that earthquakes are the price Californians pay for, say, our favorable year-round climate (On the contrary, the most seismically-active state is not California, but Alaska, and the most damaging earthquake to hit the U.S. this century was actually centered in Virginia). The notion of "Earthquake Country" is silly given that some two-thirds of the world's population lives in a seismically-active zone, making a large part of the planet -- as opposed to a single region -- "Earthquake Country."

But if earthquakes are the price we pay, then so be it. The very mountains that we ski on, hike in, or drive up to in order to enjoy spectacular views of the landscape below, are all there because of earthquakes. The peaks and ranges that are home to icons such as the Hollywood Sign, Big Bear Lake, and the Griffith, Mt. Wilson, and Palomar observatories, are all built up by temblors. The very hills that define the character of our communities, and are embedded in their names, be they Woodland, Rolling, Baldwin, Anaheim, Puente, or Beverly, were all created by seismic movements. The 5.1 quake that was centered in La Habra in late March likely lifted the Puente Hills by a few centimeters. To human eyes, the profile of the hills look much the same as they always have been, but in millions of years, they will likely be towering, unrecognizable peaks. Elsewhere, quakes have gradually created the Alps, the Himalayas, the Andes. Without earthquakes, the world would be -- quite literally -- flat.

Dare I say that we are "fortunate" to have earthquakes. A hurricane or typhoon unleashes its destruction over several hours. An earthquake, even the most damaging ones, will last but seconds, minutes at the most. In a hurricane, your house will likely flood. Your carpets and walls will be inundated with water, and when the flood waters cease, mold will take over. In an earthquake, anything that wasn't damaged following the quake likely stays undamaged (as long as you shut the gas off after you've smelled it).

Even the types of earthquakes in Southern California we can be somewhat thankful for. Unlike Japan, Indonesia, Alaska, or Chile, we do not live near a subduction zone, where one of the earth's tectonic plates slams under another. Those conditions create the enormous magnitude 9-and-above quakes that not only cause unprecedented shaking, but the equally disastrous tsunamis that can bring about destruction in faraway lands. A magnitude 8 earthquake, however powerful it can be, is the worst that can happen around here (Seattle and the rest of the Pacific Northwest, have an even bigger "Big One" on their hands).

The Tongva (a.k.a. Gabrieleño) people, the native American tribe that has lived for thousands of years in what is now the Los Angeles area, lived with earthquakes (which they called "yaaytok"). Their folklore explained that the world was built on the backs of seven large turtles (how similar to plate tectonics that is), that moved when angered, causing temblors. Of course, the Tongvan built environment consisted of dwellings made out of whale bones, reeds, and grasses -- earthquakes were no more catastrophic than the wind and the rain. It was only after Spanish settlement and colonization, with the introduction of structures made of stone and masonry, that quakes became dangerous phenomena.

Of course, it's unrealistic to expect 21st century Southern Californians to go back to living in small grass huts, but the most we can do is continue to improve earthquake-resistant designs. The older quake-vulnerable structures will either go away or be reinforced, in a form of structural darwinism: Only the most quake-resistant buildings will survive in the long run.

Appreciating earthquakes does not mean we morbidly revel in casualties, of course. Deaths and injuries are inevitable consequences of any major quake. But the onus is on human societies to minimize them as much as possible. We must always be prepared for earthquakes -- both during the event and the potential aftermath. We can train ourselves through earthquake drills. We can invest in warning systems than can detect and alert us of seismic waves before they reach the surface. We can educate ourselves on seismic activity to dispel popular myths about quakes, such as "earthquake weather" or the notion of "California falling into the sea."

But we just can't prevent earthquakes themselves. They have happened on this planet before there were humans, and will continue to happen after we're long extinct.

Each year, earthquakes typically claim the lives of 10,000 people worldwide. But in comparison, car accidents claim 1.2 million lives worldwide (including over 30,000 in the U.S. alone) annually. So your risk of succumbing to a quake, or any other natural disaster, is much, much smaller than the human-generated activity of our daily lives.

Most likely the next earthquake you will feel will be a small or moderate one, which will more likely cause a flurry of tweets on Twitter than any significant damage or human harm. So take a moment to appreciate the power of our active planet that you were able to bear witness to.

Pitzer College Divests from Fossil Fuels -- Who's Next?

From Left, Trustee Donald Gould, Professor Brinda Sarathy, student activist Jess Grady-Benson, President Laura Skandera Trombley, and Robert Redford at the LA Press Club | Photo: Courtesy Pitzer College

Pitzer College celebrated Earth Day a little early this year -- as in ten days premature.

But it can be excused: On Saturday, April 12, with college trustee Robert Redford lending his considerable eco-cred to the ceremony at the LA Press Club, President Laura Skandera Trombley announced that Pitzer would be divesting its endowment of fossil-fuel stocks by December 2014. With that decision, the planet can breathe a tad easier.

