The Year the Earth Fought Back

By SIMON WINCHESTER

New York Times

December 29, 2004

London - LIKE two bookends of calamity, earthquakes at Bam in Iran and off Sumatra in Indonesia have delineated a year of unusual seismic ferocity - a year, one might say, of living dangerously. Twelve months, almost to the very hour, before Sunday's extraordinary release of stress at the India-Burma tectonic plate boundary, a similar jolt at the boundary of the Arabian and the Eurasian Plates devastated one of the most celebrated of Persian caravan cities. The televised images of Bam's collapsed citadel and the sight of thousands of bodies being carried from the desert ruins haunted the world then just as the images of the drowned around the shores of the Bay of Bengal do today.

But that has not been the half of it. True, these two disasters were, in terms of their numbers of casualties, by far the most lethal. But in the 12 months that separated them, there have been many other ruinous and seismically ominous events, occurring in places that seem at first blush to be entirely disconnected.

This year just ending - which the all-too-seismically-aware Chinese will remind us has been that of the Monkey, and so generally much prone to terrestrial mischief - has seen killer earthquakes in Morocco in February and Japan's main island of Honshu in October. The Japan temblor left us with one widely published image - of a bullet-train, derailed and lying on its side - that was, in its own way, an augury of a very considerable power: no such locomotive had ever been brought low before, and the Japanese were properly vexed by its melancholy symbolism.

In America, too, this year there have been some peculiar signs. Not only has Mount St. Helens been acting up in the most serious fashion since its devastating eruption of May 1980, but on one bright mid-autumn day in California this year the great San Andreas Fault, where the North American and Pacific Plates rub alongside one another, ruptured. It was on Sept. 28, early in the morning, near the town of Parkfield - where, by chance, a deep hole was being drilled directly down into the fault by geologists to try to discern the fault's inner mysteries.

The rupture produced a quake of magnitude 6.0 - and though it did not kill anyone, it frightened millions, not least the government scientists who have the fault in their care. They had expected this particular quake to have occurred years beforehand - and had thought a seismic event so unlikely at the time that most were at a conference in Chicago when it happened. They rushed home, fascinated to examine their instruments, but eager also to allay fears that their drilling had anything to do with the tremors.

As every American schoolchild knows, the most notorious rupture of this same fault occurred nearly a century ago, at 5:12 a.m. on April 18, 1906 - an occurrence now known around the world as the great San Francisco Earthquake. An entire city, a monument to the hopes and dreams of America's westward expansion, was destroyed by a mere 40 seconds of shaking. It was an occurrence possessed of a historical significance that may well be matched by the tragedy now unfolding on the far side of the world.

But, curiously, it turns out that there were many other equally momentous seismic events taking place elsewhere in the world in 1906 as well. Ten weeks before the San Francisco quake there was one of magnitude 8.2 on the frontier between Colombia and Ecuador; then on Feb. 16 there was a violent rupture under the Caribbean island of St. Lucia;then on March 1, 200 people were killed by an earthquake on Formosa; and then, to pile Pelion upon Ossa, Mt. Vesuvius in Italy erupted, killing hundreds.

But even then it wasn't over. The grand finale of the year's seismic upheaval took place in Chile in August, a quake that all but destroyed the port of Valparaiso. Twenty thousand people were killed. Small wonder that the Chinese, who invented the seismograph and who tend to take the long view of all historical happenings, note in their writings that 1906 was a highly unusual Year of the Fire Horse, when devastating consequences are wont to abound, worldwide.

Given these cascades of disasters past and present, one can only wonder: might there be some kind of butterfly effect, latent and deadly, lying out in the seismic world? There is of course no hard scientific truth - no firm certainty that a rupture on a tectonic boundary in the western Pacific (in Honshu, say) can lead directly to a break in a boundary in the eastern Pacific (in Parkfield), or another in the eastern Indian ocean (off Sumatra, say). But anecdotally, as this year has so tragically shown, there is evidence aplenty.

Plate tectonics as a science is less than 40 years old. It is possible that common sense suggests what science has yet to confirm: that the movement among the world's tectonic plates may be one part of enormous dynamic system, with effects of one plate's shifting more likely than not to spread far, far away, quite possibly clear across the surface of the globe..

In recent decades, thanks largely to the controversial Gaia Theory developed by the British scientists James Lovelock, it has become ever more respectable to consider the planet as one immense and eternally interacting living system - the living planet, floating in space, every part of its great engine affecting every other, for good or for ill.

Mr. Lovelock's notion, which he named after the earth goddess of the Ancient Greeks, makes much of the delicacy of the balance that mankind's environmental carelessness increasingly threatens. But his theory also acknowledges the somber necessity of natural happenings, many of which seem in human terms so tragically unjust, as part of a vast system of checks and balances. The events that this week destroyed the shores of the Indian Ocean, and which leveled the city of Bam a year ago, were of unmitigated horror: but they may also serve some deeper planetary purpose, one quite hidden to our own beliefs.

It is worth noting that scientists have discovered that the geysers in Yellowstone National Park started to erupt much more frequently in the days immediately following a huge earthquake in central Alaska in 2002. There turned out to be a connection, one hitherto quite unrealized, that intimately linked places thousands of miles apart. Geologists are now looking for other possible links - sure in the knowledge that if real geological connections can be determined, then we may in due course be able to divine from events on one side of the planet indications that will allow us to warn people on the other - and so perhaps allow them to prepare, as those in today's Indian Ocean communities never were able, for the next time.

For one thing is certain, and comfortless: on earth, eternally restless and alive, there will, and without a scintilla of doubt, be a next time.

Simon Winchester is the author of "Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded, August 27, 1883."