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The Big Ones
Cover of The Big Ones
The Big Ones
How Natural Disasters Have Shaped Us (and What We Can Do About Them)
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By the world-renowned seismologist, a riveting history of natural disasters, their impact on our culture, and new ways of thinking about the ones to come
Earthquakes, floods, tsunamis, hurricanes, volcanoes—they stem from the same forces that give our planet life. Earthquakes give us natural springs; volcanoes produce fertile soil. It is only when these forces exceed our ability to withstand them that they become disasters. Together they have shaped our cities and their architecture; elevated leaders and toppled governments; influenced the way we think, feel, fight, unite, and pray. The history of natural disasters is a history of ourselves.
In The Big Ones, leading seismologist Dr. Lucy Jones offers a bracing look at some of the world's greatest natural disasters, whose reverberations we continue to feel today. At Pompeii, Jones explores how a volcanic eruption in the first century AD challenged prevailing views of religion. She examines the California floods of 1862 and the limits of human memory. And she probes more recent events—such as the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 and the American hurricanes of 2017—to illustrate the potential for globalization to humanize and heal.
With population in hazardous regions growing and temperatures around the world rising, the impacts of natural disasters are greater than ever before. The Big Ones is more than just a work of history or science; it is a call to action. Natural hazards are inevitable; human catastrophes are not. With this energizing and exhaustively researched book, Dr. Jones offers a look at our past, readying us to face down the Big Ones in our future.
By the world-renowned seismologist, a riveting history of natural disasters, their impact on our culture, and new ways of thinking about the ones to come
Earthquakes, floods, tsunamis, hurricanes, volcanoes—they stem from the same forces that give our planet life. Earthquakes give us natural springs; volcanoes produce fertile soil. It is only when these forces exceed our ability to withstand them that they become disasters. Together they have shaped our cities and their architecture; elevated leaders and toppled governments; influenced the way we think, feel, fight, unite, and pray. The history of natural disasters is a history of ourselves.
In The Big Ones, leading seismologist Dr. Lucy Jones offers a bracing look at some of the world's greatest natural disasters, whose reverberations we continue to feel today. At Pompeii, Jones explores how a volcanic eruption in the first century AD challenged prevailing views of religion. She examines the California floods of 1862 and the limits of human memory. And she probes more recent events—such as the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 and the American hurricanes of 2017—to illustrate the potential for globalization to humanize and heal.
With population in hazardous regions growing and temperatures around the world rising, the impacts of natural disasters are greater than ever before. The Big Ones is more than just a work of history or science; it is a call to action. Natural hazards are inevitable; human catastrophes are not. With this energizing and exhaustively researched book, Dr. Jones offers a look at our past, readying us to face down the Big Ones in our future.
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  • From the book Chapter One

    Brimstone and Fire from out of Heaven

    Pompeii, Roman Empire, AD 79



    The earth rocked and shook, the bases of the mountains trembled and reeled because of God's anger.

    —­Psalm 18


    We all know the story of Pompeii. An eruption of poisonous gases and heavy ash covered the Roman city some two thousand years ago, burying people in their houses, completely wiping out the city in a matter of days. We look back and see the inevitability of the destruction and pity the inhabitants for not knowing better. Who would build a city on the side of an active volcano? Tourists today visit what might be considered a parable for what happens when you build a community without regard for the threats around you, preserved for our edification and amusement. We assure ourselves we wouldn't make the same mistake.

    Mount Vesuvius is a classic conical volcano rising over four thousand feet above the Bay of Naples. Its shape tells geologists much of what is going on inside. The massive cone demonstrates that lava comes out faster than erosion can wash it away, so it is active now and future eruptions are a certainty on the scale of geologic time. To rise up and form a mountain as it has, and not just flow as a liquid over the landscape, the lava must be fairly sticky (or viscous, to use the technical term). The sticky lava can hold in gases, at least for a while. That means that eruptions can be explosive. Alternating layers of volcanic ash, the result of explosive eruptions, and cooled lava are needed to grow the tallest mountains—­a type called stratovolcanoes.

    So why build a city here, where the danger is so great? For the same reason that Seattle lies in the shadow of Mount Rainier, Tokyo looks up to Mount Fuji, and Jakarta is encircled by five active volcanoes, including Krakatau: when they aren't erupting, volcanoes make great homes. Volcanic soils are porous with good drainage and lots of fresh nutrients, producing fertile crops. Deformation of the rocks around a volcano often creates good natural harbors and defensible valleys. Plate tectonics might guarantee that the next event will happen, but which generation will experience the extreme event is determined by chance. And to most human beings, as to the inhabitants of Pompeii in AD 79: if it hasn't happened to me, it simply hasn't happened.

