Tag Archives: seismic risk

The Natures of San Francisco

“A man in the city,” wrote American novelist William Gass, “has no natural thing by which to measure himself.” Gass wrote, in two thirds of the way through the last century, thinking mostly of the cities on the east coast of the United States–but not only. Since then, the measurement of man has been outsourced to numerous devices–from not only height and weight, but calorry intake, income, carbon footprint, and racial identity–Gass was, as a resident of the Midwest, aghast at the notion of nature in the city, and of the reduced relation to natural habitat: “Nothing can live and remain free where he resides but the pigeon, starling, sparrow, spider, cockroach, mouse, moth, fly and weed, and he laments the existence of even these and makes his plans to poison them,” Gass writes with acid-tinged venom of exasperation of a man of the midwest, in In the Heart of the Heart of the Country. Long before Donald Trump asked where the heart of the nation’s heart lay, and railed against cities Gass did quite cuttingly with far greater acumen of the versions of nature accessible to city-dwellers, as images that replaced the nature world: “His parks are potted plants.” But the significant greenspace that long defined San Francisco and the East Bay–as well as nearby less urbanized areas–suggested both a unique sort of habitat, and a confluence of not exactly rural but open space and green corridors in an urban environment.

The sense of San Francisco as surrounded by the Pacific and freshwater basins, and a confluence of saltwater and freshwater, and a terrain whose sandiness and lack of bedrock has limited its urban growth–not to mention its greater seismic risk–have created a somewhat model urban area, unique and exemplary even in an age of globalization and climate changes, when San Francisco, if not exactly low-lying, faces significant threats from sea-level rise. But the fostering of a new relation to urban habitat has left the Bay Area and city far less insularly defined in relation to nature: if Rebecca Solnit rightly observed that the old geographers were wrong only in one–if one significant–way in describing California as an island, the significant surviving greenspace, cultivable land, and open space in the state, while under threat, extends to San Francisco and much of northern California, and significant parts of the southern coast. If the state is known for giant redwood forests and sequoia groves, strikingly significant habitats enter San Francisco’s own natural ecology.

The recalibration of the place of nature to which San Francisco has been long open has long been measured as something that is threatened and endangered in its scarcity, as paving of asphalt and concrete have dramatically changed its landcover, toward a shift to appreciate and embrace its nature, and indeed embrace the benefits of cultivating not only plants, but rather ecophilia. The celebration of an urban environment far often reduced to being mapped for seismic peril and proximity to fault-lines offers a deep picture of the specific formation and sustainment of a rather unique coastal habitat, both based on accurate data and pushing the boundaries of data visualization to excavate a rich record of–and promote a wonderfully tactile relationship to–broad concerns of ecology and environmental history.

The engaging design of the 2018 map commissioned by Nature in the City begins from a datapoint of each and every tree and green space the city offers, but fosters a productive way of looking at the urban environment, different in that it focusses far less on the pests we often seek to eliminate from our homes with urban fastidiousness, than to appreciate the range of species beside which city dwellers live, despite their frequent focus on roads of paved concrete: in a map that embraces the city at the end of the peninsula from bay to sea, the living cornucopia of habitat that spans the urban environment offers a new way to understand this urban space.

Nature in the City/2018

Although ecosystems are the most living areas of cities, they remain hidden from view on city maps of the built landscape or paved roads that define the mobilty of “urban” life.  But we often fail to orient ourselves to the extent of urban environments in most maps. And the changing vulnerability of cites to climate change and extreme weather has directed increased attention to the vulnerability and instability of urban space, in ways we are still taking stock through maps, the question of what maps best orient us to the future of the city have provoked increased attention from maps of sea-level change, to maps of vulnerability to earthquakes and seismic risks. No city has been more subject to such demands for recalibrating its lived space, perhaps, than San Francisco, the city that is most conspicuously built on several fault lines–so much that the expansive recent downtown rebuilding is cast as a “seismic trap” or a disasters waiting to happen–showing the spate of high-rise construction–

New York Times/“San Francisco’s Seismic Gamble” (April 17, 2018)

–against the backdrop of the widespread urban devastation of the 1906 earthquake on its hundred and twelfth anniversary, as if to suggest that the memory of that devastating event has receded into the past of public memory.

