Geology as Destiny

In the past few weeks, we’ve had a good sized earthquake in Los Angeles, CA as well as a catastrophic earth failure in Oso, Washington. I know, it sounds strange, but consider where you live. What do you really know about what happens there geologically? Yes, we all know that earthquakes happen all the time in LA and people still live there and a lot of folks think that the Oso hillside failure was “unexpected”. It wasn’t. The people in Oso, Washington knew, if they’d been there for 10 years, that that same hillside had failed in 2006. Even if they were newcomers, they could have looked it up, if they’d thought about it. That and the 1999 USGS report don’t seem to have stopped them from building their cabins or pulling in their trailers and RV’s does it? Why didn’t they look into it or expect it? Perhaps because, if we did think about it, we’d get a bit freaked out by how “unsolid” the earth under our feet really is.

Growing up and earning my geology degree in Arizona, there wasn’t much present day excitement in the field. This, despite the fact that a dormant volcano overshadowed the university itself. But, we did get into the prehistoric history of AZ, and that was fascinating. AZ was a volcanic holocaust 7 times and an inland sea 6 times. Kind of explains all the pretty layers in the Grand Canyon. And we do have fault lines, though most of them run out to AZ from the San Andreas and other California faults.

Living in Alaska was an education in “active geology” because we had earthquakes, we could feel, at least once a month and 3 major volcanic eruptions in the first 10 years I was living there. Major volcanic events are ones that impact humans directly or indirectly. I always thought this was a bit arrogant of us as I’m sure they impact Nature far more often.

Now, I live at a confluence of 3 major rivers. The Missouri, Meramac and Mississippi. All are prone to flooding and have done so, to great impact on humans, in the past few years. They haven’t affected our town as we are behind the first line of bluffs up off the floodplain. It’s also known as part of “Tornado Alley” which, aside from the prevailing wind patterns, are largely controlled by the land formations they, the tornadoes, pass over. There is one neighborhood in St. Louis that has been hit by tornadoes over and over again. Why? Because it’s at the nexus of 3 small dips in the landscape that funnel the winds/storms in that direction. If I were them, I’d move. I’m not, and that’s largely because of the area I live in. We have tornadoes north and south of us all the time, by as little as 2 miles, but this little town remains untouched. Same thing goes for major snow/ice storms. St. Louis area can get a foot of snow and we, if we’re lucky, get a few inches. Again, land formations push the air up or let it sink down and that decides where it goes. However, the New Madrid fault is still active, not even dormant, and it’s way “overdue” for an “adjustment”.

My advice, look around you, really look. Look at the earth forms under the buildings/trees/houses. Look at your local USGS reports on things like flooding, mudslides, avalanches, earthquakes, etc. in your area. Call your local Red Cross Chapter and find out what the “disaster contingencies” are for your area. It may save your life one day. One last thing, geologists have their own connotations for plain English words they use in reference to geological time spans: Imminent=now-50yrs, Soon=now-100yrs, Overdue=should have happened already.

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