Kathryn Miles is an American journalist and science writer. Her most recent book is Quakeland: On the Road to America's Next Devastating Earthquake.
Tuesday's earthquake in Mexico killed at least 274 people, including at least 19 schoolchildren at the Enrique Rebsamen School in the capital. That number will continue to rise in the coming days, as recovery operations continue to sift through the rubble created by the 7.1 magnitude quake. The footage of the search is undeniably tragic: First responders try to bust through the collapsed walls of apartment buildings, calling for survivors; parents with unresponsive cellphones, searching for their children. They are grim reminders of the force behind this planet's most powerful natural disaster, and why we are all unprepared for the risk.
Earthquakes do not respect national borders. And while it can be tempting to assume that they are only a real threat in places like the Pacific's Ring of Fire or the Caribbean, the fact remains that they can occur just about anywhere. The Geological Survey of Canada rates the relative hazard of a quake in Ottawa and Quebec as "high." Vancouver is at risk not only for a quake 80 times stronger than the one that rocked Mexico, but also a devastating tsunami. While not as large, the 1929 Grand Banks earthquake and tsunami nevertheless killed 27 individuals and ruined entire communities. Were it to occur today, the devastation would be much worse. Farther south, New York is built on dozens of faults and is actually about 40 years overdue for a moderate quake (historically, that area has seen a moderate quake about every 100 years. The last one was in 1884). The 2011 temblor that damaged buildings throughout Washington, D.C., could have been much worse.
Geologists have been well aware of these threats for years, and they've been trying to get us to take heed. The problem is, few of us have been listening. And to make matters worse, these known risk areas are now being joined by places once thought to be earthquake-free: regions like Western Alberta, where hydraulic fracturing or "fracking" has increased seismic activity exponentially, and Oklahoma, where waste-water injection related to fracking has made that state – once all but earthquake-free – the most seismically active in the contiguous 48 states.
That's just the start. Dam and reservoir construction, mining and drilling, even the construction of high-rise towers can all precipitate earthquakes. As our technology increases, as our ability to dig deeper and build higher improves, the potential for seismic activity will continue to increase.
When geologists and emergency planners talk about this activity, they distinguish between hazard and risk. The former is the likelihood that an earthquake will occur. In places like Ottawa and New York, that hazard remains low, though it has increased as a result of human activity. Risk, on the other hand, multiplies any potential hazard by the cost of damage and the number of people harmed. When you take all of those factors into consideration, the earthquake risk in these major metropolitan areas is actually much greater than in much of Alaska, British Columbia or even swaths around the San Andreas fault. Some of the most vulnerable places are areas of industry, along with key infrastructure like highways, airports and bridges.
That's why both Canada and the United States need a more robust earthquake plan – one that not only protects each country, but also works together and in concert with Mexico to keep this continent safe. Last year, British Columbia invested $5-million in the development of an earthquake early-warning system. That regional program may well be in jeopardy if U.S. Congress approves President Donald Trump's budget proposal, which includes cuts to programs like seismic and tsunami monitoring systems in the Pacific Northwest. Asking Washington to reinvest in those programs is a crucial start to earthquake preparedness, and one that we should all insist upon. Still, more needs to be done.
Countries like Mexico and Japan have had national warning systems for years, and the advance warning they provide has the potential to save thousands of lives (Mexico's Sasmex system issued siren and text alerts less than a minute before Tuesday's quake and no doubt saved lives). Canada and the United States need similar programs, ones that don't restrict their coverage to the West Coast, but rather take into account the true swath of earthquake risk and hazard. We need to institute national earthquake-preparedness programs and practise emergency-management procedures. We must invest in more resilient infrastructure and communities so that real recovery can occur.
If the hurricanes, wildfires and earthquakes of this season have taught us anything, it's that natural disasters rarely look the way we anticipate. And that their aftermath can challenge even the best plan. We don't just lose crucial buildings in their wake: we also lose the ability to communicate with one another; we lose first responders who aren't able to reach us because of the havoc wreaked; we lose crucial services like hospitals and sanitation. Consider this: Puerto Rico may well be without power for a month as a result of Hurricane Maria. Houston oil refineries are still struggling to come back on line weeks after Hurricane Harvey. The efforts to rebuild in Mexico may take years. These are not localized problems: their economic and social impact will be felt by all of us. And if history is any indication, they'll be repeated again and again. Our only real recourse is to do a better job of preparing for them.