The grim image of a dangerous and unruly world of seismic shocks and faultiness is a contrast to the cornucopia of habitats and biodiversity of a city like San Francisco sustains. The power of the image of devastation asks incredulously how San Francisco has allowed the construction of large downtown buildings on such shaky terrain, as if the lessons of the past weren’t ever learned, lest the fears of fault-lines be forgotten, and the dangers of devastation that led to longstanding opposition to skyscrapers that have rampantly transformed New York City’s skyline be introduced.

To cast this change as local–or the charge of a local correspondent who arrived in San Francisco–is a projection of the parochial. The changes in urban skylines are nothing if not global, and the concession to building of skyline allowed the risk posed by underground fault-lines to be forgotten by the extent to which realtors have persuaded the San Francisco Department of Building Inspection to undertake a building boom despite seismic risk. The disturbing fantasia of the city destroyed by nature is no doubt an echo of the increased natural risks posed by climate change, risks of sea-level rise, and surging seas. The unharmonious relation to a world out of joint seems brilliantly condensed in the nightmarish image of urban apocalypse, echoing the struggles for global survival in early 1970s flicks like Earthquake! or 1998’s Armageddon, the benefits of cultivating a harmonious relation to nature, in response to the distance from nature in the shadows high rises cast on litter-strewn paved streets.

William Wordsworth was worried about psychically degrading nature on man of the “outrageous stimulation” city-dwellers sought–as if urban life provoked a change in the nervous constitution. A better example of the stimulation of the urban imaginary cannot be found than in the transformation of the skyline by vertical building,–even if the creation of urban canyons wasn’t what Wordsworth meant–the fear that a quest for excesses of sensory stimulation would fail to meet an “inborn inextinguishable thirst/Of rural scenes,” the question of how to compensate the losses that Wordsworth saw as the primary casualties of the build environment has found a new source of nourishment in the marriage of art and cartography that the Nature in the City project, inspired by the unique natures within San Francisco; lush parks contain live oaks, man-made lakes, sprawling botanical gardens, and mountainous natural preserves, and of integrating their mosaic of green that the ambitious 2-D project filled in of a green urban environment, using cutting-edge LiDAR technologies of tree density and canopy height to recast paved landscapes as something more like a living habitat, rather than the zoos that Gass described most city-dwellers use to be spectators of great cats from behind bars, as if to confirm their remove from a living habitat they are condemned to eroticize and confine to leisure time.

Nature in the City/2018

By placing this image of nature within the urban setting, against an image of the historical shoreline of a city whose modernization accommodated piers along its bay-facing waterfront, dramatically extended by landfill, to invite the viewer to peel back the earlier contours of its coast, as if to bring the nature of the city back into balance with its built space.

Nature in the City/2018

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Filed under data visualization, data visualizations, environmental geography, map design, San Francisco, San Francisco Bay

Mapping Fault-Lines in Earthquake Maps

Fracking–it is increasingly feared–invites irreparably contaminating our largest aquifers, and by extension drinking supplies–in Brooklyn, someone formed a group to protect the water of locally sourced beers–as well as devastate prairies and old agricultural lands, where land is cheap, by horizontal drilling.  Recent arguments compellingly link the drilling multiple “injection wells” of wastewater that seem to have activated previously non-active faults in regions that rarely experienced tremors in the past, and where the USGS did not find evidence of registered earthquakes.

