Seismic Potential Energy

[Image: Photo by BLDGBLOG].

I got to hike with my friend Wayne last week through a place called the Devil’s Punchbowl, initially by way of a trail out and back from a very Caspar David Friedrich-ian overlook called the Devil’s Chair.

[Image: Wayne, Rückenfigur; photo by BLDGBLOG].

The Punchbowl more or less lies astride the San Andreas Fault, and the Devil’s Chair, in particular, surveils this violently serrated landscape, like gazing out across exposed rows of jagged teeth—terra dentata—or perhaps the angled waves of a frozen Hokusai painting. The entire place seems charged with the seismic potential energy of an impending earthquake.

[Image: It is difficult to get a sense of scale from this image, but this geological feature alone is at least 100 feet in height, and it is only one of hundreds; photo by BLDGBLOG].

The rocks themselves are enormous, splintered and looming sometimes hundreds of feet over your head, and in the heat-haze they almost seem buoyant, subtly bobbing up and down with your footsteps like the tips of drifting icebergs.

[Image: Looking out at the Devil’s Chair; photo by BLDGBLOG].

In fact, we spent the better part of an hour wondering aloud how geologists could someday cause massive underground rock formations such as these to rise to the surface of the Earth, like shipwrecks pulled from the bottom of the sea. Rather than go to the minerals, in other words, geologists could simply bring the minerals to them.

[Image: Photo by BLDGBLOG].

Because of the angles of the rocks, however, it’s remarkably easy to hike out amidst them, into open, valley-like groins that have been produced by tens of thousands of years’ worth of rainfall and erosion; once there, you can just scramble up the sides, skirting past serpentine pores and small caves that seem like perfect resting spaces for snakes, till you reach sheer drop-offs at the top.

There, views open up of more and more—and more—of these same tilted rocks, leading on along the fault, marking the dividing line between continental plates and tempting even the most exhausted hiker further into the landscape. The problem with these sorts of cresting views is that they become addictive.

[Image: Wayne, panoramically doubled; photo by BLDGBLOG].

At the end of the day, we swung by the monastic community at St. Andrew’s Abbey, which is located essentially in the middle of the San Andreas Fault. Those of you who have read David Ulin’s book The Myth of Solid Ground will recall the strange relationship Ulin explores connecting superstition, faith, folk science, and popular seismology amongst people living in an earthquake zone.

Even more specifically, you might recall a man Ulin mentions who once claimed that, hidden “in the pattern of the L.A freeway system, there is an apparition of a dove whose presence serves to restrain ‘the forces of the San Andreas fault’.”

This is scientifically cringeworthy, to be sure, but it is nonetheless interesting in revealing how contemporary infrastructure can become wrapped up in emergent mythologies of how the world (supposedly) works.

The idea, then, of a rogue seismic abbey quietly established in a remote mountainous region of California “to restrain ‘the forces of the San Andreas Fault’”—which, to be clear, is not the professed purpose of St. Andrew’s Abbey—is an idea worth exploring in more detail, in another medium. Imagine monks, praying every night to keep the rocks below them still, titanic geological forces lulled into a state of quiescent slumber.

[Image: Vasquez Rocks at sunset; photo by BLDGBLOG].

In fact, I lied: at the actual end of the day, Wayne and I split up and I drove back to Los Angeles alone by way of a sunset hike at Vasquez Rocks, a place familiar to Star Trek fans, where rock formations nearly identical to—but also less impressive than—the Devil’s Punchbowl breach the surface of the Earth like dorsal fins. The views, as you’d expect, were spectacular.

Both parks—not to mention St. Andrew’s Abbey—are within easy driving distance of Los Angeles, and both are worth a visit.

Fault massage

A few days ago, Swiss engineers “halted an experiment to extract geothermal heat from deep below ground after it set off a small earthquake in the nearby city of Basel.” Nonchalantly described as a “mishap,” the earthquake “occurred after water was injected at high pressure into a five-km-deep (16,000-feet-deep) borehole.”

