Earthquakes & tsunamis - trusting in gods, mammon or science
The massive destruction we see in the news from Chile was caused by the biggest earthquake the world has seen for years. Yet news reports say hundreds of people have died. Tragic though their deaths are, terrifying though the circumstances are for the survivors, we inevitably compare the impact of this earthquake with the vast hellish devastation in Haiti with the hundreds of thousands of dead and maimed amid the rubble.
There are many reasons why there was such a difference between Concepcion and Port-au-Prince. Highest on the list is that policy decision-makers in Chile valued science, and gave it practical expression in such prosaic matters as building regulations and emergency services provision.
In bleak, unforgiving contrast, the Haitians trusted in God or Mammon.
Scientists' understanding of earthquakes isn't exact, but it's not shaky either. It tells of probabilities not certainties. And, as with climate change modelling, the maths is adjusted in the face of evidence.
It's science, too, that can explain tsunamis, and predict their impact with an impressive though not total precision. We now know that tsunamis are not expressions of anger from some mythical being, but the inevitable consequence of an earthquake on the seabed.
People on the Pacific rim have responded to the probability of tsunami after this Chilean earthquake; evidence that humanity has learned from the devastation and 250K deaths from the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami. Then mathematicians in California had calculated the height, direction and speed of the tsunamis, had no means to tell the threatened populations what was about to happen on their coastlines. Warning systems are now in place as a result, and have been used this weekend, as reported in the Post earlier today..
We feel impotent in the face of the vast human tragedy in Port-au-Prince and Concepcion, as we did for Aceh and Sri Lanka in 2004. But investment in science, in medicine, in engineering here, right here, right now, is perhaps the most useful response. It's through research that we learn about the world. Thereby sometimes we can, as in Concepcion, make the inevitable evitable.