Nightstand Reads: Science reporter Sandi Doughton on earthquakes

FullRipSeattle Times science reporter Sandi Doughton’s book Full-Rip 9.0: The Next Big Earthquake in the Pacific Northwest  covers the scientists who are trying to understand when, where, and how big the next earthquake will be. She’ll be discussing her book and research next Tuesday, June 18, at 7 p.m. at the Central Library. And today she’s our guest blogger, telling us her take on other earthquake books.

When I set out to write a book (my first) about earthquakes in the Pacific Northwest, I didn’t find a lot of models for what I wanted to do.

There are several worthy books out there that take the “all about earthquakes” approach. A couple I would recommend for anyone who wants to delve into the science are:

Living with Earthquakes in the Pacific Northwest by Robert Yeats. A professor at Oregon State University, Bob is the dean of earthquake researchers in the region. Originally skeptical that the 600-mile long fault off the Northwest Coast could unleash monster earthquakes and tsunamis, he became an evangelist for public education once the evidence became irrefutable.

Earthshaking Science: What We Know (and Don’t Know) about Earthquakes by Susan Hough. A seismologist in the U.S. Geological Survey’s Pasadena, California office, Hough has written several geology books for a lay audience, including a biography of Charles Richter, the quirky seismologist – and nudist – who developed the magnitude scale that bears his name.

There’s also a more pulse-pounding class of nonfiction books about earthquakes, epitomized by On Shaky Ground by John Nance, of Tacoma. Nance’s book reads li_Doughton_by_Janet_Jensen_2013_2flat__narrowke a thriller. He interviewed survivors of Alaska’s 1964 megaquake and tsunami – which is very like the quake that will rock the Pacific Northwest some day – and tells the story in a gripping, blow-by-blow narrative.

Perhaps the most unusual and literary book I came across is The Myth of Solid Ground: Earthquakes, Prediction and the Fault Line between Reason and Faith by David Ulin.

Shaken by his experience in California’s 1994 Northridge quake, Ulin embarks on a quest to understand earthquake science and the way living in a place where the planet shifts without warning shapes the human psyche. Along the way, he crosses paths with literal-minded scientists, like Susan Hough, and a menagerie of obsessives and “sensitives” who claim to be able to read the Earth’s signals.

My research also introduced me to James Gilchrist Swan, a Bostonian who fetched up in Washington territory in the early 1850s. A drinker and diarist, Swan was fascinated by the culture of the Makah Indians of Neah Bay, where he lived several years. In his journals, he recorded the first written account of Native American stories and legends about earthquakes, including a vivid description of water surging into the bay during an ancient distant tsunami.

In The Northwest Coast, or Three Years’ Residence in Washington Territory, Swan detailed his life on Willapa Bay. Ivan Doig plumbed Swans’ journals for Winter Brothers: A Season at the Edge of America, a meditation about frontier life, wilderness and the parallels between Doig’s experiences and those of Swan.

Throughout the project, I kept John McPhee’s voluminous Annals of the Former World on my nightstand. It was both inspiring and depressing to read the way McPhee describes geologic formations and phenomena, knowing I could never match his mastery either of subject, or style.

But the book I turned to again and again as a guide was Volcano Cowboys: The Rocky Evolution of a Dangerous Science by Dick Thompson. A journalist himself, Thompson tells the story of how Mount St Helen’s cataclysmic eruption in 1980 transformed the field of volcanology and led to better methods to predict eruptions. But he tells it through the eyes of the scientists involved, and the result is a corker of a narrative that brings the drama of science alive.

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2 Responses to Nightstand Reads: Science reporter Sandi Doughton on earthquakes

  1. Rosemary Washington says:

    I see that John Nance’s book is not in the library catalog. Will the library buy a copy?

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