Seismic Drift

For those who don’t know, last summer I decided to switch from the PhD program in geophysics to a masters. I will be starting in the PhD program in the communications department here at Cornell come August. It’s a less jarring change than it might seem at first glance; I’ll be studying science/risk communication and working on the same projects as before – earthquakes and energy development – but I’ll do it by looking at how people understand, learn about, and respond to seismic risks.

I spent much of last summer thinking about where I saw myself going with my current program, and the answer kept coming that, well, I didn’t. A large part of the clarification came from a couple chances to get out of the lab (in a non-hectic, non-racing-through-Oklahoma capacity) – a field trip to Wyoming with the Energy Institute at Cornell, and a quick trip to Italy, returning to the field school that I went to as an undergrad for a few days to help out as a staff member. On the Wyoming trip, in between visiting Yellowstone and uranium mines, I remembered some of what had always drawn me to geology in the first place. It was more of a classical geology trip than I done since early in undergrad – stopping at highway-side roadcuts and scrambling up outcrops, puzzling out relationships between layers and formations – and I loved it, but it showed very starkly that the things I like about geoscience aren’t really the parts that would help me sustain a research career.

Part of what draws me about geology is how it connects people and place, how landscape shapes civilization. That what appears solid and unchanging is dynamic, constantly changing, and endlessly intertwined with the many facets of human life. Less abstract is the impact of natural and unnatural disasters – both immediate and long-term, as with climate change – on people’s lives. That’s why I enjoy overlapping with archaeology, using the tools of geophysics for unearthing and untangling history from the landscape. Returning for a few days to the archaeological field school in Italy this summer was an exercise in uncovering growth. My first trip there was my first real fieldwork; it’s been 6 years and much of the shiny new gear I bought then has finally started to fall apart on me. The contrast between then and now was both a confidence boost and a reassurance that shifting focus wasn’t a seismically dramatic shift, just a different twist in the same path.

At the field site, I revisited the excavation of the remnants of a Roman villa, walls cracked by an ancient earthquake. About a week after I left, an earthquake devastated a nearby region of the Apennines. Any discussion of seismic hazard in Italy carries shades of the 2009 L’Aquila earthquake, where the state of stress between public, government, and science became palpable in a much publicized trial of the seismologists involved, for “failure to give adequate warning.” The L’Aquila trial has become emblematic of seismologists’s fears of the dangers of practicing an imprecise science in the public sphere. but the disaster also shows the importance of good science and risk communication in the ways that we approach disaster preparedness. Despite a long history of destructive earthquakes in the area, most residents thought a big quake was unlikely, and that their often-medieval construction homes would be adequate protection. On the flip side, kids and teens, familiar with earthquake safety  lessons at school, brought that knowledge home to their parents and got them to adopt successful survival techniques during the earthquake.

Since my project on man-made earthquakes in Oklahoma began, there had been plans for collaboration with communication researchers, to build a platform for OK locals to get access to unbiased information about the ongoing quakes, especially on the science and safety issues. I pushed to be more involved in this side of the project, and my advisor and I ended up talking about how I could combine both interests. My options were essentially to squeeze in whatever outreach efforts I could on the side while doing my seimology research, or I could finish what I was working on as a masters and move to communication entirely. By the end of the summer, I settled on Door #2. The decision felt good in the early fall. In November, it felt more than a little serendipitous.

Science communication today feels like a vital duty, as government-funded science is muzzled and slashed into submission. Under 45’s administration we face disasters natural and unnatural, all intensified by willful ignorance and draconian budget cuts. The combination of cuts to science agencies like NOAA, USGS, and EPA combined with cuts that undermine agencies like FEMA sends us reeling towards climate disasters whose impacts are exacerbated by an inability to understand, prepare, and respond. The best preparation for disaster is resilience, an ability to absorb and adapt to disturbance. Rebecca Solnit talks about how, in “moments of rupture, people find themselves part of a “we” that did not until then exist…a disaster is a lot like a revolution when it comes to disruption and improvisation, to new roles and an unnerving or exhilarating sense that now anything is possible.” In starting my new program during a period of rupture and uncertainty, I want to pursue a course that lets me help build that sense of resilience and preparedness, by stepping into a new role in risk communication.

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