Deborah Blum: Civilization on a Fault Line

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[Deborah Blum, a professor of science journalism at the University of Wisconsin, is the author of the forthcoming “The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York.”]

I used to be a science writer for a California newspaper, where I learned to think of the ground beneath my feet as something alive. It crawled and shivered, stretched and quaked. It was the thin, wrinkled skin of an A.D.D. planet, whose muscles and bones constantly twitched beneath it....

Surely, you think, we should be able to rely on rock. A country like Haiti, already battered enough by circumstance, should be able to find safety in solid ground. Somehow it should be so, even though our planet proves that wrong again and again. Remember the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan Province in eastern China, which left more than 88,000 people dead or missing? The Indonesian earthquake of 2006, which killed more than 6,000 people?

Haiti is situated along a strike-slip fault between two great plates of the earth’s crust, just like the San Andreas of California. The word fault does not imply a mistake. Nor does it suggest a stationary crack in the earth’s crust. In geology, the word “fault” implies motion. Beneath the thin outer skin on which we stake our lives, our planet flexes its muscles. The hot magma that lies below, the liquid minerals and metals that swirl around the earth’s core, conspire to keep the surface moving. The crustal plates, which cover the planet’s surface like a great rocky jigsaw puzzle, push against, under and over one another. All with the slowness, and the inevitability, of geologic time.

The great continental and oceanic plates of crust are always moving, rubbing, rearranging the bedrock of our lives. The motion is too slow to catch our attention except when it becomes erratic. Strike-slip faults tend to get stuck as they slide against each other, one jagged section catching on another. They grind slowly onward though, moved relentlessly by that underground current, eventually breaking the hold, setting off the reverberations of a quake. It’s been more than 100 years since the San Andreas broke in a spectacular way, more than 200 since the Enriquillo-Plantain Garden Fault, the one adjacent to Haiti, did so. It takes time for even the earth to build up to a catastrophe....
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