As massive amounts of wastewater generated to access for natural gasses are forcefully re-injected into the earth, as if swept under a carpet, opening fissures in underlying beds of Shale or Sandstone.  Horizontal drilling operations have dated to 2008, mining areas by pumping vast amounts of sand into ancient shale formations in prairies and regions of declining agriculture to release methane and natural gasses.  Hydraulic fracking has used tons of water to force trapped gasses out of old rock formations.  Before 2009, in fact, earthquakes were rarely registered in the USGS surveys of lands where seismic activity has accompanied the injection of water into “injection wells”:  in these the shifting weight that the injected water that presses against rocks open old fissures, causing a buckling of underground rock formations, the fear is, as massive amounts of soupy, contaminated wastewater is injected back into the earth.  The “earthquake swarms” monitored nearby injection wells in Arkansas, Montana, Texas, Ohio or Oklahoma that barely registered seismic activity  from 1972 – 2008, has given new significance to–and created new fear around–a set of fault lines unknown to inhabitants, blamed as if active by an industry that rejects the accusations that they created sources for tremors inhabitants fear.   Indeed, the proliferation of earthquakes registered in the state of Oklahoma alone from 2001-15 reveals, according to the data from the Leonard Geophysical Observatory, a persistent increase in the tremor-like disturbances with the rise of underground wastewater dispersal, and a strikingly sharp increase in quakes of magnitude of three or higher in hears after 2010.

 

QUakes in OK, 2001-15.png

 

The increase seems closely tied to the absorption of wastewater back into rock layers whose weight is so altered by the injection of fluids, causing quakes that have rocked up to a fifth of the state, but have also increased land values for speculative fracking, in ways that may have concealed some interest in exploring the correlation–especially in a state where, due to geomorphological accident, water injected to reach deep-lying shale deposits send increasing amounts of wastewater underground, often to be absorbed by highly porous limestone that expands, but lies deep underground beside highly stressed layers of rock.  The result seems to create something like a combustive effect akin to the popping of kernels of corn, and has led many state officials to preemptively adopt prohibitions on local bans on regulating oil or gas wells in their jurisdictions, and insistence that the resurgence of quakes in fault zones is more able to be explained as an “act of nature that is nobody’s fault” not effected by human agency; the rejection of a relation to human activity comes from state legislatures fearful of the employment rises brought by gas and oil corporations from being scared away from the state.    But the geological record of apparently induced quakes in Oklahoma and their close proximity to existing injection wells.

 

ok.png

The fear of such tremors has a recent prehistory of three or so years.  An early tremor whose epicenter lay near Richmond, Virginia, of 5.8 magnitude, just below 6, but that sent shocks to North Carolina and Canada.  The event raised questions about the role of fracking in 2011 for Tim McDonnell and Aaron Ross, described in an earlier article in Mother Jones that directed attention to fracking’s consequences.  But the persuasive nature of recent USGS time-lapse maps of the same state–

The dangers of fracking echoes Jonathan Franzen’s early if compelling 1992 novel Strong Motion, in which mysteriously recurring earthquakes are pinpointed at the unlikely site of Boston, Massachusetts, a rare location of seismic activity.  But whereas Franzen’s protagonist, Renée Seitcheck, believed “that these earthquakes are the byproduct of industrial drilling” by a  petrochemical firm whose agents attempt to assassinate a beautiful rebel seismologist, for her mining of top-secret data from computers, the causes of the “swarms” seem to lie less in drilling than in injecting waste-water.  Was the novel remarkably prescient in unveiling a concealed impact of post-industrial geocaching?  It surely doesn’t seem so paranoid in its view of an industrial conspiracy to conceal geological findings, or to imagine the role of the rogue geographer in the seismically sensitive landscape that the search for underground sources of oil and gas can create.

