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The Million Death Quake: The Science of Predicting Earth's Deadliest Natural Disaster

The Million Death Quake: The Science of Predicting Earth's Deadliest Natural Disaster

4.5 6
by Roger Musson

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For centuries, Californians and the Japanese have known that they were at risk of catastrophic earthquakes, and prepared accordingly. But when a violent 7.0 earthquake rocked Haiti in 2010, hardly anyone knew the island nation was even at risk for disaster, and, tragically, no one was prepared. Over 300,000 people died as buildings that had never been designed to


For centuries, Californians and the Japanese have known that they were at risk of catastrophic earthquakes, and prepared accordingly. But when a violent 7.0 earthquake rocked Haiti in 2010, hardly anyone knew the island nation was even at risk for disaster, and, tragically, no one was prepared. Over 300,000 people died as buildings that had never been designed to withstand such intense shaking toppled over and crushed their inhabitants. Now, scientists warn that it won't be long before a single, catastrophic quake kills one million people - and that it is going to strike right where we least expect it. In this groundbreaking book, renowned seismologist with the British Geological Survey Roger Musson takes us on an exhilarating journey to explore what scientists and engineers are doing to prepare us for the worst. With riveting tales of the scientists who first cracked the mystery of what causes the ground to violently shake, Musson makes plain the powerful geological forces driving earthquakes and tsunamis, and shows how amazing feats of engineering are making our cities earthquake-proof. Highlighting hotspots around the world from Mexico City to New York this is a compelling scientific adventure into nature at its fiercest.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Could the earthquake that struck Haiti in 2010 have been predicted and 300,000 deaths prevented? Answering this pressing question with an informative but lackluster study, seismologist and geologist Musson says that prediction is still a challenge, but preventing deaths is within our reach. “Earthquakes don’t kill people, buildings do” is one chapter title. As cities grow into megacities with cheaply constructed buildings, the odds of a million-death earthquake increase. Musson explains the geological forces that cause earthquakes and the three criteria for measuring the risk of damage: hazard, the chance that shaking will occur in a given place; exposure, how much can be damaged from an earthquake; and vulnerability, a measure of how strong or weak buildings are in the stricken area. As cities continue to grow, planners must consider how buildings are constructed. Musson offers suggestions on how a building’s shape (irregular rather than square), materials (lighter rather than heavier), and engineering (testing design ideas with “artificial” earthquakes) can make it less likely to cause deaths. Musson counsels that it is everyone’s responsibility to prepare to respond by, for instance, knowing to turn gas off and remain outdoors and away from buildings after an earthquake. Illus. (Oct.)
From the Publisher

“Compulsively readable.” —Slate

“People with no background in Earth sciences can understand every word of it; its author is the head of seismic hazard for the British Geological Survey and writes with authority; and, above all, it could help save lives…earthquakes don't kill people – their offices, factories, tenements and houses do. There could hardly be a more serious take-home message.” —The Guardian

“A lay-reader-friendly guide to seismology fundamentals, from early theories about earthquake origins to the workings of contemporary plate tectonics...Musson demonstrates why his expertise is much in demand in the wake of each new quake by keeping readers absorbed with clear explanations and colorful anecdotes about one of nature's most calamitous forces.” —Booklist

“An authoritative and accessible investigation of one of nature's most destructive forces.” —Kirkus Reviews

“Roger Musson has written a sobering assessment of the global hazards posed by earthquakes. He gives us an eloquent grounding in seismology based on science and history and confronts the questions of prediction and survival with balanced honesty. Buy a copy of this essential book and read it again and again.” —Brian Fagan, author of Elixir: A History of Water and Humankind and The Little Ice Age

“Geophysicist Roger Musson provides an insider's view of seismology, from riveting accounts of historic earthquakes to the sobering modern reality that as global population grows, future earthquakes could cause unprecedented devastation. But he also argues that lives can be saved -- if we have the political will -- through investment in earthquake engineering and real-time digital warning systems. Essential reading for policymakers, planners, builders, investors, and all citizens of this tectonically vigorous planet.” —Marcia Bjørnerud, author of Reading the Rocks

