Saturday, April 22, 2017

Timothy H. Dixon's "Curbing Catastrophe"

Timothy H. Dixon received a B.Sc. degree in 1974 from the University of Western Ontario in London, Canada, and Ph.D. degree in 1979 from Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California, San Diego. From 1979-1992, he worked at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. From 1992-2010 he was at the University of Miami. Since January 2011 he has been at the University of South Florida, where he is a Professor in the Department of Geology.

Dixon applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Curbing Catastrophe: Natural Hazards and Risk Reduction in the Modern World, and reported the following:
When I was asked to write an article for “The Page 99 Test,” the first thing I did was look at another entry to see what other writers had done with this challenge. I chose Chip Colwell’s Plundered Skulls and Stolen Spirits. In hindsight it may not have been the best choice. Page 99 of Colwell’s book includes the following riveting passage:
On the bitter cold morning of November 29, 1864, the U.S. Army attacked a peaceful Cheyenne and Arapaho settlement at the eastern edge of Colorado, slaughtering upwards of 200 people, mostly women, children, and the elderly. After the killing ended, the soldiers plundered the dead—taking body parts as trophies, including fingers, genitalia, and scalps. When the Army returned to Denver they were greeted as heroes. During a parade that snaked through downtown Denver, the scalps were raised to cheers.
The book goes on to describe the anthropologic consequences of the genocide committed by our European ancestors against the original inhabitants of North America. It’s fascinating reading, and I highly recommend it.

In contrast, page 99 of my book drops the reader into the middle of a rather dry four page description of how scientists discovered that the Pacific coast of Oregon and Washington in the US, and the Canadian province of British Columbia (geologists call this region “Cascadia”) are at great risk from a giant earthquake and devastating tsunami. It's rather dry, but it's important – the Cascadia region is virtually certain to experience an event similar to the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan, killing approximately 30,000 people and costing that country more than $200 billion (US). It was the world’s costliest natural disaster, and is discussed in Chapter 4 of my book. But unlike Japan, the US and Canada are actually much less prepared, for reasons discussed in Chapter 5 (including page 99). If it happened tomorrow, the consequences would be devastating, far worse than Japan. The main reason for the difference is that scientific understanding of the risk did not come until the 1990’s, long after the area had been settled by Europeans, and long after much of the region’s infrastructure have been built – so it's not earthquake-safe. In contrast, Japan has been settled for more than a thousand years, and that country’s inhabitants have learned to live with earthquakes, and design buildings accordingly. It’s a good example of the importance of time lag, a major theme in the book (in this case, the time difference between settlement and scientific understanding of local risk).

An interesting aside, related to Colwell’s book but not discussed in my book, is that the indigenous inhabitants of Cascadia were actually familiar with the earthquake and tsunami hazard (the last big one was in 1700 AD, and it was recognized in their oral traditions). European settlers (and scientists of the day) paid no heed to the natives, who were viewed as uncivilized.

We can’t predict when “the big one” will hit Cascadia, but we probably have at least a few decades to prepare. Let’s use the time wisely.
Learn more about Curbing Catastrophe at the Cambridge University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue