Monday, September 19, 2022

A Tale of Two Risks: Tsunami and Nuclear Weapons

Oregon coast - Summer 2018

In the summer of 2018, I enjoyed a wonderful visit to the coast of Oregon.

I have long wanted to show all of the photographs of marine creatures we observed while tide-pooling, and the pictures of the fresnel lens from the Yaquina Point Lighthouse, and the sea lions surfing at Cape Arago! It was one of those places where, even before you left, you found yourself planning your next visit; all you want to do is get back again and spend more time there.

Oregon coast - Summer 2018

Sometime after that visit, however, I read about the Cascadia Subduction Zone and the accompanying earthquake and tsunami risk, and I have now come to realize that what I need to show is a different set of images. I have been writing a lot about how bad we are at thinking about catastrophic risk, especially as it relates to nuclear weapons risk, and it seems to me that the Cascadia tsunami risk could be instructive to think about in this context.

Many people became aware of the risk associated with the Cascadia Subduction Zone by reading a 2015 New Yorker article by Kathryn Schulz, "The Really Big One." In it, Schulz describes the peculiar geologic plate characteristics of the Northwest United States coast, the way it leads to catastrophic tsunami risk, the evidence that has been amassed that such events will happen periodically, and the scale of death and destruction likely when human populations are in their path.

The article had a big impact, I think, because people reading it asked themselves, "How could I have not known about this?" -- and then, "I had an idea about earthquakes but this goes way beyond that!" -- and then, "Do I really want to make that trip to Seattle?"

Graphic from public safety comic entitled
"Without Warning"

For those of us who benefit from seeing moving images, the documentary, "Shockwave: Surviving North America's Biggest Disaster," provides excellent footage of the simulations that scientists and public safety officials in the Pacific Northwest are doing to try to protect populations there. A brief (and rather understated) version of this information is in the video below from Oregon State University:

There is also good footage in this documentary from PBS, available on Youtube: "Will the Cascadia Earthquake be the Worst Disaster North America’s Ever Seen?"

I think it is significant that there is a consensus that over a time horizon that people can imagine -- the next 50 years -- there are odds of this catastrophic event -- about 1 in 3 -- that feel very real. It is interesting to think about what we might do differently if we were able to specify and quantify nuclear weapons risk in the same way.

There are three other things I think are important about this, particularly with regard to thinking about other hard-to-conceptualize catastrophic risks, such as nuclear weapons risk.

(1) Our existing institutions are insufficient. 

There is great work being done by scientists to quantify and otherwise define the associated risk, and by public safety officials to try to get people to prepare. The data has only become clear in recent years, and they are moving as fast as they can. Nonetheless, in our system of social organization, they cannot force anyone to get out of harm's way.

In particular, people's love of the ocean and the tendency to congregate in large number in low-lying coastal areas tend to undermine all of the efforts of scientists and officials to shoo people out of harm's way.

If scientists and officials emphasize the worst scenario, people accuse them of scare tactics. If they emphasize lesser scenarios, people say, "Well, I can handle that!"

(2) Our minds reject the horror associated with this risk. 

When I was in Oregon, I saw tsunami evacuation signs like this:

Tsunami Hazard Zone warning sign
(via OSU's Hinsdale Wave Laboratory)

At the time I thought that meant I might need to be sure to move a few feet inland or I might get my feet wet.

I now know that it referred to risk of the kind Schulz described in that original New Yorker article:

A grown man is knocked over by ankle-deep water moving at 6.7 miles an hour. The tsunami will be moving more than twice that fast when it arrives. Its height will vary with the contours of the coast, from twenty feet to more than a hundred feet. It will not look like a Hokusai-style wave, rising up from the surface of the sea and breaking from above. It will look like the whole ocean, elevated, overtaking land. Nor will it be made only of water—not once it reaches the shore. It will be a five-story deluge of pickup trucks and doorframes and cinder blocks and fishing boats and utility poles and everything else that once constituted the coastal towns of the Pacific Northwest.

I don't want to picture what this would look like. The State of Oregon has provided assistance in some of its public safety literature: public safety comic:
"Without Warning"

Or, you can check out another video -- it's got a goofy premise ("What If You Tried to Surf a Tsunami?") but it actually compiles simulations that seem to more closely match the conditions being described by Schulz:

(I notice the video with the goofy premise has been watched by over 6 million people, so maybe that's the way to get the word out . . . . )

I try to imagine myself confronting a tsunami wave like that. Then I try to imagine myself explaining to myself why I put myself in the way of that wave, even after I had known about the risk.

I often go to bed at night thinking, "Is it really true that I could wake up in the morning and hear that it finally happened? And that far from being able to be warned eight hours in advance, in fact, as a little as a few hours or minutes beforehand there would be no warning?" And I wonder how I would go to sleep if I lived there.

(3) People are stubborn. 

There is something about having a home or other structure that makes people resistant to change. I remember watching a documentary about the consequences of Hurricane Sandy in which an official commented upon the reflexive response to "Rebuild!" after natural disaster damage, instead of moving out of harm's way. How much more so do we resist retreat when the risk all lies in the future?

In our society, we tend to say, "everyone's entitled to their opinion," and "we can't tell people what to do." But it seems to me there's an enormous moral hazard generated by our tolerance of the stubbornness of people with respect to certain catastrophic risks. This is especially so when the society as a whole helps bear those risks.

I wonder what might be different about the efforts to protect against nuclear weapons risk if we could learn from the efforts to protect against tsunami risk in the Pacific Northwest, particularly:

(1) Not waiting for institutions to make sure we're protected.

(2) Facing up to what the horror would really look like.

(3) Start asking questions about the naysayers - who will pay the price when the worst really does come to pass?

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