Saturday, December 6, 2008

Geological Morbid Curiosity

I completely failed to feel a magnitude 5.1 earthquake last night. A paleoclimatologist friend and I were at one of those paint your own pottery places making holiday gifts for relatives, and the only way we found out about the quake there, in absence of the internet, was a USGS text message and another message from an ethnomusicologist friend asking if I'd felt it. The quake was out near Ludlow, in the middle of the Mojave, a good 80 miles from Riverside. I was impressed that people here felt it at all, especially with all the faults and mountains between here and there, but apparently several thousand people still did. I was admittedly extremely disappointed by this, and kept harping on about it for the entire night.

My harping about not feeling it led to discussion of things we have experienced. While I can talk of bad Virginia winters (blizzards of '93 and '96, hideous ice storms of '94), my paleoclimatologist friend described her experiences with the Landers and Northridge earthquakes. Despite knowing full well the damage and injury that these earthquakes caused, I realized I was actually jealous that she'd been there and I was stuck on the east coast. I guess this explains why I'm a seismologist, huh?

And then, the conversation turned to the matter of whether or not all people who study active and potentially dangerous processes have some morbidly curious internal (or open) desire to experience that major dangerous process in person. It's not that we want to have anything to do with the loss of life and property that would come out of disastrous process of choice; some of the work we do is to try and avoid that loss! It's just curiosity about the actual process, and about wanting to know how much of the hypothesizing and modeling in our work would be comparable to the real thing.

My friend admitted that she's intensely curious to see what would happen if a large part of the Greenland ice sheet catastrophically collapsed into the ocean. And I admitted in turn that, even while being scared by that video of simulated wave propagation for the ShakeOut scenario, part of me does want to be here when the next Big One rips the San Andreas. I certainly would be terribly depressed to see that degree of earthquake damage up close - I wouldn't wish it on anyone even on my crankiest nastiest of sleep-deprived days, and I wouldn't want to experience the damage myself. The photos from 1906 that so fascinate me do so partly (even largely) because they're an unimaginable sort of horror. But yet, I admit to being extremely curious about what that degree of close-up shaking would feel like, and I'd love to see the surface rupture, and I'd particularly love to get a look at all the data that would come out of such a quake.

Do any of you geobloggers (or other readers) share this sort of morbid curiosity? If there were some assurance that your major/sudden/cataclysmic geologic process of choice wouldn't hurt anyone, or that you'd get to experience on a version of Earth otherwise devoid of civilization except for yourself, what do you have to admit you'd like to be there for?

Or are my friend and I the only ones, which makes us perhaps uncomfortably weird?

6 comments:

Kim said...

Oh, definitely. (And, given that I can't really go to the mid-crust and experience mylonitization at the crystal-lattice scale, I get my vicarious thrills from all the scary things. I've learned to remember the people involved before saying "oh, WOW" in class. But still: I've been in an earthquake, walked on a glacier, and seen lava flowing. It's definitely worth it.)

Ron Schott said...

Me too! Don't feel bad about not feeling a 5.1 - I was only 150 miles from Landers when it went and I slept through it (but my field assistant felt it). As a hard rock geologist there's not much that compares to experiencing a Hawaiian lava flow close enough to be scorched by it. :-) If a stratovolcano in the Cascades cranked up in the next couple of decades I think I'd probably have a hard time staying away...

Callan Bentley said...

You're definitely not alone on this one. The week before last, on the beaches of Hawaii, I kept my eyes peeled for the signs of impending tsunami, and when I was at higher elevations and looking out to sea, I thought, now would be a great time to observe a tsunami without having to be bothered with the 'running for my life' bit. As people who study the way the planet works, it's nice to see the way the planet works once in a while.

Silver Fox said...

I'd like to be there the next time the Long Valley caldera erupts - from some safe distance, say from Conway Summit overlooking Mono Lake.

octopod said...

No, I agree. I'm actually kind of glad that if this coming climate shift and possible mass extinction have to happen, I'm here to see it.

andrew said...

I live about a mile from the Hayward fault, and when it goes I plan to walk to the trace as soon as I can get away, camera in hand. Science needs us to OBSERVE these things, right? I would love to observe a tsunami, a landslide, an eruption -- that's Life List stuff.