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Facts, fiction & friction: The threat of earthquakes in the U.S.

Larry King NowMar 30 '16

In her final TV interview as a USGS seismologist, Dr. Lucy Jones – the "Beyonce of earthquakes" – explains why the West Coast is overdue for the Big One, the connection between fracking and quakes, & why earthquakes are more than a California problem. Plus, what's next for the beloved scientist.



*Posted Online on Ora.TV on March 30th 2016:

“I didn’t want to become this until my senior year in college. I knew I wanted to be a scientist. I watched them land on the moon and I told my dad I’d be an astrophysicist and live on the moon. Then when I actually got to college, I discovered physics was mostly building bombs at that stage in the 70’s and it turns out that earthquakes were playing in the mountains and getting paid for it. Being able to save lives while you did research. I didn’t want my science to just be for the sake of the research.” — Dr. Lucy Jones on how she decided to become a seismologist

“An earthquake, to a seismologist, is the sudden slip of one block of rock past another that produces shaking as one of its effects. Just like when I snap my fingers the movement of my fingers creates a wave in the air. Of course, to just about everybody else, the shaking is what they say is the earthquake. So we have a communication problem right from the get go. The fundamental action is the movement of the fault and you’re not feeling that. You’re feeling the shaking that’s produced just like when I produce a wave when I snap my fingers.” — Dr. Lucy Jones explaining what exactly a earthquake is

“We are absolutely at risk. Plate tectonics goes on here in California. We are sitting on a plate boundary. We have to have an earthquake the size of Northridge every decade or so on average. Other parts of the country have some risk. Alaska has actually the most earthquakes but fewer people. Recently, we’re having voluntary earthquakes. We’re having earthquakes caused by pumping water into the ground. That can set off earthquakes and it’s now going on on a large scale because of fracking producing wastewater. Oklahoma has had more earthquakes than California for two years now." — Dr. Lucy Jones on how fracking is affecting voluntary earthquakes

“A single family home will probably go through this okay. We are far enough away from the fault to not have the really jerky motions, but our high rises are potentially at risk of falling. Within this scenario we estimated five collapsed high rises. We found a flaw in the way things were being done during the Northridge earthquake. Steel buildings were getting cracks. Steel is supposed to bend not break, but part of the process had created some vulnerability. It’s not being built that way now but the older buildings are at risk.” — Dr. Lucy Jones on the danger of high rises and older buildings not being earthquake proof

“People are afraid of dying by the earthquake, but you should really be more afraid of being bankrupted by the earthquake. Eighteen hundred dead but 213 billion dollars in losses was our estimate when we worked it all out for this. 300,000 buildings lose more than ten percent their value.” — Dr. Lucy Jones on why it is more likely to go bankrupt then die during an earthquake

“We estimate we need to add about $16 million a year to what the USGS is already spending on seismic networks to make [an early warning system] operational for the three west coast states. Probably quite a bit more to move beyond them because the other states don’t have as many existing stations.” — Dr. Lucy Jones on why California does not have an early warning system

“I would like to see us build buildings to be used and not just to crawl out alive because after we crawl out alive, what’s the city going to be like when there’s no building to go to work in? How many people will stay when there’s no place to live, they can’t go to work, and they haven’t had a shower in a month because we broke the water pipes. So we need to have buildings that you can use afterwards, we need to have utilities that can get out quickly, and that means we have to accept the reality that this is in front us and that the damage to our economy, when people give up and leave the area, is so significant, it’s worth the investment now.” — Dr Lucy Jones on wanting to reform the building code and the investments we need to be making.

“Almost the only way you get a tsunami is because of an earthquake but the fault has to be on the seafloor. What happens is if the fault moves like this, the seafloor changes shape, the water that used to be there has to go somewhere else. That’s the fundamental cause of tsunamis, So here in LA, generally our big faults are onshore, the ones offshore are much smaller. However, Oregon, Washington, and Alaska all have major faults offshore.” — Dr. Lucy Jones on whether or not earthquakes precipitate tsunamis

“Even though earthquakes are scary, they are less of a risk than hurricanes in Florida, snowstorms elsewhere are absolutely— the week of the Northridge earthquake, more people died in an ice storm in the east coast than in the Northridge earthquake itself. Northridge killed 35 people. More than that die in every snowstorm in the east coast with crashed cars. So it isn’t about dying. It’s about living and how awful life will be afterwards.” — Dr. Lucy Jones challenging the question ‘Why live in California?’

