super iceberg + earthquake + tsunami + media: when geology gets personal
02.27.2010, 11:53 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

“How can we as scientists emphasize that the geological timescale does in fact intersect with human timescales?” –Mohi Kumar, AGU Science Writer

“We need to acknowledge the gift we’ve been given here … by the scientists–the gift of time.  To prepare.”
Meteorologist Dan Cooke, KGMB news, Hawaii Feb. 27, 2010, 9:54 a.m. awaiting the tsunami.

In the brief span of today’s 24 hour news cycle, two massive geo-forces in the making for millennia finally let go.  Imperceptibly slow movements within and upon the earth culminated, and released monumental geophysical events on a global scale.

In East Antarctica, Pleistocene glacier Mertz calved a super iceberg slightly smaller than the island of Oahu (50 miles long by 25 miles wide, with a reported mass of  700-800 billion tons and containing enough fresh water to supply a third of the world’s population for a year).

Three images above from Google, Explore Our Planet

The new super iceberg sent a massive piece of Pleistocene ice-scape into motion.  It’s about to re-shape contemporary human life in ways unknowable from here.  Its position could impair the normal circulation of cold, dense water that normally supplies deep ocean currents with oxygen.  As reported by James Sturcke in the Guardian, “Mario Hoppema, chemical oceanographer at the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research in Germany, said that as a result ‘there may be regions of the world’s oceans that lose oxygen, and then of course most of the life there will die'”.

It was during the Pleistocene glaciation, also known as the current ice age, that permanent ice sheets were established in Antarctica.

1966 image from “On the Mertz and Ninnis Glaciers, eastern Antarctica”, Gerdwendler, Kristina Ahlhas and Craig Lingle, Geophysical Institute, University of Alaska, Fairbanks, Alaska 99775 ANTARCTIC JOURNAL — REVIEW 1996

Satellite image showing 97km (60 mile) long iceberg, right, about to crash into the Mertz glacier tongue, left, in the Australian Antarctic Territory. The collision created a new 78km-long iceberg. Photograph: AP

The Mertz Glacier tongue breaks off of the Australian Antarctic Territory.  Photo Neal Young

And of course, the day’s second massive geo-event is the 400 mile long rupture in the earth’s crust that caused the magnitude 8.8 earthquake off the coast of Chile.

map from San Francisco Sentinel

Henry Fountain reported in The New York Times that the quake “occurred along the fault zone where the Nazca tectonic plate, the section of the earth’s crust that lies under much of the Eastern Pacific Ocean south of the Equator, is sliding beneath another section, the South American plate. The two are converging at a rate of about three and a half inches a year.”

image: “Nazca Plate” Wikipedia

Given today’s events, Mohi Kumar’s recent post to the American Geophysical Union’s blog seems prescient.  She sounds an alarm about what she calls the “disconnect between geoscience and society.”  It’s a disconnect between two senses of time–the everyday and the geologic.  And, she says, it can have dire consequences.  Kumar tells of how recent scientific papers on Caribbean Plate tectonics warned of:

imminent risk of rupture on Caribbean faults. But what exactly is imminent? We can’t say whether something will happen for certain tomorrow or next week. Yet we as scientists know that earthquakes will occur along major faults, particularly if we know that faults are locked. So is part of the disconnect one of timescale, one of human memory versus the geological “memory” that scientists uncover when they study stress and strain, when they dig trenches and examine strata?

In any given location, a devastating earthquake may happen every 50 years, or 100 years, or 200 years, etc. Given that timescale, can societies’ collective memories be mustered and transformed into the political will necessary to prevent the next rupture from being a disaster? Particularly if the society in question faces immediate concerns of poverty, political corruption, war, famine, or overpopulation? When faced with such immediate concerns, the chance of a large earthquake happening soon–though scientists know it will happen eventually–may not even register to policy makers.

Scientists at AGU’s Natural Hazard Focus Group have pondered this question for some time. In a 2007 paper published in Springer’s Natural Hazards journal, A.Ismail-Zadeh and K. Takeuchi wrote:

Time is an important parameter in natural disaster management, especially when it concerns extreme events. An extreme event, in general, cannot be predicted in full details. So far, geophysics can put confidence limits of uncertainty, although limits are very wide, on the time, place and magnitude of an anticipated extreme event (e.g., earthquake, tsunami, flood, and cyclone), which give insufficient information for disaster management. Nevertheless hazard preparedness is vital for society. The less often natural events occur (and the large extreme events are rare by definition), the more often the disaster managers postpone the preparedness for the events.”

So what can be done? We live an world dominated by news cycles that get shorter and shorter, where if something is not on a society’s immediate radar, a society may not address it. How can we as scientists emphasize that the geological timescale does in fact intersect with human timescales? And how can we emphasize this before tragedies occur?

–Mohi Kumar, AGU Science Writer

After the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and resulting tsunami, policy makers debated about whether it was too costly to invest in tsunami warning systems on a global scale.  The disconnect between human and geo timescales fuels such debates.

Today, Hawaii had 12-15 hours warning of the tsunami generated by the earthquake off Chile.

map from

Because of that, the live coverage we’re watching today on the internet shows people safely perched on high ground and calmly observing fluctuations of the ocean below.

KGMB news

All day today, humans who tuned into the internet or TV news participated in one big, mediated convergence of the geologic timescale with the human timescale.  Media allowed humans in NYC to sense massive geo events taking place half a planet away.  Media made it possible for people in Hawaii to safely receive a signal wave carrying the message that an ancient geo force had been unleashed near Chile.  And satellite images made it possible for humans to realize that a Pleistocene glacier had broken into the Anthropocene in a big way.

Today’s events were not anomalous.  From the perspective of the geologic timescale, they happen all the time. They are the events that make geologic time itself.  From the perspective of the human timescale, they often come as a surprise–but it’s an increasingly sorry and dangerous failure of imagination if they come unexpected.

Joan Didion, who lived and wrote on LA’s San Andreas fault, once remarked that for her, finding meaning in the “vast indifference of geology” was not inconsistent with finding meaning as a wife and mother … and that geologic time and human time existed for her “on parallel tracks that occasionally converged, notably during earthquakes.” (The Year of Magical Thinking)

What might we design and think, and how might our media reporting change, if we actually found a way to live in relation to these two timescales simultaneously?

5 Comments so far
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Just discovered the FOP blog. Great stuff. Thanks for writing it!

Comment by Callan Bentley

Hi Callan,
Thanks for reading and for linking to the site!
Keep us posted on your work.

Comment by jamiekruse

Thank you for posting this much needed information. I ran across your site by accident and most glad I did. This will remain a site I will visit often.

Comment by Fred Durdin

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