Quakeland: New York and the Sixth Seal

Quakeland: On the Road to America’s Next Devastating Earthquake

Roger Bilham

Given recent seismic activity — political as well as geological — it’s perhaps unsurprising that two books on earthquakes have arrived this season. One is as elegant as the score of a Beethoven symphony; the other resembles a diary of conversations overheard during a rock concert. Both are interesting, and both relate recent history to a shaky future.

Journalist Kathryn Miles’s Quakeland is a litany of bad things that happen when you provoke Earth to release its invisible but ubiquitous store of seismic-strain energy, either by removing fluids (oil, water, gas) or by adding them in copious quantities (when extracting shale gas in hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking, or when injecting contaminated water or building reservoirs). To complete the picture, she describes at length the bad things that happen during unprovoked natural earthquakes. As its subtitle hints, the book takes the form of a road trip to visit seismic disasters both past and potential, and seismologists and earthquake engineers who have first-hand knowledge of them. Their colourful personalities, opinions and prejudices tell a story of scientific discovery and engineering remedy.

Miles poses some important societal questions. Aside from human intervention potentially triggering a really damaging earthquake, what is it actually like to live in neighbourhoods jolted daily by magnitude 1–3 earthquakes, or the occasional magnitude 5? Are these bumps in the night acceptable? And how can industries that perturb the highly stressed rocks beneath our feet deny obvious cause and effect? In 2015, the Oklahoma Geological Survey conceded that a quadrupling of the rate of magnitude-3 or more earthquakes in recent years, coinciding with a rise in fracking, was unlikely to represent a natural process. Miles does not take sides, but it’s difficult for the reader not to.

She visits New York City, marvelling at subway tunnels and unreinforced masonry almost certainly scheduled for destruction by the next moderate earthquake in the vicinity. She considers the perils of nuclear-waste storage in Nevada and Texas, and ponders the risks to Idaho miners of rock bursts — spontaneous fracture of the working face when the restraints of many million years of confinement are mined away. She contemplates the ups and downs of the Yellowstone Caldera — North America’s very own mid-continent supervolcano — and its magnificently uncertain future. Miles also touches on geothermal power plants in southern California’s Salton Sea and elsewhere; the vast US network of crumbling bridges, dams and oil-storage farms; and the magnitude 7–9 earthquakes that could hit California and the Cascadia coastline of Oregon and Washington state this century. Amid all this doom, a new elementary school on the coast near Westport, Washington, vulnerable to inbound tsunamis, is offered as a note of optimism. With foresight and much persuasion from its head teacher, it was engineered to become an elevated safe haven.

Miles briefly discusses earthquake prediction and the perils of getting it wrong (embarrassment in New Madrid, Missouri, where a quake was predicted but never materialized; prison in L’Aquila, Italy, where scientists failed to foresee a devastating seismic event) and the successes of early-warning systems, with which electronic alerts can be issued ahead of damaging seismic waves. Yes, it’s a lot to digest, but most of the book obeys the laws of physics, and it is a engaging read. One just can’t help wishing that Miles’s road trips had taken her somewhere that wasn’t a disaster waiting to happen.

Catastrophic damage in Anchorage, Alaska, in 1964, caused by the second-largest earthquake in the global instrumental record.

In The Great Quake, journalist Henry Fountain provides us with a forthright and timely reminder of the startling historical consequences of North America’s largest known earthquake, which more than half a century ago devastated southern Alaska. With its epicentre in Prince William Sound, the 1964 quake reached magnitude 9.2, the second largest in the global instrumental record. It released more energy than either the 2004 Sumatra–Andaman earthquake or the 2011 Tohoku earthquake off Japan; and it generated almost as many pages of scientific commentary and description as aftershocks. Yet it has been forgotten by many.