“A solid look at a shaky topic that shows why the whole world is earthquake country when it comes to disaster prevention.” —David R. Montgomery, author of The Rocks Don't Lie: A Geologist Investigates Noah's Flood

The Million Death Quake is an entertaining history of earthquakes, with both compelling stories of some of the deadliest disasters of all time and stories of how scientists very slowly came to understand what causes them. The author provides very clear scientific explanations of earthquakes and of the reasons why we still cannot predict them. Throughout the book Musson puts the entire subject in very human terms, emphasizing especially the important factor of population vulnerability. Because we cannot predict earthquakes our only progress in reducing earthquake deaths has been through improved building construction. But many densely populated cities lack such building improvements on a large enough scale, making possible the potential disaster that gives this book its title.” —Bruce Parker, author of The Power of the Sea

“A crystal-clear primer on everything seismological...What makes earthquake disasters all the more harrowing is that in many cases the risks were known and heavy losses could have been avoided.” —Clive Oppenheimer, author of Eruptions that Shook the World

Kirkus Reviews
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.

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The Million Death Quake

The Science of Predicting Earth's Deadliest Natural Disaster

By Roger Musson

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2012 Roger Musson
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-137-10699-5




A large city with a population of millions, perhaps about the size of Chicago or Madrid, and everywhere people are screaming. Not just on one block, as might happen if there was an accident or an explosion. Block after block, street after street — in the downtown, by the harbor, in the suburbs, everywhere people are screaming. The traffic has stopped, people are getting out of their cars; many people are running, others are milling around in a state of shock; still others are just standing, clutching their faces, and screaming. Many do nothing at all, because they are dead. Everywhere it is the same.

Five minutes ago it was all different. Just five minutes ago it was a normal afternoon. The streets were busy with people going about their day-to-day business; the market stalls were doing their usual trade. Some people were already making their way home, carrying shopping baskets of vegetables for dinner, their minds on plans for the evening. Just another day like any other, and people's minds were on the usual things: "Those oranges look good"; "I ought to get a new shirt"; "I must fix the roof tomorrow." All the different thoughts, conversations, and activities that make up the life of a busy, bustling city.

How quickly it all changed. There was no warning. Suddenly there was a terrific sound like an express train rushing down the center of the street, and everything started rocking. Then, from all around, came the sound of breaking glass and then the baleful rumble of collapsing masonry. And then screaming.

And dust. As the buildings caved in and turned to rubble, clouds of dust rose into the air, a horrible yellowy-gray dust of powdered concrete and cement. And it was everywhere. Buildings were collapsing across the city, each sending up its own cloud of dust. A woman standing on her balcony overlooking the city saw the clouds merge and the whole city disappear in one huge rising cloud of dust. No streets, no buildings, no landmarks, just dust that obscured everything. But she could hear the roar of collapsing buildings and the shrieks and screams. The woman was already on the phone to a distant friend when the disaster struck. She cried into the receiver, "It's the end of the world!"

This was Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on January 12, 2010. The local time was seven minutes to five in the afternoon.

AT THE TIME OF THE HAITI EARTHQUAKE I WAS SITTING IN my study at home in Edinburgh. The time was five hours later than in Haiti. At about 10:15 P.M., as the first waves from the earthquake were beginning to reach the seismometers of the UK monitoring network, the phone rang. A journalist from the BBC had already heard about the earthquake and wanted to know what I could tell him about it.

A hundred years ago, if an earthquake happened in a distant place, the seismologists usually were the first to know, as the first seismic waves arrived at their instruments. Nowadays communications are vastly different, and radio waves travel much faster than sound, so when an earthquake occurs, the news spreads around the globe almost at once. Journalists can often be first with the news.

Thanks to the connectedness of the Internet and the great work done in recent years by the seismological community (especially those with the US Geological Survey) in exchanging data and linking systems, it was not difficult to bring up the first results on my computer screen. These were being compiled automatically from data gathered by those monitoring stations closer to Haiti that had already picked up signals and started computing earthquake parameters.

