4 February 2010

The disconnect between geoscience and society: One of timescale?

Posted by Michael McFadden

In the spirit of scientific cooperation, AGU is allowing open access to several papers on the tectonics of the Caribbean Plate. We join GSA, who also have granted open access to several of their papers. The idea is that researchers can use readily accessible information to help plan scientific responses to the 12 January earthquake in Haiti.

While reading these papers, I was struck by the great disconnect between science and society. Paper after paper warns of imminent risk of rupture on Caribbean faults. But what exactly is imminent? We can’t say whether something will happen for certain tomorrow or next week. Yet we as scientists know that earthquakes will occur along major faults, particularly if we know that faults are locked. So is part of the disconnect one of timescale, one of human memory versus the geological “memory” that scientists uncover when they study stress and strain, when they dig trenches and examine strata?

In any given location, a devastating earthquake may happen every 50 years, or 100 years, or 200 years, etc. Given that timescale, can societies’ collective memories be mustered and transformed into the political will necessary to prevent the next rupture from being a disaster? Particularly if the society in question faces immediate concerns of poverty, political corruption, war, famine, or overpopulation? When faced with such immediate concerns, the chance of a large earthquake happening soon–though scientists know it will happen eventually–may not even register to policy makers.

Scientists at AGU’s Natural Hazard Focus Group have pondered this question for some time. In a 2007 paper published in Springer’s Natural Hazards journal, A.Ismail-Zadeh and K. Takeuchi wrote:

“Time is an important parameter in natural disaster management, especially when it concerns extreme events. An extreme event, in general, cannot be predicted in full details. So far, geophysics can put confidence limits of uncertainty, although limits are very wide, on the time, place and magnitude of an anticipated extreme event (e.g., earthquake, tsunami, flood, and cyclone), which give insufficient information for disaster management. Nevertheless hazard preparedness is vital for society. The less often natural events occur (and the large extreme events are rare by definition), the more often the disaster managers postpone the preparedness for the events.”

So what can be done? We live an world dominated by news cycles that get shorter and shorter, where if something is not on a society’s immediate radar, a society may not address it. How can we as scientists emphasize that the geological timescale does in fact intersect with human timescales? And how can we emphasize this before tragedies occur?

–Mohi Kumar, AGU Science Writer