“I keep a backup food supply because we won’t have roads into the area after the San Andreas goes. I try to make sure that I have a least a couple weeks of medications that we need so when the pharmacy can’t be restocked. I have a lot of water but I should have more. I think that’s the one thing I am most concerned about- losing water- and I tell people however much water they already stored, they should get some more. And then I have some cash because without electricity there’s no ATMS and your credit cards won’t work. So all our millennials that never have cash in their pockets and assume that credit cards will do everything are going to be stuck not being able to buy any food.”— Dr Lucy Jones on what she keeps at home and what we need to consider when restocking our own homes

“We know it’s inevitable, but it’s really a random distribution…We have a rate. There’s a magnitude five a couple times a year in California. A six at least every five years or so. Most of them are in places where there’s not too many people. But in the long run, the magnitude seven’s actually average about once every twenty years somewhere in California.” — Dr. Lucy Jones on if she knows when the next earthquake is coming.

“Absolutely not. The outside can be the most dangerous place to be. The most dangerous place is the outside of a building. That’s where things are falling down.” — Dr. Lucy Jones on whether or not running outside of a building is a good idea

“Going under a table is by far the safest thing. Your biggest risk is the objects being thrown around the room and the table protects you from that. In the unlikely case that you’re in a building that actually collapses, we’ve seen big concrete floors held up by quite weak tables. They really do a lot of good. I have a famous picture out of Mexico City. Little school desks holding up big concrete slabs…A table is a very sturdy structure and if you got a table nearby--You notice what we actually say is “Drop, cover, hold on.’ First thing to do is get to the ground before the earthquake throws you there. We see thousands of preventable injuries from people being thrown to the ground. Then you try to get under cover if it’s nearby, but it’s not worth going very far to do it. Getting down and keeping yourself small is important and then hold on. If you got something that’ll keep you covered, you don’t want it sliding away from you.” — Dr. Lucy Jones on the best thing to do during an earthquake.

“I’m leaving federal service. I’ve been a government employe in a research science organization and had extraordinary opportunities like creating this shake out. The last couple of years, I had a special assignment where I actually worked in city hall in Los Angeles. Worked with the mayor’s staff, helping them understand what’s really in the scenario and what it shown me is that our biggest problem is not the creation of the science. It’s the implementation of the science. Helping the people who need to be making decisions really understand what it says…I’m going to be starting a center to promote the use of science in society and decision making.” — Dr. Lucy Jones on what’s next for her career

“It’s empowering. I discovered that really helping people understand what I know is going to save lives. That feels like the way to finish out my career.”

“Triangle of Life is completely rejected by everybody but it’s proponent. It’s the idea that the table is sure to collapse, which is not what we see, and that somehow you’re going to figure out which side of the table is the one that’s going to get a little void space after it collapses and things fall on it. Number one, they don’t collapse. Number two, you don’t know where the void space is going to be. It’s a complete fraud.” — Dr Lucy Jones on whether or not the Triangle of Life is an effective strategy

“The worst type of buildings in earthquakes are what are called unreinforced masonry. Brick buildings where the brick wall is holding up the roof. In California, about half of the cities have mandatory programs to retrofit those buildings. Half don’t and we are still seeing people die even in California in those types of buildings.” — Dr. Lucy Jones on the worst type of buildings to be in during an earthquake.

“Yes it does, but it’s not quite what people expect. What sets off earthquakes is increasing the pressure of the fluids in the rock. Basically if there’s a lot of pressure in that rock, it takes up the stress that would otherwise be clamping the fault in place and it allows it to move more easily. We are seeing it wherever we build big reservoirs and when we pump water into the ground. And what’s most obvious right now is that connected fracking. The fracking itself doesn’t seem to be setting off much of any earthquake activity but it creates waste water. They need to dispose of it, so they pump it deep into the earth. And remember, earthquakes happen deep in the earth, so we are seeing earthquakes set off. Oklahoma had more earthquakes than California.” — Dr Lucy Jones on how and what specific human activity can contribute to earthquake activity.

“Aftershocks are happening at a time when you’re already upset. The early warning system makes aftershocks much less frightening because you’ve just been through that the big earthquake and you know how awful it is and now you feel another one starting. ‘Is this going to be it again? Oh, okay. That wasn’t that bad.’ Imagine that a few seconds before, magnitude four coming. ‘Oh it’s not going to be that bad. I know it’s not growing into the big one.’ It makes them much more manageable. Tokyo in the month after the magnitude nine saw a million downloads of their phone app. People used it to manage the aftershocks.” — Dr. Lucy Jones on why aftershocks can be scarier than the big ones