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The Myth of Solid Ground 

On The Science, Pseudoscience and Lunatic Logic of Earthquake Prediction

Wednesday, Apr 7 1999
Photo by Virginia Lee Hunter
THIS IS A STORY ABOUT MYTHOLOGY, OR, more accurately, about the place where mythology and reality coincide. It's a story that begins and ends with an earthquake, a story that has everything to do with the way that, here in California, the ground is less than stable, and the earth we stand on can, without warning, turn as fluid as the sea. It's a story about how, in the face of all that motion, we evolve elaborate myths to give us balance, myths that help us get on with our lives. Some of these myths are talismanic, like our endless talk of Northridge, the way we can't let go of the long, drawn-out seconds of the shaking, as if in survival there is an element of protection, a spell cast against the fault zone rumbling again. Others are more practical, like the incantatory ritual of putting bottled water in our car trunks, or emergency money by the door. As with most stories, there are two sides to this one, which, for want of a better frame of reference, we may think of as science and faith. But for all their differences, both are after the same elusive something, which is to explain the shaking of the earth in terms of a mythology by which it may finally make a kind of sense.

At the heart of any mythology of earthquakes lies the issue of prediction, the idea that we may someday know in advance what the planet is going to do. It's like a seismological holy grail, as if, were we able to find it, we might somehow come to understand. Such a line of thinking, science tells us, is a losing proposition; the forces are too great, too incomprehensible, and besides, there is no proof. Yet if this is the case -- if the best we can hope for is to glimpse some larger pattern of probability -- then that's just not enough. It's one thing, after all, to know that the San Andreas Fault yields a major Southern California temblor every 140 years or so, the most recent being the 7.8 Fort Tejon quake in 1857, which means that we are nothing if not overdue. It's another, however, to suggest that this in any way fulfills us, that it can match the mix of exhilaration and dread we feel each time the earth kicks into motion, a sense of mystery that speaks to the very essence of our lives. If you go to the San Andreas, down in Redlands, say, where the fault runs alongside brand-new streets and housing developments, part of what you see is nothing, just a dry creek bed and vast empty distances, the only evidence of seismicity the soft contours of the mountains' alluvial fall. But if you stand there for a while, you notice the quality of the silence, the way that, besides the buzzing of an occasional insect, the quiet is as deep as the Earth itself. It's a majestic silence, a mythic silence, the silence of the San Andreas as it waits. This may be why, when it comes to earthquakes, science tends to fade into the fringes, where an odd assortment of researchers, psychics, witch doctors and apocalyptics make predictions to fill in the mythological gaps.

There is, of course, a peculiar commonality at work here, for geology, too, operates from a form of mythology, which mostly has to do with time. It's a field that deals in impossible increments, from the microseconds that mark the onset of an earthquake to the countless eons that constitute what geologists call "deep time." The Earth is four and a half billion years old, and not only that, it's in a perpetual flux of movement, of continental drift. What we experience as earthquakes are only the periodic spasms of this process; in another 15 million years, Los Angeles and San Francisco will come together, as the Pacific and North American plates continue to creep past each other at the rate of one and three-quarter inches a year. Given that time line, geology has no choice but to advance slowly, relying on evidence that's hard to come by and theories that shift, often drastically, as new information becomes clear. Just last month, a new fault discovered under ã downtown Los Angeles was determined to be responsible for the 1987 Whittier Narrows quake -- 12 years after the fact. "The Earth is a huge laboratory, and our experiments are few and far between," explains Tom Henyey, a professor in USC's Department of Earth Sciences and director of the Southern California Earthquake Center, a research consortium funded by the National Science Foundation and the United States Geological Survey. "Our experiments are the big earthquakes, and we have to wait for them. That's one of the reasons we move so slowly. We're operating on nature's time scale, and it's very different from the human one."

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