From what I could see, the news was all bad. I had worked some years previously on a project in the Dominican Republic, next door to Haiti, and I had some familiarity with the complex geological structure of the region and how it related to earthquakes. In particular, I knew about an especially dangerous fault that runs along the southern peninsula of Haiti and into the Dominican Republic. Blessed with the rather baroque name of the Enriquillo–Plantain Garden Fault, it is a structure similar to the much-better-known San Andreas Fault in California. And similarly deadly.

And this earthquake was right on it. And right next to the capital city of Haiti — a city whose population was densely packed into badly built houses that straggled up into the surrounding shantytowns. A city cursed with poverty and already weakened by recent hurricanes and floods. A city as vulnerable to earthquakes as ever a city could be. And here was a major earthquake scoring practically a direct hit.

What I was thinking was, "Population of most-affected area — about three million; likely fatality rate — maybe 5 to 10 percent; likely death toll — 150,000? 300,000?" What I said was, "I'm afraid this is going to be very bad."

But how bad? The true extent of the devastation after an earthquake is often slow to emerge. Usually it follows a characteristic pattern. The first news reports of the disaster usually say something like "At least twelve people are confirmed to have been killed," which probably means that the reporter was able to count twelve bodies before filing the story. The next report says, "At least two hundred people are now known to have died." A day later the figure is "more than a thousand," and so it goes. Eventually the official death toll for the Haiti earthquake reached 220,000, a figure cited frequently in accounts of the earthquake published during the following year. Then, finally, twelve months later a revised figure was released — 316,000 dead. Officially the second-deadliest earthquake in human history. The figure is disputed, and often one never really knows the truth. In the first days after an earthquake, the prime consideration is rescuing those trapped under the wreckage and saving as many lives as possible. All effort must be directed toward helping the living; the dead are beyond help. So making an accurate count of the dead is not a high priority. Then, for health reasons, it's often necessary to clear away corpses as quickly as possible, even if that means mass burial. So in the chaos following a major earthquake disaster, establishing an accurate body count can be nearly impossible.

But even if establishing an accurate ranking of the ten deadliest earthquakes is not possible, Haiti is clearly up there with the worst — somewhere in the top ten, if not actually second.


Just over a month later, on February 27, the news once again was full of stories about an earthquake, this time in Chile. A truly massive earthquake — hundreds of times larger than the Haiti earthquake — struck off the coast of central Chile. The earth's crust was violently displaced by as much as ten meters as rocks were ripped apart for seven hundred kilometers along the Chilean coast, devastation that took three minutes from start to finish.

This huge earthquake proved a different story from the Haiti quake. Once again the death toll started small, then gradually rose and rose — and then came down again. From an estimate of 802, it declined to 521 as some people who had been marked as missing and presumed dead turned out to be very much alive, having taken refuge with relatives outside the disaster zone.

Chile is very different from Haiti. It may not be the richest country in the world, but it is not mired in poverty like Haiti. And, crucially, everyone in Chile knows the country has an earthquake problem. Earthquakes are common there. As a result buildings are routinely built to withstand earthquakes. Even if Haiti had had the resources to make buildings safer, no one in Port-au-Prince had ever felt an earthquake there before, and people had no idea they were at risk.

These two quakes from early 2010 make an instructive comparison. People sometimes imagine that the larger an earthquake is, the worse it must be. In truth, many factors determine an earthquake's impact.

The Haiti earthquake was something like the worst case imaginable. It was strong, and it was close to a major city. The Chilean quake might have been larger, but it didn't deliver the same concentrated punch to one major city. And, most important, the Haitians were far more vulnerable. They were not prepared.

An Australian geologist of my acquaintance, Ted Brennan, devised his own personal scale of earthquake disaster potential, rating cities from one to ten. This wasn't based on frequency of earthquakes — almost the reverse. He would give a low rating to cities that have often been exposed to earthquakes. The high ratings he awarded to cities that had been hit in the past but well beyond living memory, places where people were complacent in the belief that earthquakes were not their problem. The last time Port-au-Prince had been destroyed by an earthquake was 1770, when it was a lot smaller. Who in modern Haiti knew anything about that?

