The Earthquake Solution

Earthquake prevention is obviously impossible. Meanwhile, earthquake detection and “early warning” systems are minimal, at best. But perhaps the best solution is proactive — to promote earthquakes. Because lots of small earthquakes are a million times better than one big one.

Originally published 2015

In California, earthquakes are caused when two of earth’s techtonic plates slide past each other. In this case, the west-most coast of California is slowing moving north, towards Alaska. That wouldn’t be a problem, really, if the movement was continuous. But it isn’t. The ground between the plates is, well, rocky. There are crags and snags that cause the movement to hang up. And that’s where the problems start.

If you have ever tried to open a jar that was stuck you know that you tend to apply more and more force to get it go. (There are better ways to open the jar, but let’s ignore that, for the moment.) Perhaps you encountered a time when the lid broke free just as you were applying maximum force, and things went flying. An earthquake is like that: When the movement hangs up, the forces propelling the movement slowly build up, growing stronger and stronger over time. Then, when they break, you get a huge jolt, and the ground moves several yards.

I was in the San Francisco bay area in 1989, when the last “big one” hit. I remember that it was like sailing on the ocean. Instead of something solid and stable under feet, the thing you’re standing on is moving. It’s unsettling, when you’re not used to it. But while the danger of things falling on you and fire are real, the movement itself isn’t all that bad. The problem, of course, is that after a centrury or two of building up force, the amount of movement is massive.

So maybe the solution rather than waiting for a big earthquake, is to cause earthquakes — lots of small ones, in fact. I know I’m happy when we have little earthquakes. Each one lets off a little steam that will make the big one that much less intense, when it comes. (I also like them because people move out when they happen, which reduces traffic. But that’s another story.)

I recall that in 1989, it had been more humid than normal, for quite a while. There was also something like electricy in the air. But if I had to guess, I suspect that the humidity helped to reduce friction a tiny bit. I could be 100% wrong about that, of course. My knowledge is minimal, to put it kindly. But it does raise the idea: If reducing friction promotes earthquakes, and if many small earthquakes are good, compared to one big one, then maybe the best solution is to reduce friction as much as possible, so those pesky plates can slide more easily.

It’s a project that could be tackled like the moon landing. Put our best scientists and engineers on it. Try out different approaches, and find out what works. Maybe little earth-crawling robots with laser-weapons to trim down the snags. Maybe pumping in an organic teflon of some kind, to grease the plates. Maybe ground-penetrating radars and oil drilling rigs, reengineered to work like a giant rotary file, to smooth out the walls.

Whatever the solution(s), the result could be measured in the form of daily or weekly ground slippage. Of course, the entire length of the faultline would need to be smoothed. A massive undertaking, to say the least. But the result would be a nice, smooth voyage as the ground slowly moves in its chosen direction — movement which is unavoidable, but which can conceivably occur without the lurches and jolts that are the typical hallmark of a big quake.

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