Its respiration, and ours, will be helped as well by the college's critical and linked decisions to establish an Environmental, Social, and Corporate Governance investment policy that will frame future financial decisions; reduce its carbon footprint by 25% over the next two years; establish a segregated environment fund within its endowment to promote campus sustainability, some of the income of which will be directed toward incentivizing changes in community behavior and sustainability projects (And it is discussing investing in the Billion-Dollar Green Challenge that will underwrite energy-efficiency initiatives). Achieving these ambitions goals will not be easy -- actually they will be quite hard -- but the college's trustees, aided by an energized student body and faculty, have rightly decided that this year, as it marks its 50th birthday, Pitzer should go bold. (Full Disclosure: I serve on the college's alumni board, as well as work for Pomona College. Both Pitzer and Pomona are part of the Claremont University Consortium)

It always has. Founded in 1963, with a small faculty and a handful of female students supported by a minuscule endowment on a tiny campus scraped out of Claremont's boulder-studded alluvial soil, it has become one of the best liberal-arts colleges in the country, and not incidentally with one of the most diverse faculty and student bodies. Pitzer's ongoing transformation has occurred in good part by keeping a steady eye on its motto: Provida Futuri. Mindful of the Future.

A Woman of the Woods: Susan R. Schrepfer, 1941-2014

Susan Schrepfer (left) with Forest History Society colleagues Elwood Maunder and Barbara Holman in 1975. | Photo: Courtesy of Forest History Society, Durham NC

Susan Schrepfer, who died on March 3, taught several generations of environmental historians how to see the forest and the trees.

Which is another way of saying that Susan thought large and small, urged her colleagues and readers to integrate big-picture ideas with their localized manifestations, and through her impeccably researched and gracefully written books helped us rethink our complicated (because constructed) relationship to the natural world.

A long-time member of the history department at Rutgers University, Susan earned her academic degrees from UC Santa Barbara and UC Riverside. Critical to her craft, though, was her successful stint as a researcher at the Forest History Society (FHS), then located in Santa Cruz (it now calls Durham, NC home). Working through its jam-packed archives, which contain an unparalleled collection of business records of the American timber industry, personal papers of foresters and conservationists, hard-to-find Forest Service records, and long-out-of-print newspapers, and by conducting interviews with some of the key contemporary players, Susan carefully tracked the paper trail that is the historian's special charge.

Martin Luther King, Social Justice, and Streetscape Environmentalism

The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King does not get enough credit.

That's a seemingly odd claim to make given that we celebrate his remarkable life in activism through a federal holiday, mark his achievements during February, Black History Month, and every April 4 to pause in remembrance of his brutal assassination. Yet during these commemorative moments, we tend to remember only those aspects of his political engagement that affirm central tenets of American culture, not those that critique it.

Consider the endlessly hyped portion of King's 1963 "I Have A Dream" speech, wherein he looks forward to the day when his children will live in a society "where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." In January, even ESPN endlessly channeled a version of King's words in a series of in-house ads, a reflection of how much King's moral claim about the power of the individual has become an ideological touchstone.

This refrain's almost sacred quality may explain why, 50 years later, we have forgotten the radical and communal context of King's insight. His was not an individualistic creed. For him, social justice is social; it is collectively defined and derived.

Even those who might be expected to share King's perceptions seem to have forgotten this truth and its essential, animating force. Count environmental justice advocates among those who do not always appreciate his powerful role in their movement's history.

Nature's Odd Couple: Gray Whales and El Segundo Blue Butterflies

A gray whale tail and El Segundo blue butterfly.
| Photos: Left - Sam Beebe/Flickr/Creative Commons License; Right - stonebird/Flickr/Creative Commons License

We drove to Point Vicente on Palos Verdes Peninsula to look for gray whales. We came away even more impressed by a tiny butterfly, the El Segundo Blue.

The large-bodied mammal travels as much as 12,000 miles a year to fulfill its lifecycle demands, whereas the El Segundo Blue (ESB) goes nowhere, finding all it needs on a single plant rooted in the steep bluffs above the surging ocean through which the iconic whales annually migrate.

Neither strategy, it turns out, has been risk free.

Elmer Avenue: A Sun Valley Native Plant Oasis, With a Purpose

Drought-tolerant Autumn Sage flowers bloom in the parkway of an Elmer Avenue residence in Sun Valley, irrigated by stormwater runoff from the street.
| Photo: Elson Trinidad

On an uncharacteristically hot late winter weekend in the east San Fernando Valley, the community of Sun Valley lived up to its name. The thermometer surpassed 90 degrees, the streets were dusty, and all evidence of the Southland's largest downpour in two years, which occurred mere weeks ago, had all but evaporated, swirling in the dust kicked up by the Valley winds. Even with the long shadows forming in the late afternoon, the sight of virtually no clouds and the towering sun-baked San Gabriel Mountains to the east, were visual proof alone that this day felt more August than March.

