Honor Code for Science
Dan Hausman on the limits of economics (in The New York Times)

The Big One

By Jonathan B. Wight

We all remember the National Geographic article of October 2004 predicting a devastating hurricane hitting New Orleans.  I read this piece and was shocked, like everyone else, when its prediction came true ten months later with Hurricane Katrina. 

The ethics of inaction to real threats like this likely stems from some behavioral economic issues, such as humans assuming that risks apply to others.  People also have very short time horizons.  Preparing for disaster means incurring costs now, with only the probability of yielding a public benefit at someone unknown future date. Politicians may want more visible bequeaths to their communities than simply lowering the potential threat level.

This assumes, of course, that politicians actually care about public preparedness—a notion put to the test with Michael Brown’s selection to head FEMA.  Brown was appointed as a political hack, having limited prior relevant experience but close personal connections.  It was a crony government job.

That brings me to the “next big one.”  We are accustomed to thinking that if a huge, devastating earthquake will hit, it will happen in California along the San Andreas Fault. This menace is well-known and the public fairly well prepared.

A much bigger potential catastrophe lurks in the Pacific Northwest, where the Juan de Fuca tectonic plate is jamming itself under the larger North American plate.  It is off our radar screens of worry for two reasons:  one, it is 30 miles offshore; and two, its last major earthquake was in 1700, before written records of the area.  (There are other kinds of evidence for this quake, including tree extinctions and tsunami reports in Japan.)

Cascadia copy

A predicted Cascadia quake was written up in Cascadia's Fault: The Earthquake and Tsunami That Could Devastate North America (2011).  A more recent analysis is in the current New Yorker magazine. Either account will scare your socks off.  Because this fault line has been building tension for over 300 years, a major plate realignment would result in a massive earthquake.  A 9.0 quake in the Pacific Northwest would be followed by a massive tsunami that would kill tens of thousands along coastal areas and devastate cities such as Seattle and Portland. 

Of course, authors like to exaggerate threats to sell books and magazines, and it is tempting to discount the worries.  If the threats were real, wouldn’t serious scientists and government agencies be hard at work to prepare, and thus mitigate the impacts? 

According to these authors, everyone is asleep at the wheel.  The politics and economics of inaction are a strong inertia to overcome.  Is it ethical for Chicken Little to claim the ocean is going to rise up and drown us, based only on historical evidence that it has happened in the past, repeatedly, over the last 10,000 years?  


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