Photo of Lucy Jones
Lucy JonesPhoto courtesy Abbie Stillie

The New Big One

Earthquake expert sees climate change as bigger risk than the Cascadia Quake

Lucy Jones, 64, a geologist and research associate at the Seismological Laboratory of California Institute of Technology, has been called “the Beyoncé of earthquakes” by major newspapers from the Los Angeles Times to the New York Times. 

As a scientist at the U.S. Geological Survey, Jones developed the U.S.’s first major earthquake drill, the Great ShakeOut, which now counts more than 60 million participants worldwide. She is author of a highly readable 2018 book, The Big Ones: How Natural Disasters Have Shaped Us (and What We Can Do About Them).

Three years ago, she founded the Dr. Lucy Jones Center for Science and Society, bringing science to help others reduce the risks and create more resilient communities. 

Jones spent October in Eugene as the 2019-20 Wayne Morse Chair at University of Oregon. We spoke to her a few days before she returned to Los Angeles. An edited and condensed version of our conversation follows.

How did you get interested in geology?

I was a physics major [at Brown University], but my father had been born and brought up in China. And in fact, I spent a year in high school living with my aunt and uncle in Taiwan. I went back to Taipei my junior year of college, and I studied Chinese. I had met two geophysicists just before I’d gone over to Taiwan who, were like, why are you studying physics? That’s all building bombs. Why don’t you do geophysics, and come play in the mountains and get paid for it? That got me interested enough to try a class when I got back my senior year. I read the textbook in the first week because I couldn’t put it down. 

The whole textbook?

All 900 pages of it, because it was so fascinating. This is what I was looking for. It’s the application of physics to problems that matter to people. I went to MIT [for graduate school]. I spent a summer in Afghanistan recording local earthquakes, which was pretty fun and pretty weird, because people tried to buy me from my professor. A woman was a commodity, a possession. When China opened up, I actually was the first American researcher to go. I spent five months that time studying the foreshock sequence for an earthquake in China with over 500 foreshocks, smaller earthquakes that preceded the big one. It gave me huge visibility. I actually met my husband at a conference, because I was invited as “the researcher who had gone to China.” 

Is he a geologist too?

If you’ve heard of ShakeAlert [the early earthquake warning system], he’s running that project for CalTech, as well as the overall operation of the network. We have a couple dozen papers that we’ve written together. 

What did you learn in China?

There was a local evacuation because some local people were really nervous. It actually was lucky they had evacuations, because everything came down. Their houses were piled up rocks, and very, very deadly. If we were to predict an earthquake in L.A., we could potentially kill more people trying to evacuate the city than the earthquake would, because we have emphasized life safety engineering for a long time. And the prediction itself would cause a huge economic cost in the disruption of business. By contrast in China, it was February in an agrarian region, so they really didn’t have a huge economic impact. And politically, they could make a prediction, order everybody out, and say, “Oh, we were wrong, never mind.” That made me realize that earthquake prediction wasn’t just a scientific problem. It was a social and political problem as well. 

What is the role of the scientist in helping the community prepare for natural hazards?

The fundamental goal of scientific research is to try to understand what’s true. We believe that there is an absolute reality. You can demonstrate that, and the data that doesn’t actually match it gets thrown out. But it’s a process, because we all have ideas, and we’re human. We like our ideas. We fight for them until the data really conclusively proves you wrong. And then finally something is settled, and now the scientist goes on to the next question that isn’t solved yet. 

The policy people are trying to find the final answer they can use. The scientist has an important role in empowering people to use the information, which is to help them understand it, but also learn how to interpret it within the context of whatever their issues are. It turns out that those questions are a whole lot more complicated than “Here’s what the earthquake is going to do, and here are the buildings that will fall down.” Climate change is even more complex. 

Tell me more about how climate science became a more pressing concern than earthquakes for you.

You don’t need to be an atmospheric scientist doing the actual modeling to be able to read the studies and see how accurate they are. And a piece of it is that my adult son went back to graduate school. He’s working in oceanic geochemical oceanography, trying to understand the chemical processes in the absorption of carbon. So it’s climate science. We were talking one day. He said, “I get this feeling that the more you learn about earthquakes, the less frightening they are.” I said, “Yeah, I think that’s true.” He said, “You know, the more I learn about climate science, the more frightening it is.” I’ve been learning more by talking with him about his work, and I’m getting terrified.

What have you learned from earthquakes that can help with climate change?

We need to do a better job of really talking about the impacts. That’s one of the things we learned about earthquakes. When we talked about what we did know, we gave people a concrete path towards reducing fear and coping with it. We need to understand that what’s coming is really bad. And that anything we can do to keep it from getting too much hotter is worth it. And that we can only do it by working together. 

If you’re ready for an earthquake, you’re probably ready for a lot of other things. And so in that sense, focusing on the earthquake isn’t necessarily that bad a thing, in that it can help you manage other disasters. But the whole messaging is so isolating: “You need to protect your family.” There’s a subconscious implication that your neighbor’s going to become your enemy. There are a lot of people who put guns in their earthquake packs, because they think you have to defend yourself. And it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy if you treat your neighbors as potential enemies. We need to turn to our neighbors as our partners and come up with community ways of being stronger and ready. 

It’s really important in climate change. There is no individual solution. We get this message that we somehow ought to give up flying and drive a Prius or whatever. That’s noise. We have 7 billion people that need to stay warm in winter and need to get food. The only solution is developing carbon neutral ways of doing that. 

How can concerned people use scientific information to make their communities more resilient? 

The biggest one, especially with climate change, is that we have to figure out how to talk about it. That doesn’t mean necessarily arguing with people. We can’t do it alone. It really requires voting for the right people and making decisions to invest in infrastructure. That’s only going to happen if we have a collective belief in the need for it. And the problem is, you do have to believe the science to think it’s going to get worse, because you can’t do that out of personal experience. It’s a huge challenge. We have to do these things for the future. The only way we can do it is by learning how to work with people we don’t agree with. 

There seems to be a lot of interest here in working together and recognizing if you do it together, it’s more effective. 

How did you think about the natural hazards that faced you during the month you were in Eugene?

I wouldn’t eat lunch in an unreinforced masonry building that hasn’t been retrofitted here and definitely not in Southern California. It’s just too dangerous. Earthquakes are not very likely here, but I know that those buildings kill people. If your house or building isn’t bolted to the foundation, the earthquake shaking will push it off the foundation. It probably won’t kill you, but it’s a total loss. People have choices to make. 

There’s a big fear of a tsunami here in Eugene. Isn’t that nuts? I mean, the tsunami is a sudden rise in sea level. If you’re more than 50 feet above sea level, you don’t have a risk. There are mountains taller than 50 feet between here and the ocean. But nobody seems to be worried about the volcanoes. Your volcanoes erupt on a comparable timescale as your big earthquakes. I’m still trying to figure out why volcanoes don’t bother you more.  ν