The idea that some earthquakes might have a human origin totally fascinates me. When it was suggested last year, for example, that Taipei 101, one of the tallest (and heaviest) buildings on earth, may have re-opened an old tectonic fault beneath Taiwan, what went otherwise unexplored was the possibility that some buildings might achieve the exact opposite: through sheer mass and fortuitous location, a building could perfectly weight a faultline… preventing it from rumbling again.

Think of it as a geological piano damper: a building—a whole city—that puts an end to earthquakes. (Yes, I’m aware of this film).

[Image: Los Angeles against the mountains; courtesy of SRTM Team NASA/JPL/NIMA].

Having recently moved to Los Angeles, I find myself thinking about earthquakes quite a lot; but I also find myself wondering if the surprising lack of seismic activity in the greater Los Angeles area over the past century has been precisely because of the amount of buildings out here. Is it possible that Los Angeles itself—this massive urban obesity—is a kind of anti-Taipei 101? In other words, it’s so massive and heavy that it has shut down the major tectonic faults running beneath the city?

For instance, I would love to discover that the Los Angeles freeway system performs a kind of constant seismic massage on local tectonic plates by spreading the tension outward. Specific bus lines, say—traveling north on Figueroa, or down La Brea, or west on Venice—have the totally unexpected effect of massaging local tension out of the earth.

Whole new classes of vehicle could come into existence; like hyper-industrial street-cleaners, these slow-rolling, anti-earthquake machines would drone through the twisting, fractal valleys of Hollywood, pressing strain out of the bedrock.

In fact, I’m reminded of David Ulin’s book The Myth of Solid Ground, where we meet a man named Donald Dowdy. Dowdy, who found himself under FBI investigation for taunting the United States Geological Survey with “a bizarre series of manifestos, postcards, rants, and hand-drawn maps, forecasting full-bore seismic apocalypse around an elusive, if biblical, theme,” also claimed that, “in the pattern of the L.A freeway system, there is an apparition of a dove whose presence serves to restrain ‘the forces of the San Andreas fault’.”

It’s absurd, of course—and yet I find myself wondering: if more and more people were to move to Los Angeles, and more and more buildings were to be constructed, perhaps we might hold the faults in place for a while—a decade, a century—before the earth regains the strength to break free.

(Meanwhile, be sure to check out my interview with David Ulin over at Archinect).

Earthquake Body Radio

While I was in Denver last week I picked up a copy of The Myth of Solid Ground by David Ulin. The book covers seismology, California’s self-intersecting jigsaw puzzle of major and minor faultlines, and the imagination of disaster (to paraphrase Mike Davis).