The quake was scientifically important because it occurred at a time when plate tectonics was in transition from hypothesis to theory. Fountain expertly traces the theory’s historical development, and how the Alaska earthquake was pivotal in nailing down one of the most important predictions. The earthquake caused a fjordland region larger than England to subside, and a similarly huge region of islands offshore to rise by many metres; but its scientific implications were not obvious at the time. Eminent seismologists thought that a vertical fault had slipped, drowning forests and coastlines to its north and raising beaches and islands to its south. But this kind of fault should have reached the surface, and extended deep into Earth’s mantle. There was no geological evidence of a monster surface fault separating these two regions, nor any evidence for excessively deep aftershocks. The landslides and liquefied soils that collapsed houses, and the tsunami that severely damaged ports and infrastructure, offered no clues to the cause.

“Previous earthquakes provide clear guidance about present-day vulnerability.” The hero of The Great Quake is the geologist George Plafker, who painstakingly mapped the height reached by barnacles lifted out of the intertidal zone along shorelines raised by the earthquake, and documented the depths of drowned forests. He deduced that the region of subsidence was the surface manifestation of previously compressed rocks springing apart, driving parts of Alaska up and southwards over the Pacific Plate. His finding confirmed a prediction of plate tectonics, that the leading edge of the Pacific Plate plunged beneath the southern edge of Alaska along a gently dipping thrust fault. That observation, once fully appreciated, was applauded by the geophysics community.

Fountain tells this story through the testimony of survivors, engineers and scientists, interweaving it with the fascinating history of Alaska, from early discovery by Europeans to purchase from Russia by the United States in 1867, and its recent development. Were the quake to occur now, it is not difficult to envisage that with increased infrastructure and larger populations, the death toll and price tag would be two orders of magnitude larger than the 139 fatalities and US$300-million economic cost recorded in 1964.

What is clear from these two books is that seismicity on the North American continent is guaranteed to deliver surprises, along with unprecedented economic and human losses. Previous earthquakes provide clear guidance about the present-day vulnerability of US infrastructure and populations. Engineers and seismologists know how to mitigate the effects of future earthquakes (and, in mid-continent, would advise against the reckless injection of waste fluids known to trigger earthquakes). It is merely a matter of persuading city planners and politicians that if they are tempted to ignore the certainty of the continent’s seismic past, they should err on the side of caution when considering its seismic future.

The Nuclear Moron in the White House

John Bolton’s Great Game of Nuclear Chicken

by Daniel L. Davis Follow @DanielLDavis1 on Twitter L

National Security Advisor John Bolton is great at wrecking international agreements. He’s terrible at building security. If we are to restore the momentum that President Donald Trump built over the past year but lost at Hanoi, then Trump will have to resist Bolton’s questionable advice and pay more attention to his own foreign-policy instincts.

A photo taken prior to the beginning of the “ historic summit ” between Trump and Kim Jong-un shows John Bolton sitting at the negotiating table with the president. The man who had conducted all the preliminary negotiations with the North Koreans, Stephen Biegun, was relegated to a seat along the back wall.

It came as little surprise, then, that the summit ended badly, without any agreement being signed and future negotiations in doubt.

If the intent of overall negotiations was to lower tensions and increase the chance of peace on the peninsula, then the summit was the perfect set-up. According to the South Korean officials I spoke to in Hanoi and Washington, the private conversations they had with both the U.S. and North Korean negotiating teams led them to believe a “small deal” had been hammered out by both sides. It wasn’t the “big deal” South Korea had hoped for, but a “small deal” would still have been a welcomed step on the path to ultimate success. It would have paved the way for a fourth summit between Moon Jae-in and Kim, one in which Seoul was expected to “continue the positive momentum.”

On February 28, when word first reached the Korean media center in Hanoi that the summit had suddenly ended without an agreement, I could hear a palpable gasp among the shocked group. In the weeks following the summit, I have talked to sources in South Korea and I have talked to another source with direct access to North Korean officials. My sources paint a consistent and grim picture: although the government in Seoul is publicly putting a good face on the situation and the North Korean press has been mostly silent on the summit’s outcome , the view behind the scenes is far more pessimistic.

