Quakes and Quacks

By Michael Edmonds 04/06/2011


The following is a copy of an article I had published in People and Science, a magazine produced by the British Science Association. An electronic link to the magazine can be found here.

QUAKES AND QUACKS

At 4.35 am on 4 September 2010, a 7.1 magnitude earthquake struck Christchurch, New Zealand. The experience of being shaken out of bed and sheltering under my bedroom doorway as the house around me felt like it was ready to come apart, will be etched into my memory forever.

The quake lasted for forty very long seconds. However, despite its intensity, Christchurch emerged with only limited damage. There was no direct loss of life and many buildings sustained only mild damage: cracked walls, collapsed chimneys, fallen parapets. The quake left Christchurch, New Zealand’s second largest city, with mild infrastructural damage.

Curious to understand what had happened, Christchurch residents turned to local geologist, Dr Mark Quigley and his colleagues, who provided the media with explanations of earthquake science. Geologists attained an almost rock star drawing power, with public lectures on the earthquake filled to overflowing.

Although the earthquake was accompanied by thousands of aftershocks, these gradually diminished with time, and life in Christchurch returned to relative normality. Or so we thought.

The Big Shock

On 22 February, at 12.51 pm, a 6.3 magnitude earthquake hit Christchurch. In spite of its lower magnitude, the unusual dynamics of the quake (later described by geologists as the ‘trampoline effect’) caused significant damage and loss of life.

This time whole buildings collapsed, the iconic Cathedral lost it spire, and the central city was evacuated and cordoned off for weeks. 182 people were killed. The city’s infrastructure — power, water, and sewage systems failed and liquefaction appeared citywide, with thousands of tonnes of silt surfacing and deforming many of the road surfaces. Telecommunication networks overloaded making it impossible to check up on family and friends.

Need to Understand

The death toll and damage produced a fundamental shift in public interest.  Curiosity about quake geology was replaced by a need to understand why certain buildings collapsed. The inability of science to predict earthquakes led some people to look to pseudoscience for answers.

Retrospective claims by ‘moon man’ Ken Ring that he had predicted the quakes based on the position of the moon, and that a further event, ‘one for the history books’, would occur on 20 March, polarised Christchurch with community leaders and scientists denouncing Mr Ring’s comments as scaremongering.  Debate over these predictions raged in the media in the weeks prior to 20 March and nearer to the date whole families chose to leave Christchurch, ‘just in case’.

Local skeptics and scientists defied Mr Ring’s prediction and organised a lunch at the Sign of the Kiwi, Christchurch’s highest stone building on the fateful day. As expected, 20 March remained quite uneventful. Mr Ring has since faded into the background.

Challenges for Communicators

The furore over Mr Ring’s ‘predictions’ highlights some of the challenges faced by science communicators in the wake of natural disasters. How do we reassure the public when science seldom provides the type of absolute answers that would perhaps comfort them?

I think Mark Quigley demonstrated some excellent skills in this respect, providing clear, friendly explanations using simple models and visuals. Young, good looking and often dressed casually, he provided the public with an image of scientists that is easy to relate to: sympathetic and involved.1

At the time of writing, six weeks after the quake, the city still looks like a wreck. Unsafe buildings have been demolished, leaving whole blocks of barren land. The infrastructure is barely functional in terms of water, power, and sewage. But the people of Christchurch are now looking to the future, focusing on rebuilding the city. Science will play a role in this, helping decide where, how and what we build to ensure a safer, greener and better future for Christchurch.

1        An interview with Mark Quigley can be found here. (This clip also features fellow sci blogger David Winter, effectively debunking Ken Ring’s claims)