However, it also explores (and, for the most part, debunks, although Ulin seems to do so only reluctantly) earthquake sensitives, or people who experience physical symptoms immediately prior to the onset of a quake. Headaches, back aches, bad dreams, sore joints – the body becomes a warning flag for terrestrial disturbance. The human nervous system, a seismic prediction device.
Kathy Gori, for example, “a Los Angeles sensitive, has run off a string of better than twenty successful predictions – with just a handful of misses – by relying on headaches that come and go a few hours before a quake. The key, Gori believes, is that her brain contains higher-than-average levels of magnetite, the mineral that helps bats and other animals orient themselves to the electromagnetic field of the earth, which enables her to function as a tectonic receiver, as it were.”
A tectonic receiver! Her brain, containing a metallic analogue of the earth’s surface, responds to disturbances in the earth’s surface. The brain as a micro-landscape, metallized and resonating.
Or, more comically, there is the guy “nicknamed ‘Pain-in-the-Butt Man,’ because he feels pain shoot through his ass cheeks before the ground begins to shake.”
There’s also “Charlotte King, the self-styled doyenne of the earthquake sensitives,” who claims that she “has literally been able to hear low-frequency sound waves – a foghornlike moaning she refers to simply as ‘The Sound’ – and, in conjunction with physical symptoms ranging from anxiety and irritability to nosebleeds, muscle spasms, headaches, and severe stomach or heart pain, use them to predict earthquakes and volcanoes with a rate of accuracy that, by her accounting, comes in somewhere around 85 percent.”
(Somewhat related to this, see BLDGBLOG’s recent post on Sound dunes).
On Charlotte King’s website there’s even a definition of something she calls the “Charlotte King effect,” aka “geosensology,” or “the study of senses and biological systems as it relates to geologic dynamics or geologic events.”
This – geosensology – is all part of Project Migraine:
“Through the efforts of Charlotte King who pioneered Biological Earthquake Prediction, and Chris Dodge of the US Library of Congress, a volunteer research project was born – aptly named ‘Project Migraine.’ The focus of this project was to prove, beyond coincidence, that earthquakes and volcanic eruptions could be forecast, prospective of the event, giving time, magnitude, location and probability” – forecast using the human body.
King has mapped seemingly every part of her body to the earth’s surface, limb by continent by island chain: “Upper back as I have repeatedly said is for Japan;” or “Pain in ears, this is usually Italy, Sicily, Greece and Crete.” Her body – and this is not at all something I am endorsing, or implying that I believe – acts as a kind of muscular radio, or nervous antenna, the meat and gristle and bone of being human somehow tuned-in to geoseismic activity.
Ulin’s book then looks at the scientific work of Tony Fraser-Smith, a professor at Stanford University, “who recorded anomalous ultra-low-frequency (ULF) electromagnetic waves in the ground near Corralitos, a small town three miles from the Loma Prieta epicenter.” (Loma Prieta was a large earthquake in 1989).
“‘Twelve days before the earthquake,’ he says, ‘the noise level went up by a factor of ten. Three hours before, it went up by another factor of ten.'”
The faultlines themselves – all crushed rock and slurry – were emitting radio waves.
This apparently legitimate discovery, however, collapes into the New Age weirdness of amateur earthquake prediction with a man called Jack Coles. Just after the Loma Prieta earthquake, “Fraser-Smith accompanied USGS seismologist Andy Michael to Coles’s San Jose apartment, where they found [him] monitoring a symphony of static coming from an elaborate array of radios tuned between stations at the low end of the dial. ‘Clearly,’ Fraser-Smith remembers, ‘he believed in what he was doing. I don’t think he was a charlatan. But every time a radio popped, he’d claim it indicated something, which he’d then interpret according to his criteria that he wouldn’t tell us anything about.'”
BLDGBLOG has already written about radio astronomy; this, I suppose, is radio seismology.
There are people who use clouds to predict earthquakes; there is even Jim Berkland, with his own method of prediction, “which is to read lost and found columns in various California newspapers,” keeping “a daily log of pet disappearances in Los Angeles and the Bay Area, going back twenty-two years.” (His earthquake prediction website can be found here.)
The interest here, at least for me, is not the individual methods these people use, or even whether those methods can be treated as “scientific,” but the basic idea at work behind them: that – through a kind of unintended revival of the medieval Great Chain of Being – the human body, the lived skeleto-muscular present, is actually a terrestrial analogue, a corporeal mappa mundi. The idea that metal in the California hills can also be found in the human brain, thus making the human brain a microcosm or simulacrum of the earth: human anatomy as world model.
Yet it’s also the seemingly disastrous misuse of hermeneutics – reading too far into things – that would lead someone to conclude that missing pet ads in Los Angeles newspapers are harbingers of earthquakes, or that radio static from dead stations hissing and popping outside the usable spectrum is somehow coming from the earth, picking up on planetary reverberations, literally radio-active. Over-literalizing a pun.
The “earth” as a system of signs, meant to be interpreted. The logic behind this.
The logic of earthquake prediction.

(Meanwhile, for those of you dying to use origami as a means to analyze tectonic faulting, click here).