North Korea is in no hurry to schedule so much as working level talks with the United States. Meanwhile, Bolton has appeared to move the goalposts. In an interview after his return from the summit, Bolton emphasized that North Korea needed to give up its entire nuclear program “and everything associated with it” or the sanctions would remain in place. Perhaps, he warned, “we’ll look at ramping those sanctions up.” North Korea’s response was about what anyone could have expected.

Last Friday Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son-hui said that Bolton and Secretary of State Pompeo had “created the atmosphere of hostility and mistrust and, therefore, obstructed the constructive effort for negotiations between the supreme leaders of North Korea and the United States.” She also said that Kim would make an announcement in the near future as to whether negotiations would even continue. It is notable that Trump had been very effective at getting meaningful concessions from North Korea up until the Hanoi Summit.

In September 2017, Kim had reached the culmination of many provocative nuclear tests—including an alleged ICBM capability to deliver a nuke warhead—with a blast estimated to be a massive one hundred kilotons . Since that time, however, Trump has helped to coax a missile-testing moratorium from Kim, a nuclear test ban, the return of three hostages, the resumption of repatriation of American war dead from the Korean War, and at least the partial destruction of the nuclear test facility.

These are not minor concessions and they represent a major walk-back of the tense days of late 2017 when Sen. Lindsey Graham predicted there was a 30 percent chance of war on the Korean Peninsula. All of that progress towards peace could be squandered if the National Security Advisor’s views continue to prevail on Trump—because Bolton has a history of getting out of agreements, not creating them.

And to the detriment of the country.

In his 2007 book Surrender is Not an Option , Bolton openly bragged about his role in convincing George Bush to quash the 1994 Agreed Framework. In 2001 he engineered the effort to convince Bush to withdraw from the 1972 Anti-ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty.

Two months after assuming the role of National Security Advisor, Bolton influenced Trump to withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran. And late last year, Bolton convinced Trump to withdraw from Reagan’s 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty. But out of all of Bolton’s “successes,” killing the Agreed Framework in 2002 has cost America the most.

One year before that agreement was quashed,

that “North Korea probably has produced enough plutonium for at least one, and possibly two, nuclear weapons.” Had the Agreed Framework remained in force, then Pyongyang’s weapons program would have remained under constant international scrutiny. Even if the North continued cheating on a covert program, as intelligence discovered they were in 1998 , the constraints of international monitors would have continued to effectively curtail its pursuits.

With Bolton’s successful removal of those constraints, however, we now know that those alleged “one and possibly two” nuclear warheads they were alleged to have had in 2001 have mushroomed up to sixty . Additionally, North Korea’s missile technology has vastly improved. We must avoid the trap of seeking the perfect deal at the expense of an effective peace regime—and end up with neither.

Demanding full nuclear disarmament from North Korea before giving any reciprocating steps is guaranteed to lead to failure and it will likely lead to another increase in tensions. American nuclear and conventional military power has effectively deterred the far more capable nuclear powers of Russia and China for decades and can deter Kim indefinitely. Pursuing peace, not up-front CVID, is the best path to ensuring long-term security for America.

Daniel L. Davis is a senior fellow for Defense Priorities and a former lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army who retired in 2015 after twenty-one years, including four combat deployments. Follow him @DanielLDavis1 .

Image: Reuters

Obama’s Nuclear Deception

In Riyadh, Obama defends nuclear talks with Iran

President Barack Obama strongly defended the nuclear negotiations with Iran at the end of the US-GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on Thursday.

Speaking at the conclusion of the summit, Obama said the outcome of the negotiations proved it was the right approach to take despite the Saudis and Gulf countries’ concerns that the United States was “naïve” when dealing with Iran.