Chile might be a far more earthquake-prone country, but it was prepared, and the preparations by and large did their work.

Haiti 2010 was one of the deadliest earthquakes on record, and Chile 2010 was one of the largest. Oddly enough, if one tries to list the largest quakes ever and the deadliest quakes ever, few appear on both lists. But both Haiti's and Chile's were quakes for the record books, and the Chile quake occurred with the harrowing accounts from Haiti still fresh in everyone's mind. It caused a lot of people to take notice. Two disasters so close together. Could it be that earthquakes are becoming more common?

On some Internet bulletin boards a conspiracy theory started to develop — that earthquakes are becoming more frequent, but seismologists have plotted to conceal the alarming truth. At the same time a rumor was circulating that climate scientists were plotting to exaggerate the risks of climate change in order to get more research dollars. So why, exactly, would seismologists be trying to conceal a growing peril instead of looking for more funding for seismology? However, the question of whether earthquakes are becoming more frequent is common and needs an answer. In fact, it is asked so often that most seismologists have a stock reply. The odd thing is that when you tell people the answer is no, they often seem disappointed, as though more earthquakes would be a good thing.

There are four ways of looking at the question. The first is to look simply at the facts. We have the statistics. We have catalogs that go back several hundred years in some parts of the globe. It is true that more earthquakes are recorded today than in previous decades, because there are more seismometers, but these are all small earthquakes. Once you compare like with like, you find that the rate at which large earthquakes occur is stable throughout history.

Most people have no idea how many earthquakes occur every day, because they aren't news. An earthquake in the middle of the Atlantic that has no human impact is not going to be reported in the general media. The general public hears about only those earthquakes that happen in populated areas and, even then, usually only if someone is killed. So the frequency with which earthquakes make the news is different from the frequency with which they occur and that seismologists see.

In 1976 high-profile earthquake disasters occurred in Guatemala, China, Turkey, the Philippines, and Italy. Whether earthquakes were becoming more frequent was widely debated in the press. In fact at the end of the year it turned out that 1976 was not a particularly seismic year — it just had more newsworthy quakes than usual.

And this brings me to the third issue: people have short memories. When people asked about earthquake frequency in 2010, they probably were not thinking further back than 2009. Certainly no one was comparing recent earthquake activity with the earthquakes of 1976. I'm waiting for someone to ask why we are having so few earthquakes in one of those periods when there is a lull, but somehow that question never comes. People notice the peaks in activity but never the troughs.

Last, where could the energy for an increase in earthquakes come from? A major earthquake can release energy equivalent to hundreds of nuclear weapons. Ultimately, the energy source is heat in the planet's interior. A significant increase in the number of earthquakes would require a sudden increase in temperature deep inside the earth, and this doesn't seem very likely. Hence one can expect earthquakes to occur at a fairly constant rate; Chapter 3 will be the place to go into this in more detail.

Haiti again provides an instructive example. In human terms it was a calamity. In geological terms it was unexceptional. On average, earthquakes the same size as the Haiti quake occur ten or twelve times a year around the globe. As I write these words, I have just heard news of the latest — in Siberia. Estimated impact: nil. The conspiracy theorists probably won't even hear about that one.

But the unchanged frequency of earthquakes is not the full story. No one worries much about an earthquake in the middle of the Atlantic because nothing is there to be damaged. Earthquakes are a problem when they strike cities. And cities are getting larger. As the world's urban population grows, the danger that an earthquake will be a disaster rather than a statistic grows too.


Pick up any volume of a third-rate fantasy trilogy and you should find, somewhere at the front, a map of the fantasy land in which the story is set. A picture of an erupting volcano (labeled "Mount Doom") usually appears somewhere in a corner, and somewhere on the map you will probably find a desert called "The Empty Desert" or perhaps "Desert of Death" — or you might even find both. Generally they will be marked with a little picture of a skeleton to emphasize that these are not good places to be.

