Dear Friends, all that we love on this our terrestrial sphere–sequoias, taco stands, baby animals, ice creameries, cathedrals, St. Louis, Missouri, and humankind–stands on a fragile, broken crust that floats like ice on a hot viscous sea of molten rock and volatiles. Yes, we live on a crust, people, a CRUST…like fruit flies conducting business and making love on top of a violently hot cherry pie.
The crust is stitched together from different plates that occasionally collide, sideswipe each other, or break apart. We cannot predict when this will happen–earthquakes are part of a chaotic system, like the weather, which means we can only identify hot spots and entertain probabilities.
We can also build our cities to international code…for as it turns out, earthquakes don’t kill people, falling buildings do. Nobody, that we know of, was shaken to death by an earthquake. Rather, saturated soils liquify with extreme agitation, foundations buckle and death ensues.
The 1556 earthquake in Shaanxi, China took the cake for human carnage with 800,000 dead. Why? Because they were all shacking up in yaodongs, cave houses dug into loess cliffs.
We suspect the 1600 BC Santorini earthquake to be the cause of Minoan decline.
In 1783, Following a deluge of ash fall, mile high lava fountains, acid fog, and pyroclastic obliteration in Laki, Iceland, a volcanic winter descends wreaking severe weather, respiratory distress, livestock death and crop failures across North America and Europe. We suspect the resultant starvation and gloom to have accelerated the French Revolution.
Riding the coat tails of earthquakes from colliding plates are tsunami waves that travel across the ocean fast as jet planes. The Tohuko tsunami’s wave train clocked 950 km/ hour. Sweet little garden variety waves travel 90 km/hour. When the Tohoku wave reachs the shores of Crescent City, California, the townspeople clear out, but for one tsunami tourist, who can’t help himself. He walks down to the beach with his camera, presumably gets a few good shots, and promptly drowns.
65 million years ago a meteor hits earth with the force of a 100 million megaton explosion. Megatsunamis, thousands of meters high, ensue along with a global spate of earthquakes and volcanic eruption. A huge ass storm of debris prevents sunlight from reaching the earth’s surface for years and years. Sulfate aerosols suffuse the air, creating a global cooling effect. Dinosaurs, like most extant species on earth, suck it hard.
All this and more I learned at a dinner lecture with the insufficiently sensational title: “Expecting the Unexpected: Geophysical Catastrophes and Human Civilization.” Sans exclamation points. hosted by the Albuquerque International Association.
The menu was Cabernet Sauvignon, Oysters Rockefeller, Spinach Salad with Duck, Roasted Quail with Romesco Sauce, Mushroom Stuffing, and Lava Cake. The topic was volcanoes, earthquakes, tsunamis, meteorite impact, mass mayhem and death.
I submit this to you as a somewhat tame illustration of human decadence and merry-making in the face of death and destruction… along with our ability to live in a nearly perpetual state of suspended awe…along with our capacity to evade death through compartmentalization…along with our inclination to co-mingle the horrors and delights of this our mortal life, thereby heightening the sensation of both.
This and more we half-heartedly pondered as our tongues luxuriated in the unctuous juices of roast quail.
I would like to recreate the experience for you here:
End of presentation. End of America. End of purple asters. End of campfire biscuits. End of tent camping. End of life on planet earth. End of Spartan Holiday. End of you, dear Reader. End of me.
Which is why we should go camping tout de suite.