“John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan still negotiated with the Soviet Union even when the Soviet Union was threatening the destruction of the U.S.,” he said. “That’s the same approach we have to take. Even as Iran is calling us the great Satan, we were able to get a deal done that reduces their nuclear stockpiles. That’s not a sign of weakness, that’s a sign of strength.”

The President maintained that the Iran nuclear deal “cut off every single one of Iran’s pathways to a nuclear weapon.” But he said the United States continues to have “serious concerns” about Iran’s behavior in the region. He also raised the possibility of diplomacy to resolve conflicts in Yemen and Syria, since ”none of our nations have an interest in conflict with Iran.”

“We’ll remain vigilant to ensure that Iran fulfills its commitments, just as we will fulfill ours,” Obama promised.

Thursday’s summit was preceded by bilateral talks that Obama held with Saudi King Salman on Wednesday in which the two leaders sought to restore the relationship strained in the aftermath of the Iran deal. According to U.S. officials, Obama pressed the Saudi King to be more open to engaging in diplomacy and to find alternatives to direct confrontation with Iran’s leadership.

“We made very clear to the leaders last night and today on the subject of Iran that our partners, our friends in this region are in the room with us here, and Iran, on the other hand, has in many ways been confrontational not just to the countries here in the GCC, but to the United States as well, and that we share their concerns about Iran’s ballistic missile program, its destabilizing activities in the region, its ongoing support for terrorism,” Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters on Thursday. “And, in fact, many of the capabilities that we’re developing on the defense side through this process are focused on countering Iranian actions.”

Rhodes said President Obama made the point to Gulf leaders that their concern with Iran “should not foreclose the potential for diplomatic engagement if there’s an ability to resolve problems. And a recent example, of course, is the nuclear deal where, despite all of our concerns about Iran’s behavior, we were able to see a significant rollback in the Iranian nuclear program because we pursued a diplomatic process.”

Hamas to Accelerate Riots Outside the Temple Walls (Rev 11)

Hamas officials announced Monday that the organization is planning on increasing nighttime activities on the border, in addition to ramping up the tension in the weekly “Great March of Return” protests.This comes after Egyptian security officials who visited the Gaza Strip told Hamas that Israel is unable to meet Hamas’ demands for calm.Hamas’ main goal is a significant easing of Israel’s blockade on Gaza. Last week, a Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine official in Gaza told Haaretz that Israel is willing to make certain concessions, but Hamas’ activity on the border will not stop until an agreement has been reached.The committee organizing the weekly demonstration along the border also released an announcement Monday calling for young people in the Strip to come out in droves and participate in the protests, including those planned for Friday.Hamas’ decision comes after significant escalation between Israel and Gaza in past weeks, including the launch of two missiles from Gaza at Tel Aviv on Thursday, which Hamas says was an accident. In response, the Israeli military struck some 100 Hamas targets in the Strip.

Hamas is also facing Palestinians who are protesting the economic situation in Gaza, detaining hundreds and violently suppressing the “Revolt of the Hungry” with live fire, clubs and other means.

Hamas’ nighttime demonstrations are led by a special, more experienced unit within the organization, and are significantly more violent than the usual Gaza border protests.

Hamas operatives play a rocket siren over loudspeakers to terrorize the nearby civilian communities in Israel, burn tires to produce a smokescreen and throw explosives over the border.

Two weeks ago, a 15-year-old boy participating in the nighttime riots was killed by Israeli soldiers during the clashes.

In February, the first incendiary balloon since November was launched from the Gaza Strip, a few days after Hamas re-approved the tactic due to stalled talks with Israel. It caused a small fire in the Kissufim Forest near the border, which was put out quickly. The Israeli military struck Hamas and Islamic Jihad positions in early March after more incendiary balloons were launched into Israel.