    *

    Vesuvius's eruption in the sixth century BC led the Osci tribes of that region, and the Roman conquerors who followed, to declare it the home of the god Vulcan. The periodic steam rising from it was a reminder that Vulcan was the smith of the gods, forging their weapons in a celestial furnace. But the volcanic soil was fertile, holding water and supporting some of the richest agriculture of the Roman empire, and so civilization flourished. Six hundred years without an eruption had made Vesuvius seem the definition of safe.

    By the beginning of the first century AD, several towns had been built on the side of the volcano, including Pompeii, Herculaneum, and Misenum. The region had been conquered by Rome in the third century BC, and it had become a flourishing, prosperous community. Excavations have found the remains of a thriving commercial center. Frescoes celebrate the craftsmen who wove and dyed cloth, a major local industry. A sprawling, open-­air marketplace has been uncovered, complete with restaurants and snack bars. Tax records show that Pompeii's vineyards were much more productive than those around Rome and their wine was sold across the Empire. (The first known product brand based on a pun is from Pompeii, a jar of wine labeled...
About the Author-
  • LUCY JONES was a seismologist for the U.S. Geological Survey for thirty years, most recently as Science Advisor for Risk Reduction. She created the Great ShakeOut Drill, an earthquake preparation experiment that by 2016 included 53 million participants around the world. A research associate at Caltech, she holds a PhD in geophysics from MIT and a BA in Chinese language and literature from Brown University. She lives in Southern California.
Reviews-
  • Library Journal

    December 1, 2017

    Nature's upheavals aren't all bad--earthquakes produce natural springs, for instance--but the human cost can be enormous. Jones, a U.S. Geological Survey seismologist, surveys events from Pompeii to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, showing their consequences while arguing that while nature's sound-and-light shows are inevitable, human catastrophe is not.

    Copyright 2017 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

  • Kirkus

    March 1, 2018
    U.S. Geological Survey seismologist Jones turns in a glancing tour of natural calamities through time.The "big one" of the title" is the earthquake that will someday level Southern California, one that will rattle seven times or more as long as the Northridge quake of 1994 and cause significant damage. In the ShakeOut exercise that the author led in 2007-2008, the model she employed presumed the destruction of 1,500 buildings and the loss of 1,800 lives, with another 53,000 or so injured. "Life will not return to any semblance of normality for quite some time for the residents of Southern California," she writes. There's a good book waiting to be written entirely on such a scenario, something along the lines of Alan Weisman's The World Without Us (2007), but Jones moves on to less fruitful ground in examining the effects of other "big ones" on human civilization. Her take on Pompeii, for instance, is a little thin, and her speculation that natural disaster divides the blame-the-gods attitude of the Romans from the blame-the-humans attitude of the Jews again needs a book all its own. Much better is the author's account of the catastrophic effect of the devastating Tangshan earthquake of 1976. According to the author, that quake played a major role in the deflation of the image of Mao Zedong as infallible and brought about the defeat of the leftists at the close of the Cultural Revolution. Inarguably, big disasters produce big political consequences, as witness another of Jones' cases in point, Hurricane Katrina. The author gets points for her projection of how we will respond when the Big Onethe big one finally hits, with a mixture of conspiracy theory (the scientists knew but didn't say) and blame, whether of FEMA or the government or "the sinners of the hedonistic La-La Land" for living there in the first place.Uneven, but of interest to readers with a bent for natural disaster--and to those keen on surviving it.

    COPYRIGHT(2018) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • Publisher's Weekly

    March 5, 2018
    Jones, a seismologist for the U.S. Geological Survey for 30 years, surveys 11 natural disasters in this bracing examination of past responses to disaster and possible future courses of action. She doesn’t hesitate to portray how human prejudices, superstitions, pride, and other weaknesses have exacerbated the suffering caused by naturally occurring events, making clear that the interaction between the event and the human response usually dictates the magnitude of the damage, whether it results from earthquakes in Japan and China, an 18th-century Icelandic volcano eruption, or floods in the American South. She makes clear that “we need to accept that the timing of a disaster’s occurrence is unambiguously random—we may never be able to anticipate the when of our big ones.” Jones gives readers hope, though, describing what has been learned from each cataclysmic event and, in her final chapter, outlining ways that future catastrophes can be mitigated. This work could prove beneficial to all who live in an area prone to natural disasters, which is just about everyone.

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How Natural Disasters Have Shaped Us (and What We Can Do About Them)
Dr. Lucy Jones
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