As it happens, both are real place names. They sound rather more exotic in Persian, though: Dasht-i-Lut and Dasht-i-Margo, desert of emptiness and desert of death. They sit in eastern Iran, with the Dasht-i-Margo extending well into Afghanistan, and, as the names suggest, they are two of the most inhospitable places on the planet. Viewed from space (or Google Earth) they show up as vast bruises of purple, brown, and gray. On the ground they are endless expanses of sand and gravel, broken by pillars of rock that the wind has carved into surreal shapes. The Dasht-i-Lut has the distinction of being the hottest place on Earth; surface temperatures can reach as high as 70 degrees Celsius.

And yet sandwiched between these two terrible deserts is a village, the little settlement of Sefidabeh, where a few hundred people manage to sustain themselves from crops grown with the aid of irrigation from several springs of freshwater. In February 1994 a strong earthquake hit the region. If it had occurred anywhere in the middle of those empty deserts, it would hardly have merited attention. But it struck precisely under Sefidabeh, flattening the three hundred or so houses. Fortunately for the villagers, the earthquake hit at midmorning, when everyone was working outdoors, so few people were killed.

That an earthquake should score a bull's-eye on the one little village in the middle of nowhere seems astonishing bad luck. But was it really bad luck, or was there something more to it?

The answer lies in the one factor that allowed people to start a village in such a dismal desert region: water. The only place anyone could live was next to those springs. And the springs were there because of a fault in the rocks, a crack through which water could bubble up and reach the surface. But an active fault can still move and cause earthquakes, and that was what happened at Sefidabeh. Ironically the one thing that allowed the village to exist also guaranteed its eventual destruction.

So the forces that cause earthquakes can also create desirable places to live. Volcanoes present a similar problem: volcanic soil is highly fertile and great for growing crops. This attracts people to exactly the places where they will be hit by the next major eruption. When the eruption is over, people move back to the good soil, confident that the volcano will probably not erupt again in their lifetime. Eventually the next eruption overwhelms their grandchildren (who have forgotten all about the danger), and the cycle begins again.

Sefidabeh is an old settlement, a stop on one of the trade routes that crossed Iran, but it never grew large because of its unpromising location. But other villages that arose for similar reasons didn't remain villages.

For instance, three hundred kilometers to the southwest of Sefidabeh lies the ancient city of Bam. Another trading post on the routes between Persia and India, it was probably founded more than two thousand years ago during the Parthian Empire. Besides being a stopping point for caravans, Bam was known for growing cotton, dates, and fruit in fields irrigated by a series of channels that carried water from underground springs to the fields. Unlike Sefidabeh, Bam was able to expand from its original village settlement, and at the end of the twentieth century had a population of about ninety thousand.


Excerpted from The Million Death Quake by Roger Musson. Copyright © 2012 Roger Musson. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Roger Musson is the Head of Seismic Hazard and Archives at the British Geological Survey, where he is the chief spokesman to the media after any major earthquake, including The Guardian, The Sunday Post, and The Telegraph. He has written op-eds for The New York Times, is a regular contributor to Fortean Times, and was interviewed by Time magazine after the Haiti earthquake. He has appeared on a variety of documentaries, including the National Geographic Channel. Musson is also on the editorial board for the Journal of Seismology, the Bulletin of Earthquake Engineering, and Natural Hazards. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Roger Musson is the Head of Seismic Hazard and Archives at the British Geological Survey, where he is the chief spokesman to the media after any major earthquake, including The Guardian, The Sunday Post, and The Telegraph. He is the author of The Million Death Quake. He has written op-eds for The New York Times, is a regular contributor to Fortean Times, and was interviewed by Time magazine after the Haiti earthquake. He has appeared on a variety of documentaries, including the National Geographic Channel. Musson is also on the editorial board for the Journal of Seismology, the Bulletin of Earthquake Engineering, and Natural Hazards. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.

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The Million Death Quake: The Science of Predicting Earth's Deadliest Natural Disaster 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
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