Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Global Warming or Global Shaking? A Tale of Two Theories

On Dec. 26, 2004, the most deadly tsunami in recorded history struck the Indian Ocean, killing about 280,000 people. If there had been a warning system in place along the affected coastlines to move people to higher ground, many of those who died in the disaster might be alive today. Fortunately, the technology to detect tsunamis in deep water and relay the information to the proper authorities exists today. After the terrible lesson of 2004, many governments moved to improve their tsunami-warning capabilities, and this effort is already proving fruitful. But most people think earthquakes on land, which can be just as deadly as tsunamis, are inherently unpredictable. What if that isn't true? What if it turns out that we can predict earthquakes as reliably as tomorrow's weather—not perfectly, but well enough to give warnings about truly major earthquakes? Wouldn't that be worth a little time and attention?

One of the people who think so is Friedemann Freund, long associated with the NASA Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, California. Freund is a mineralogist who has never been afraid to go against the prevailing climate of opinion, even as a child growing up in post-World-War II Germany. His interest in how rocks behave under conditions of extreme temperature and pressure that exist deep below the earth's surface led him to the discovery that their electrical conductivity changes in unexpected ways. Freund believes his research is a key to understanding why attempts to predict earthquakes using electromagnetic measurements have failed to live up to early expectations. (For more details on this type of earthquake prediction, see the entry in this blog "Earthquake Prediction: Ready for Prime Time?" for Apr. 13, 2006.) When Freund's information about the way electric currents can pass through rocks is added to the current state-of-the-art theories, he believes it will make way for a major advance in the technology and science of predicting earthquakes.

Freund's hopes may be realized, but leaving aside the technical questions of whether he is right, let's look at the degree of attention he and other earthquake-prediction scientists have received from the public, the politicians, and the media. Let's compare it to another scientific issue with global implications: global warming.

One rough way to compare general awareness of topics is to see how many results a given phrase returns on Google. The phrase "earthquake prediction" turns up about a million; "global warming" turns up 45 million. While all sorts of things influence these numbers, a difference that large means that a lot more people are thinking and writing about global warming than about earthquake prediction.

Now why is that? One reason has to do with the connection many scientists are making between the behavior of human beings—especially wealthy American human beings that drive gas-guzzling vehicles—and climate changes. If we just hadn't burned all that fossil fuel, they are saying, we might not have to put up with hotter summers, stormier winters, and coastline property values going down (or up, depending on how close you are to the coast). And any great disaster for which we believe we are culpable even a tiny bit will get our attention more than something we can have no influence over. But that doesn't mean we should ignore other things that we might be able to do something about too.

Next, consider the quality of answers to two questions: (1) Has anybody died from global warming yet? (2) Has anybody died from earthquakes and tsunamis we failed to predict yet? Answers to (1) will be all over the map, depending on whether you attribute this famine or that flood to global warming or to other causes. Compared to that answer, the answer to (2) is like the difference between the sky on a foggy day and a diamond in brilliant sunlight. Yes, many thousands have died in earthquakes and tsunamis—deaths that might have been averted if we had possessed the means to predict these events. And with a fraction of the effort (and publicity) spent so far on global warming, the science of earthquake prediction could be much farther along than it is.

Part of engineering ethics, at least the way I view it, is to decide what technical matters deserve attention—what to do, as opposed to simply how to do it well, whatever it is. Professional inertia, which is a tendency of professions to circle the wagons whenever a cherished idea is threatened by an outsider, has slowed recognition of Freund's work and the work of others in earthquake prediction. I'm not saying the outsiders are right. But they deserve a much wider hearing, and encouragement in terms of funding and programs, than they've been getting so far. Even if spending money to look into earthquake prediction turns out to have been a bad bet, it is a wager society ought to make. And personally, I bet they are more right than wrong.

Sources: I thank Alberto Enriquez, the author of a recent IEEE Spectrum article on Freund's research, for drawing my attention to it. His article can be found at http://www.spectrum.ieee.org/feb07/4886 (free registration required for viewing). A nine-page thesis explaining some of Freund's recent ideas can be found at a website whose URL is so long I have to split it in half. You will have to copy and paste it into one line for it to work. Here are the pieces (no space between the two halves):

1 comment:

  1. I agree we pay more attention to things we think we have control over. In addition, I think we pay more attention to things that affect everyone instead of only certain groups, and things that are frequent (or, in the case of global warming, continuous) rather than relatively rare -- and maybe these aspects of universality outweigh severity (i.e. if everyone everywhere is going to be HURT, we care more than if some people occasionally will be killed). I know there are a lot of theories about the irrationality of human perception of risk -- we worry more about being hit by lightning or eaten by a shark than dying in traffic. Maybe this is an instance of that. But living inland in Texas, as I do, I'm not worried AT ALL, personally, about either earthquake or tsunami. Those are someone else's worries. (My comparable concerns are tornadoes and hailstorms.) Global warming -- who- or whatever is causing it -- worries the heck out of me. I agree that ethically we SHOULD worry about things that kill, even when they kill only OTHER people. I agree that one purpose of ethics is to help us behave better than we do "naturally." But I think our natural inclination is to worry about something that will inconvenience everyone (including ourselves) all the time rather than something that kills strangers once in a while.