For whom the bell tolls

Yesterday morning I got an e-mail from a colleague and good friend, a hazards geologist. He mentioned in passing that today, Friday, February 11, he would be in St. Louis, for a kickoff to a year of bicentennial commemorations of the New Madrid earthquakes.

Perhaps you’ve heard of this event…or series of events. Over a three-month period extending from December 1811-February 1812, the Mississippi River town of New Madrid experienced four earthquakes averaging between magnitude 7.5-8.0 by today’s reckoning, and numerous aftershocks and other quakes of lesser magnitude extending out for a period of as much as five years. The biggest of these quakes were by far the largest earthquakes ever to hit the eastern half of the United States since records have been kept. Population of the area was low in those days – maybe a few hundred – and the local upheavals, while cataclysmic, did very little damage. There wasn’t much property there to lose!

Unlike the geology of California, the “old, cold rock” in this part of the country efficiently propagated the seismic energy for long distances. According to some records, sidewalks cracked in the Washington, DC area, and…

…church bells rang as far away as Boston.

The two hundred years? The blink of an eye, geologically speaking. Nothing much has changed from the planet’s point of view. Uncertainty about what to expect, where, and when down the road is enormous. Generally speaking, scientists estimate a recurrence interval of some 500-600 years. But don’t set your watch! That’s not how it works. Some ten years ago, the US Geological Survey expressed the odds this way: a 7-10% probability that a similar-magnitude earthquake would occur in this region sometime over the next fifty years.

From the standpoint of social change, however, that same two hundred years is an eternity. Today the population in harm’s way from the shaking measures not in the hundreds, but the hundreds of thousands. Damage would be extensive in locations ranging from St. Louis to Memphis and beyond.

Worldwide, in fact, the fast pace of social change challenges our ability to comprehend our vulnerability to natural extremes. Whether in Haiti, Chile, Turkey, Pakistan, China, or Indonesia, recent earthquakes encounter populations and built-up environments unlike anything extant when they historically occurred. The same goes for wildfires whether in Russia or the United States, hurricanes and typhoons approaching landfall, or tornadoes swirling across the central United States. In the military vernacular, extremes of nature today find a target-rich environment.

What’s more daunting is that thanks to the development of critical infrastructure that supports entire regions, not just cities, these once-localized events now trigger repercussions over vast areas. That critical infrastructure can take many forms. Take for example, the electrical power grid. Trees may down many power lines to little effect, but the right tree on the right line at the particular hour can bring a regional grid down for days. Hurricane Katrina stilled the New Orleans refineries and triggered spot shortages of gasoline and price spikes across the entire southeast.

Or go back to that New Madrid fault zone. Today, many of the natural gas pipelines supplying the entire northeastern United States run through this region. Suppose that the next New Madrid quakes, when they occur, again occur in the winter months. It’ll be more than a few indigenous people and fur traders who are affected. Imagine millions without heat and electricity for days or weeks.

So, when we hear those church bells ringing across the east coast, our first reaction will be puzzlement: “What’s up with that?”

But it won’t be long before we’re remembering the prescient, haunting words of John Donne (1572-1631):

No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manner of thine own
Or of thine friend’s were.
Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.


Want a happier ending? So do I! And here’s how we can earn one. Let’s support my geologist friend and his colleagues – not just his fellow geologists, but also those engineers, political and business leaders, emergency managers, and many others making common cause – in their efforts to build US disaster resilience, community by community, nationwide.

Better yet, we can pitch in! After all, we’re in this together.

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