Deadly Earthquakes and Tsunamis

It is likely that, within our lifetime, we will see a big earthquake ravage a populated area, such as northern Los Angeles, San Francisco, Tokyo, or Istanbul, to name a few major cities. These are earthquakes waiting to happen. It is inevitable that we will see a big one in the United States. It's not a matter of if; it's a matter of when. But it's black magic to predict precisely when such an event will happen, as earthquake prediction is still an infant science.

How powerful was the Chilean earthquake? It packed 500 to 700 more energy than the Haitian earthquake. When you go from a 7 to 8 on the Richter scale for earthquakes, the energy goes up by 32 times. So, going from 7.0 to 8.8, you find an increase in energy of about 500 to 700 times!

Why were so many more people killed in Haiti? Many reasons. First, earthquakes do not kill people; buildings and structures kill people. Chile has a long history of monster earthquakes - the 1960 earthquake was the largest recorded in modern history and hence a longer history of enforcing building codes. The last major Haitian earthquake was two centuries ago, so building codes were routinely ignored. Second, there are other factors (proximity, population density, warning time, etc.)

Are we seeing more earthquakes? Not really. Okinawa registered a 7.0 earthquake, comparable to the Haitian earthquake, just before the Chilean earthquake, but got no coverage. The point is that the media only focuses on earthquakes which hurt and kill people, not the ones which pack the most energy.In 1811 and again in 1812, a huge earthquake hit the Tennessee-Kentucky area when the New Madrid fault gave way. It was so huge that the Mississippi River even ran backwards. Back then, population densities were very low, and national media did not exist, so most people have never heard of it.If it happened today, the damage could be incalculable.

In 1964, the Great Alaskan Earthquake hit the US with a magnitude of 9.2, making it the second largest earthquake ever recorded. But again, population was low and the media did not carry the story. The San Andreas fault, running 800 miles through California, is unstable. It last erupted in 1857 and again in 1906. My grandfather was in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. According to the US Geological Survey, there is a 62% chance of a big 7.0 earthquake hitting San Francisco in the next 30 years. A 7.0 earthquake would kill 7,000 to 18,000 people in Los Angeles, according to the USGS. Property damage could run upwards of $250 billion, depending on precisely where the earthquake hit. If the 1906 earthquake were to re-strike the San Francisco area, it would kill an estimated 5,800 people.

Because of budget cuts, California is vulnerable, despite spending on reinforcing its infrastructure. According to the USGS, a big earthquake would destroy all freeways in the San Francisco or Los Angeles area. Also, the Port of Los Angeles would be closed, causing an estimated $36 billion dollars damage to the economy. In 2002, a study found that 2100 out of 9600 schools were not guaranteed to hold up in case of an earthquake, according to the state's architect's office.

What causes a tsunami? A violent sinking of the earth's crust along a fracture under the ocean causes massive water waves. These waves can travel hundreds of miles per hour, like a jet liner. The waves themselves are only a few inches tall, but very, very deep. So an ocean liner may not even know that it was hit by this wave.

Why are tsunami waves so tall when they hit land and kill potentially hundreds of thousands? When a wave hits land, the wave grows drastically in height, from a few inches to many, many feet. This is because when the wave hits a beach, the bottom of the wave slows down faster than the top of the wave. The excess energy spills over into increasing the height of the wave.

How is the US affected? Hawaii has to worry about tsunamis that originate from Alaska, South America, etc. that travel across the Pacific. Hilo has suffered great damage in the past from such earthquakes. Also, off the coast of Seattle, there is a huge fault line which can not only destroy much of the American Northwest, but also trigger monster tsunamis which can kill people in Japan, as happened centuries ago.

What can be done? More buoys can be placed in the oceans to monitor tsunamis and early warning systems can be increased. More warnings from satellites and telecommunications are necessary. More bluntly, more nations have to reinforce their building codes because the world's population has exploded in the past 50 years, the danger is quite severe in many countries.

In closing - There is nothing unusual happening with the earth's interior, so it is an illusion that some new force is suddenly creating these huge earthquakes. There has been a slight uptick in earthquake activity in the last 15 years, but is minor. I guess we can only hope that humanity doesn't have to experience another one anytime soon...

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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

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  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.