On this particular street, the sound of mariachi, ranchera, Latin ballads, and techno music blast out of household stereos, a common soundtrack for the eastern SFV. But here, amidst sidewalk-less suburban streets, this block looks...rather different: A meandering pedestrian pathway separates the front yards of xeriscaped gardens or severely curtailed lawns from the sunken parkways bearing drought-tolerant bushes and wildflowers, with rocks and stones lining the bottom. And down the street, what appears to be a former alley is a verdant oasis of California native plants, accompanied by a public walkway and colored images of flora, fauna, and a prescient quote from John Muir.

This is the 7700 block of Elmer Avenue, between Stagg and Keswick streets, just east of Tujunga Avenue. It is the site of the Elmer Avenue Neighborhood Retrofit Project, a pilot urban stormwater program of The Council for Watershed Health, in collaboration with the city of Los Angeles and other government and nonprofit partners.

Irrigation Districts are Pumping Groundwater, Making Money, and Undercutting Their Future

The signs are everywhere. Two sets of them line the eastern and western flanks of I-5 as it runs through the Central Valley and they narrate competing stories about the current drought wracking California.

The most in-your-face are the now-ubiquitous billboards and placards decrying the lack of water flowing to Big Ag operations. The culprit for this low(er) flow is not climate-driven drought, they shout, but Congress.

Some of the messages demonize particular politicians (Nancy Pelosi is a favorite target, though she has not been House Speaker for years). Most strike an ominous note, as if a conspiracy was afoot: Stop the Congress Created Dust Bowl! No Water = No Jobs! No Water = Higher Food Prices! A handful of others encourage Southern Californians to see their shared pain; water restrictions, these declare, bite just as hard in Kern and King counties as they do in Los Angeles and San Diego.

Yet this week as we zoomed past these markers of a polarized and polarizing political landscape, the physical terrain offered a counter narrative. Everywhere, water was on the move. Ditches fanning out from the State Water Project and the Central Valley Project were flush, a rush of white gold on its way to irrigate row crops, orchards, and groves. The sun glinted off flooded rice fields. Sprinklers arced across new beds that stretched out to the horizon, aerosoling the sky with a rainbow hue. Tractor and pickup tires were mud-encased.

The source of this water is something of a puzzle.

Obama Just Expanded the California Coastal National Monument

Point Arena-Stornetta Public Lands. | Photo: Courtesy Dept. of the Inteior

President Obama's 2014 State of the Union speech contained lots of promises. They won't all be fulfilled, of course, but one of them, only hinted at in his January 28 address, has just been realized.

The intimation was tucked into a paragraph focused on how America was achieving greater energy independence and why natural gas was "the bridge fuel that can power our economy with less of the carbon pollution that causes climate change." Here's Obama closing thought, a seemingly off-handed remark: "And while we're at it, I'll use my authority to protect more of our pristine federal lands for future generations."

Those provocative words may have slipped below many people's radar, but to activists pressing the president to use the Antiquities Act (1906) to set aside additional wildlands, they were an executive elixir. Because the act empowers Obama to designate new or expand the limits of current national monuments without congressional oversight -- a privilege Theodore Roosevelt, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton used repeatedly -- the signal seemed clear. The preservation of more scenic and significant landscapes was in the offing.

SoCal Needs to Plan for Drought, Even After Big Storms

The divine has a keen sense of irony. Last Saturday, the same day that the American Institute for Progressive Democracy, a Claremont-based think tank, presented a conference at Scripps College on water scarcity, the skies opened up.

As the Southland was hit with the largest "storm event" in close to three years, speaker after speaker walked to the Garrison Theater podium to talk about aridity, laying out its global dimensions, regional implications, and local ramifications.

The timing, however ironic, was also fortuitous: The dark clouds, hard rain, and thunder claps drove home the difference between weather (short-term analysis) and climate (long term). They exposed our feel-good penchant for the former over the latter, our default emphasis on small steps to insure water conservation that too-often ignores the necessary and systematic alterations to how California and the American west manages, distributes, and utilizes their water resources.

Trying to figure out what some of these bottom-up, lateral, and top-down strategies will be -- and how to integrate them -- was the central focus of the all-day conference, "Water Scarcity and Solutions: Global to Local," attended by upwards of 200 umbrella-toting folks.

If Bill Nye Was a Very Old Tree, What Kind of Very Old Tree Would He Be?

A relative youngster in the White Mountains | Photo: Nick Truland/Flickr/Creative Commons License

It would be hard to think of anyone who's done more to spread enthusiasm for science among American kids than Bill Nye. Since his show "Bill Nye the Science Guy" first went national 21 years ago, he's become synonymous with televised scientific wonder among people in demographics just a little bit younger than mine. And for good reason: he does a great job conveying complex concepts to developing minds.

Nye's gotten a little more press than usual lately after his much-publicized debate early in February with evolution denier Ken Ham, and one of those bits of additional press came in the form of a guest shot on February 14 on the HBO talk show "Real Time with Bill Maher."

While talking with Maher about why he didn't find Biblical Creation myth plausible, Nye ventured into my usual turf: the deserts of California. That's cool, but he made an error in basic fact that I can't help but pick at. I don't care how popular he and his bow tie are: I can show no mercy.

< Prev 1 2 3 4 5