After the (blog)storm: following up on the big geological stories of 2010

A post by Chris RowanA post by Anne JeffersonIn the past year, there have been several occasions where we’ve discussed events that were, at the time of posting, capturing a lot of media attention. But, as we all know, the attention span of the rolling news cycle is finite, and often a great deal shorter than the running time of the stories that they initially blanket with coverage – especially when these stories involve natural disasters. But the story continues, and, to their credit, journalists do not give up on covering them.

As such, we though we’d end our blogging for the year with brief updates on some of the bigger stories we’ve blogged about in 2010.

Floods in Pakistan (August-present)

Unusually heavy monsoon rains this summer, led to a slow moving wave of flood water heading down the Indus River in Pakistan, flooding vast areas, and displacing 14 million people. By any measure, this was the most significant natural disaster of 2010 – and the fact that it occurred in Pakistan has massive implications for regional and international security. Yet it was significantly under-reported by the mainstream media, one of the reasons that donations to the international aid effort were much less than was needed. Even now, the floodwaters have not completely subsided, and more than 7 million people remain without a home to shelter from the oncoming winter.

The Haiti Earthquake (12th January)

Chris’s explanation the tectonic context of the magnitude 7.0 earthquake that struck Haiti in the early weeks of 2010 is by some distance the most-read post on this blog this year, and was followed by further posts assessing the seismic hazard in the next few years and decades, and the discover that what was originally thought to be the rupture of a single continental transform fault – the Enriquillo Fault – is in fact a lot more complicated. Dave Petley’s account from the AGU Fall Conference earlier this month gives some insight into scientists’ latest thinking on the earthquake and future seismic hazards in the region. The latter is clearly vital given the human impact of the earthquake: 220,000 lives lost, more than 1.5 million made homeless and at least 2/3 of those still homeless, and now being threatened by an outbreak of cholera that has already affected more than 100,000, and killed more than 3,000. You could argue that it’s not the only reason, but aid agencies have clearly struggled to cope with the sheer scale of the devastation, let alone rebuild. The choices made now, if made correctly, could have a huge impact on the outcome of the inevitable future earthquakes – although it is worrying that the Haitians do not feel that they’re being consulted.

The Darfield Earthquake (3rd September)

As with Haiti this blog focussed on the explaining how the earthquake that shook Canterbury in September fit in with New Zealand’s position astride a boundary between two tectonic plates, and providing an assessment of the seismic hazard on part of that boundary – the Alpine Fault – for those casting worried eyes towards it. As an update to that, a new long-term seismic record of the Alpine Fault presented at AGU suggests a somewhat greater average time between ruptures than the ~200 years seen in the more recent record, but it will still happen at some point.

Kelvin Berryman presents 8000 year paleoseismic record of Alpine fault NZ: average time between quakes 328 years, ‘quasi-periodic’ #AGU10less than a minute ago via Echofon

University of Canterbury geologist Mark Quigley has continued to provide excellent scientific information about the Darfield earthquake, including a map of the Greendale Fault, a previously unknown strike-slip fault that ruptured in the earthquake. Meanwhile, analysis of the seismic records indicates that this fault might only be the largest of four that combined to produce the overall shaking.

The good news in this case is that New Zealand, possibly the best-prepared nation on Earth when it comes to earthquake hazards, has reaped the benefits of that preparedness, not least because no-one died due to the shaking. Although the total damage has been estimated at somewhere in the region of $NZ 3 billion (£1.5 billion/$US 2.5 billion), their national natural disaster insurance scheme seems well able to cover it. – even with ongoing aftershocks adding to the eventual bill. And without robust building codes, it could have been a lot worse.

Earthquakes in general

In the aftermath of Haiti, and a few other earthquakes like a magnitude 8.8 earthquake that rattled Chile in February, and April’s 7.2 in Mexico , Chris emphasised that the world was not experiencing anything particularly seismically unusual compared to previous years. According the USGS, there were 21 ‘major’ – magnitude 7 or greater – earthquakes in 2010, compared to his extrapolated prediction of 18. This is a bit higher than the average (16) in the 30 year record, and in fact just pips 1995 as the highest annual total, but it is still hardly a significant deviation. And remember, in terms of the total energy released by earthquakes in the last 12 months, we’re still way behind 2004, let alone 1960 or 1964.

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill (April-September; impacts ongoing)

As the first of what would turn out to be several million barrels of oil entered the Gulf of Mexico following the explosive blow-out of the Macando oil well, we wrote about the potentially under-appreciated risks of pushing drilling into deeper waters, the technicalities of some of BP’s many attempts to seal the well, and the well was eventually killed by pumping cement into it via a relief well. But the oil still lingers, and the clean-up of even visibly affected shorelines is no-where near complete. A civil suit has been filed against BP and others by the US Department of Justice ; meanwhile, the 3-way wrangle between BP, who were renting the rig, Transocean, who owned and were operating it, and Halliburton, who cemented the well, over who is the most to blame for the disaster, continues, even though one could reasonably argue that there is plenty of blame to go around on this one. Meanwhile, the economies of the Gulf States are struggling to cope, which is not helped by the ongoing debate over whether Gulf seafood – a key foundation of the local economy – is safe to eat or not now that the fishing bans have been (mostly) lifted, or by the expansion of US offshore drilling announced by the Obama administration at the beginning of the year being put back until 2017.

As you can see, most of these stories do not end with the year; the impacts of many of these disasters will be long-lasting, and the recoveries have barely begun. We can only hope that 2011 sees some relief for those who are suffering in Pakistan, Haiti, and the Gulf of Mexico.

Categories: earthquakes, geohazards, public science
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Comments (1)

  1. Lockwood says:

    Thanks for this. I’ve kind of felt the need to do something similar, but haven’t set aside the time to do so… now I can just link this post! Eyaja… whatever… is the only major omission I see, and for me, at least, my main interest is not so much geological as social: has Europe made (or is it making) plans and provisions for another such eruption in Iceland or Italy?