The Nuclear Deal is About to be Broken

Since December, there have been reports that Iran’s nuclear chief Ali Akbar Salehi had announced that Iran was designing a modern process to enrich uranium up to 20% for an ageing research reactor. Salehi had reportedly said Iran was ready to enrich uranium to 20% at its Fordow nuclear facility. Under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) or the Iran nuclear deal, Iran is eligible to enrich uranium only up to 3.7% for 15 years. Salehi has raised concerns by stating that Iran “would do enrichment at any volume and level.”

The United States had called off the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran and demanded a fresh deal. However, in September 2018, Salehi clearly stated, “if we have to go back and withdraw from the nuclear deal, we certainly do not go back to where we were before. We will be standing on a much, much higher position.” Iran, he said, was capable of designing nuclear reactors to suit its own needs and the new fuel would enhance their efficiency. That same month, Ayatollah Khamenei had reportedly ordered the setting up of an advanced hall of modern centrifuges.

A year earlier, in August 2017, Salehi had declared that Iran could start enriching uranium to 20% within five days of a decision to do so. In June 2018, Iran was reported to have launched the UF-6 (uranium hexafluoride) production facility, a step towards increasing uranium enrichment capability.

Possessing the ability to enrich uranium to 20% would also open ways for Iran to enrich uranium to even higher levels, to weapons grade. One of the pressing issues post the Iran nuclear deal has been Tehran’s continued missile development programmeme. Iran already possesses sophisticated ballistic and cruise missiles of long ranges that are capable of delivering nuclear warheads as well as chemical and biological warheads and sub-munitions.

Allowing Tehran to enrich uranium to 20% would result in the country furthering the capability to develop nuclear weapons. Iran has in fact warned that it will develop a nuclear arsenal if the deal with the P5+1 powers fell apart. If it did, it would set of a nuclear arms race in West Asia and North Africa region.

Strategic repercussions

Saudi Arabia desires to possess nuclear technology, ostensibly for civilian purposes, but refuses to accept the US ‘gold standard’ of restricting enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing. Hence, a nuclear deal with the US has not come through. In addition, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey and Egypt, too, could become high-risk nuclear power states.

The UAE accepts the US ‘gold standard’ — the 123 Agreement — and refrains from enriching uranium but it has always been sceptical of the nuclear deal that allowed Iran to enrich uranium to 3.7%.

The UAE’s Ambassador to Washington had once even stated that the Emirates no longer felt bound by the 123 Agreement which was a bilateral agreement between the United States and UAE.

Enriching uranium to 20% will be against the nuclear deal and in the future, the United States might find it difficult to persuade other states in the region to enter into similar nuclear deals should states in West Asia go nuclear. These include states like Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and others.

Though Iran has stated that it has no desire to “withdraw from the deal”, any attempt to increase enrichment capacity will automatically lead to the nuclear deal becoming null and void.

Also, Iran in June 2018 had warned that should European countries fail to abide by the nuclear deal, Iran would resort to the 20% enrichment process. Hence, these declarations about the enrichment programmeme could be a way for Iran to coerce Europe to stick to the nuclear deal.

The uranium enrichment programme will only make Iran’s nuclear energy programme more complicated as there may not be any future scope to discuss improving the nuclear deal. In addition, Iran will be supported in its nuclear energy programme by countries like China and Russia, which makes Iran bother less about the US moving away from the nuclear deal since despite these actions by US President Donald Trump, Iran would most likely go ahead with the uranium enrichment programme.

Though Iran is a party to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and has the right to pursue a nuclear energy programme, its ability to enrich uranium to 20% may in future lead to a stage where it enriches uranium that is weapons grade. Not only this, Iran also has close ties with Hezbollah- an asymmetric warfare organisation.

Iran already transfers weapons and missile systems to Hezbollah and hence, it is feared, in the future, it could also transfer nuclear weapons or technological know-how to Hezbollah.

Iran’s nuclear programme, if not checked, will only move ahead to become a full-fledged nuclear weapons programme.

(The writer is a Defence and Strategic Analyst)