But now it’s no longer isolated individuals who research the papers of top-secret labs.  There are upwards of 40,000 disposal wells actually active in the United States, some tunneling 13,000 feet under the earth, and “injection induced seismicity” is now a field, as the pressure exerted by the displacement of water able to move rock layers has provoked widespread academic interest and industrial concern:  “There are faults most everywhere,” noted Cliff Frohlich of the Institute for Geophysics at the University of Texas-Austin, suggesting how fracking can ‘reactivate’ fault lines which were never known; “Most of them are stuck, because rock on rock is pretty sticky.  But if you pump a fluid in there to reduce the friction, they can slip.”  “Water does not like to be squeezed,” Scott Ausbrooks of the Arkansas Geological Survey put it with some empathy.   And while Franzen’s character pored over reams of secret data to understand the relations of seismic activity to big oil’s search for underground pools of oil, such relations are now the focus of conferences and are amply documented in data maps.

The best known faults the USGS has mapped are well-known.  But, as Mark Zoback, a professor of geophysics at Stanford explained in a recent article by Michael Behar in Mother Jones, echoing Frohlich, “there are faults everywhere, and some are too small to be seen.”  Faults are widely known if often forgotten by those living in California, where fracking may begin, despite growing opposition.  Indeed the range of fault-lines throughout the California-Nevada region are so multiple that the possibility of hydraulic fracking in the region of southern California threatens to  imbalance a rather threatening constellation of seismic activity that already exists in much of the region, and is more widely mapped than the most familiar lines of the San Andreas, Calaveras, or Hayward faults.  The visibility of these fault-lines is available on an up-to-the-minute-map of regional seismic activity, part of a set of maps that record seismic activity by irregular bright red computer-generated lines, often proximate to cities:

California in USGS map of Faultlines

The nervously drawn red lines of seismic activity furrowing the green plains in these maps are ‘underground views’ mapping the range of pressure below the earth’s surface.  A more striking map of seismic activity of the past few weeks and days pieces together a narrative of fault-lines and tectonic plates that accentuate the daily deep divisions that course under the earth of our westernmost states:

California_Nevada-1

The stark legend suggests the huge growth in a magnitude the scale of “6.”  The prominent indexing of fault-lines in another USGS map of seismic activity, with less attention to topographic or climactic variation, shows the volatility of the region’s multiple faults in a similar if starker image of seismic frequency:

indexfault_map

 

More locally, and limited to faults active in the past week of a magnitude above 2.5,
California in USGS map of Faultlines

 

For more focus on recent seismic occurrence, link your browser to: http://earthquake.usgs.gov/earthquakes/map/

Despite the evidence of terrifyingly active fault lines, the active movement ‘Stop Fracking in California‘ has its back against the wall, even if they are growing in local Southern California chapters.

Yet the volatility of the region cannot be ignored–take this map of the Simi Valley and Los Angeles area, posted on Saturday, February 16, where fault-lines course unseen beneath the landscape, moving from inland to the coast at multiple points and through metropolitan Los Angeles:

Los Angeles earthquake faults

This interest to frack in California–an oddly post-modern verb–is scariest given maps approximating the future likelihood, as calculated by the USGS, that the regional fault-lines in the Bay Area will experience seismic activity at a magnitude greater than 6.7 before 2036.

2008probabilities-lrg

By how much would active injection wells multiply increase these already quite sizable odds?  Given the proximity of these lines to expanding urban areas, often growing between the Hayward and San Andreas fault, can fracking in California be a safe investment for the future?

This is not a map that is in the heads of most native Californians or residents.  The readability of these maps offers a base-line for future seismic activity, and grounds for concern about hydraulic fracking in seismically active regions.

It is good news that the USGS has expanded its clickable interactive image of global fault lines, in which the record of seismic activity is updated every minute, and on which viewers can scale in to investigate on their own:

USGS Global Earthquake Map

While the occurrence of faults and tremors will always shock, its legibility not only offers a lesson in continental drift.  Many of these jerky lines reminiscent of an etch-a-sketch lie underwater, but the points of greatest activity–in California, Indonesia, and Central America–cannot be ignored or lost sight of for underground engineers.

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Filed under data visualizations, Earthquake Probability, Earthquake swarms, earthquakes, Fracking