The Science of Sustainability

What Shall We Do About Earthquake Weather?

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The San Andreas fault trace is marked on a road near Fort Ross. Photo by Andrew Alden

We in the Bay Area, like most Californians, have always lived under the chronic threat of earthquakes. We know about it from personal experience and, farther back, from history. The government works against this threat in the sensible ways: building codes, zoning ordinances, scientific research, insurance mandates.

The rest of us have folkways organized around our local hazard. "Drop, cover and hold on" is a good one that we teach all of our kids. "Stand in a doorway" has been officially phased out—that works only in a traditional adobe building—but it's nearly as stubborn as the old adobes themselves.

The folk notion of "earthquake weather" centers around a belief that hot, still weather foreshadows an earthquake. It seems to be rooted in our culture as deeply as the ancient Greeks. Science established long ago that earthquakes have no statistical relation to the weather. Yet just last week one of the smartest, most competent people I know said in an online exchange, "I've been worrying about earthquakes since the period of extreme stillness started yesterday."

I look around and wonder, too, when the weather gets weird. Something deeper is going on, something that I think we can't help doing. To talk about it I must turn to mythic, not scientific language. When the wind dies, the world is obviously holding its breath. What does the world await? The sky above is clear; there are no surface hazards nearby; it must be something below about to happen.

Scientists consider "earthquake weather" one of many misconceptions to be ruthlessly stamped out. (See attempts by the California Department of Conservation, the Southern California Earthquake Center and the U.S. Geological Survey.) But physics cannot displace psychology. I think that hot, still weather is so unusual in California that it allows our latent anxieties, whatever they are, to rise and demand attention. Something feels strange: is it related to my ongoing dread? Yes, that must be it. I will be vigilant. Now I feel a bit more in control.

Earthquakes are a chronic, uncontrollable threat; maybe it's natural to contemplate them only on sanctioned occasions, the way we contemplate death at funerals. If "earthquake weather" is one way of doing this together, then at least that's an arbitrary habit—a folkway—we can share in full awareness of its arbitrariness. I suggest that the best way to talk about "earthquake weather" is to always begin with the words, "I know it's silly of me, but . . ." Because it isn't sensible to hold on to unsupported ideas, but that's what we do, even adults. We can't outgrow what is inherent. So let's harness the habit in the service of awareness.

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Category: Blog, Geology

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Andrew Alden

About the Author ()

Andrew Alden earned his geology degree at the University of New Hampshire and moved back to the Bay Area to work at the U.S. Geological Survey for six years. He has written on geology for About.com since its founding in 1997. In 2007, he started the Oakland Geology blog, which won recognition as "Best of the East Bay" from the East Bay Express in 2010. In writing about geology in the Bay Area and surroundings, he hopes to share some of the useful and pleasurable insights that geologists give us—not just facts about the deep past, but an attitude that might be called the deep present. Read his previous contributions to QUEST, a project dedicated to exploring the Science of Sustainability.
  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Rod-Bravender/100002849068796 Rod Bravender

    I think the most important thing to do is be ready. Yes weather is diffrent and theres a reason for. The unrise in volcanic activety and to add that the volcanos and earthquacks work together. And you add that earth is overheating underground. And over drilling of oil and gas and hydrotheral. and even the flood will affect the weather outher places. Thing is that we can fixs these things and create jobs for every one. and at same time these jobs will save so mutch money that we wast having to rebiuld all the time. For some reason or anouther people are not lisening. And theres no outher way to exsplane outher then they don't care or don't beleave it. well you loose there no outher way to say it. Im not going to force you to lisen theres allready to mutch of that. But I will tell you the more you wate the more danger you put my team in and the more danger to yourselves. And anouther thing earthquacks in Oklahoma and Arkansa have you notice the Mississippi river is drying up.there blaming it on the draut but do we know that for shure. Rod Bravender The Majestic Lion SEYA

    • Andrew Alden

      Yes indeed, whatever it takes to be ready is OK with me. Preparedness can save you from a world of trouble, even if your life is not in danger. And there is a lot of resistance, as you say.