As 2017 starts to wind down, the amount of high-profile natural disasters that have affected every part of the world this year is shocking. Communities grappled with hurricanes in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico, wildfires in California and Montana, massive flooding in India and many more.
Last Thursday, longtime environmental reporter Henry Fountain spoke at UNM’S Hibben Center to explain his fascination with disasters and how they radically change the future of the world.
“I’ve always been interested by disasters,” Fountain said. “I’m fascinated by the power of nature.”
Fountain has been a New York Times reporter for over two decades, where he writes mostly on science and environment-related topics.
While Fountain has found himself busy covering the various disasters that have occurred over the past few months, he has spent much of his time writing about the largest recorded earthquake in North America — the 1964 Alaskan earthquake.
The earthquake, which had a whopping magnitude of 9.2, killed 139 people, not only during the quake but also during the tsunamis that riddled the coast afterwards. It is also the second largest earthquake ever recorded, right after a 9.5 quake in Chile in 1960.
After originally writing an article coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the quake, Fountain published his book, “The Great Quake” this year, which examines how the Alaskan earthquake forever changed the scientific understanding of the planet.
“You’ve got the story of the earthquake and all its power,” Fountain said. “But you’ve also got this science component, this detective work that this one particular scientist did.”
While he did focus on the lives lost and damage caused, the majority of Fountain’s lecture centered around the valuable information gained from the terrible disaster.
“It’s always good to understand...a large earthquake like that, because it gives you an understanding of what to expect in similar places,” Fountain said. “This ’64 quake is really important in terms of helping us understand and accept plate tectonics.”
Written much like a detective story, “The Great Quake” details how one scientist examined the damage caused by the earthquake to prove the long-debated theory of plate tectonics, a foundational theory in many different scientific fields.
Fountain highlighted the importance of plate tectonics, stating its significance is “almost like the theory of evolution.”
Fountain’s presentation included many shocking images of the damage caused by the quake. One showed a large plank of wood shoved through a truck tire by force. Another showed the small village of Chenega completely destroyed by a tsunami.
At one point, he asked a member of the audience to set a timer for four and a half minutes, then continued speaking. When the timer ended, he said that was how long the ground shook during the quake. In comparison, the 1989 Loma Prieta quake in California shook for around 30 seconds.
He also referenced witness testimonies that described how four-foot waves flowed down streets and sidewalks and how fully grown trees swung and hit the ground like a metronome.
Both Fountain’s book and his presentation come during a year in which Mexico experienced two massive earthquakes occurring 12 days apart — the latter alone killed 369 people.
With so many disasters occurring this year, perhaps more scientists can turn tragedy into knowledge about our planet.
Kyle Land is a news editor at the Daily Lobo. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Kyleoftheland.