1 February 2010

Thoughts after the Haiti earthquake: How can we use what we know to save lives?

Posted by Michael McFadden

I woke up to the news the day after the Haiti earthquake and thought: one more human tragedy that did not have to be.

My family moved to Santiago, Chile one month before the great 1960 Chilean earthquake—the largest earthquake to ever have been recorded by seismometers. I was five years old and grew up to study it for my doctoral thesis at Columbia University. I had switched from astrophysics to geophysics in graduate school because I wanted to do something which would help people in Latin America. I thought that if I could understand and better anticipate earthquakes, I could help save lives.

Yet time after time human tragedies continue in spite of what geoscientists know about where earthquakes are likely to occur. We know that tsunamis follow giant earthquakes in subduction zones and that poorly constructed buildings kill people. And yet the bodies still pile up. Just in this century, the world mourned 31,000+ dead in Iran’s Bam earthquake in 2003, 220,000+ dead in the 2004 Indonesian earthquake and tsunami, 86,000+ dead in the 2005 Pakistan earthquake, and 69,000+ dead in China’s 2008 Sichuan earthquake. And now in Haiti 100,000 to 200,000 people have died, an equal number are injured, millions are homeless and so many children are orphaned.

Is our field failing the citizens of this planet? We have all this knowledge, but people continue to die.

And so I find myself thinking that a critical step in our scientific process is missing. We collectively lack the ability to get what we know into the hands of those who need it and in a form that they can understand and use.

So here’s the key question: What can Earth scientists in general and AGU in particular do to better communicate what we know to governments, civil defense officials, engineers, architects, international aid organizations, and the public? Please share your thoughts!

Inés Cifuentes, AGU Education Manager