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Book balances fear with facts about natural disasters

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Posted: Saturday, July 9, 2011 10:42 pm | Updated: 1:15 pm, Wed Jan 16, 2013.

For natural disasters, we don’t have to go far. Alaska has most of the top eight: earthquakes, volcanoes, floods, mudslides, tsunamis and blizzards. About the only ones we can’t put on our list are hurricanes and tornadoes (although as bizarre as the world’s weather has been lately, maybe that isn’t a given).

Donald Prothero’s new book, “Catastrophes: Earthquakes, Tsunamis, Tornadoes and Other Earth-Shattering Disasters,” covers all the familiar hits and makes for fascinating reading, if somewhat terrifying.

Prothero introduces us to his work by recounting its origin: “The idea for this book originated from the horrors of the (2004) Indian Ocean tsunami. ... I watched the news coverage and thought that there was a need for such a book. ... I’ve been teaching about these events in my introductory physical geology courses for more than 25 years ... but this book gave me a chance ... to take a novel, more paleontological approach to natural disasters.”

Starting with earthquakes, with which all Alaskans are familiar, and going down the list one by one, Prothero explains the geologic and meteorological forces behind disasters, emphasizing the science with examples of real-world events, giving us a three-dimensional view of not only the natural processes involved but the human and monetary toll, as well.

“Of all natural disasters discussed in this book, earthquakes seem to strike the greatest fear and dread in people,” he writes in the first chapter. “… most psychologists agree that there are two frightening elements of earthquakes: unpredictability and loss of the sense of terra firma.” In other words, we freak out when suddenly, without warning, that stable terra under our feet isn’t so firma any more.

He explains the geologic processes that cause earthquakes, using several really big ones to illustrate points where the world was changed because of shaky ground, including Alaska’s entry, the 1964 Good Friday quake that confirmed plate tectonics. Once the ground stopped shaking, relief efforts began, and many geologists headed to the 49th state to assist and study. Through their documentation of “amazing” ground displacements, both up and down, “geologists relaxed that the Alaska earthquake was the first good example of an active subduction zone, part of the newly proposed theory of plate tectonics. ... Good Friday 1964 was the first time geologists could see subduction tectonics in action.”

But Prothero doesn’t stop at the geology of the disaster — he heads into more murky territory by exploring the psychology of earthquakes, mainly, why people fear them more than any other disaster. He debunks many earthquake urban myths (did you know earthquakes DO NOT form giant chasms filled with lava or send entire states tumbling into the sea? And there is no such thing as ‘earthquake weather?’). From an actuary’s point of view, “there is no real connection between our exaggerated fear of earthquakes and actual risks,” Prothero tells us. “People fear earthquakes more than they fear tornadoes, hurricanes, blizzards, lightning or driving their cars, yet every one of these phenomena kills far more people per year or per decade than earthquakes do.”

Each subsequent disaster, from tsunamis to hurricanes to mass extinctions, gets the same thorough examination: natural processes that cause the catastrophe, examples of nerve-wracking, deadly or costly events and a detailed dissection of actual risks, suggested further reading, and fantastic photos and graphics give the reader a good sense of the forces at work within and around our world. We may not be able to control these forces, Prothero seems to be saying, but we can understand how and why they work, prepare ourselves as much as possible for them, and then go on with our lives, because worrying only gives us wrinkles.

He uses simple language, easily understood by this definitely science-knowledge-challenged reader. He chooses examples familiar to most, and shows how those particular events showcased and highlighted one particular theory, or heightened our understanding of the world.

And he finishes his work with an admonition of sorts — as much as we fear and dread catastrophes — and much as our news media enjoys plastering the dramatic pictures of horrendous disasters around the world — they aren’t our biggest worry.

“Disease and famine are a lot slower and less dramatic, but far greater purveyors of death than any catastrophic natural event,” he writes. And as a species, humans risk far greater destruction with overpopulation, greenhouse gases, nuclear weapons and other potential “end of the world” scenarios than we do from floods, volcanoes or earthquakes.

If my fellow armchair adventurers get nothing else out of this read, it should be to remember, as historian Will Durant put it: “Civilization exists by geologic consent, subject to change without notice.” Because if there’s one constant in this world, it’s that the world isn’t constant.

Libbie Martin is a freelance writer who lives in Fairbanks. She can be reached at

Catastrophes: Earthquakes, Tsunamis, Tornadoes, and Other Earth-Shattering Disasters

By Donald R. Prothero

The Johns Hopkins University Press

2011 $21.00

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