How New Science Is Changing Our View of Earthquake Hazards in the Midwest
by Seth Stein
Columbia University Press, 2010
296 pages, $27.95
Between December 1811 and February 1812, four earthquakes of magnitude 7 or greater strongly shook the area along the Missouri-Tennessee border and surrounding states, ringing church bells as far away as Charleston, South Carolina. Such earthquakes violate the plate tectonic theory that earthquakes occur in zones between plates moving relative to one another: the New Madrid earthquakes—named after the town in what is now Missouri—occurred in the interior of the North America plate.
Seth Stein’s fascinating book Disaster Deferred tells of scientists’ attempts to understand this contradiction. The text is straightforward yet exciting: a high-school freshman can read it but a scientist of any discipline will be roused by it. The book is part story, part science, and part how scientists think.
In particular, Stein tells how the news media frightened hundreds of thousands of people with the prediction that a repeat earthquake would occur in December 1990 in New Madrid. Stein explains how and why the danger was overrated. He points out, furthermore, that risks posed by automobile accidents far outweigh those posed by earthquakes.
I would recommend this book to anyone interested in science.
Donald Argus is a principal scientist at JPL who uses satellite and ground-based methods to study how Earth’s crust is reacting to the forces exerted on it by earthquakes, plate tectonics, melting polar ice, and other forces. Stein was one of Argus’s PhD advisors at Northwestern University.