Tag Archives: seismic risk

The Natures of San Francisco

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 fail to orient ourselves to the extent of urban environments and compromise our demand for livable space by relying on maps’ abbreviated conventions.

For doesn’t any map server foreground a selective level of local detail, replicating a dominant focus on roads, paved spaces, and buildings, to the exclusion of the constricted habitat that remains on the edges of a city’s built space?  While San Francisco was long a center for nature preservation, and indeed the preservation of the country in the city, as the perceptive Bay Area geographer Richard Walker put it so eloquently, the organization of tools  to uncover and preserve the current relation between ecological niches, natural environments and the built city becomes the project of the recent Nature in the City map, with offers new symbolic tools built on data to explore the urban environment.  The distinct base-map that Nature in the City organization has adopted to invite us to view San Francisco in its most recent revisioning of the green spaces that are distinguish the City by the Bay, rather than the rush of commuting and explosion of jobs and rents for which the Bay Area may be increasingly known–

–by using a base map rich with data sets of the multiple green spaces in the city, from parks to all street trees and gardens, as if they and the surrounding waters afforded a palette

–by which to situate the existing habitat that Nature in the City has allowed to encourage, and would allow viewers to focus on the habitats of specific animals, birds, fish, and plants across its urban space, in a static map that is made for an audience familiar with interactive mapping forms, and the coding of a rich natural space, extending to imagining its lost estuaries, underground rivers and watersheds, and even the historical shorelines of San Francisco before the addition of landfill.

Nature in the City 2018 (detail)

By orienting us to the lived reality on the ground, shores, and waters around San Francisco, the recent remapping of open spaces in San Francisco by which local environmental non-profit Nature in the City has taken the time and effort to refocus attention from its buildings or paved environment, inviting us to appreciate the work of the non-profit in planning active green spaces in the urban space that San Francisco contains by representing the city’s urban space in a distinct cartographic idiom:  as Nobel Laureate Thomas Tranströmer wrote of how the disbelief of Henry David Thoreau “disappear[ed] deep in his inner greenness artful and hopeful,” cartographers worked to allow readers to detecting habitat within the urban environment in a distinctly Thoreauian marveling of how natural habitat exist within a city that goes often undetected and–as only a map can remind us–isn’t hidden but overlooked.

Nature in the City 2018/draft

Nature in the City paper map helpfully addressed a general reader in the age of bespoke data-heavy maps, coded for individual  uses, using graphics to hone a rich set of databases to invite all readers of the map to examine the intersection of layers of greenspace, parks, and urban trees provide a surface that any viewer can navigate to reacquaint themselves to urban space that questions its edges, centers, and the frame of a greater ecosystem of which the “city” is the microcosm and condensation:  the countryside that we place outside of the walls of the city–extra muros–is revealed to lie instead at its center, emblematized by the coyote who raises his or her head as if to exult in being present in the remaining green environment–a sort of pictorial designation of the indexical deictic reminder “YOU ARE HERE.”  The observer is decentered, for  a moment, in the map however, as one examines where species are located, as if in the recent Nature in the City challenge.

The claim that is invested in most tourist way-finding maps is repeated by the images of a sand dollar, magnolia, jackrabbit, California Poppy, shorebird, whale and two butterflies–each included in the key of the map on its left margin–to remind map readers that “they” are here, inviting discovery from visitors to the city its real urban spaceMuch as a legend to the left margin invites you to cross-reference them with landcover, the icons of animals suggest something like a hide-and-seek game for visitors to explore the actual urban environment and its riches of habitat–habitats that Nature in the City has often encouraged.

The claims of copia and urban abundance that was classically associated with chorographic views of Renaissance cities is almost displaced onto San Francisco’s nourished ecosystem in ways that Nature in the City encourages; the map involves  viewers by inspires endless exploration in ways that attests to its own truly inventive design.  Indeed, the involvement of a distinctly innovative battery of representational tools invite viewers to observe the city as it is rarely seen or perceived.  Indeed, while one usually thinks of coastal California as sites of extreme settlement and habitation–

Although pioneering aerial photographic imagery exists of the prewar space of San Francisco, a fantastic hundred and sixty four aerial photographs pioneered by Harrison Ryker from an airplane that left from the Oakland airfields, which offers a detailed image of the foliage, open space, still sandy regions, and of the city in crisply detailed black-and-white composite photographs–

5852167Ryker 1938/Rumsey Collection, Cartography Associates

–that invite viewers to examine its detailed imagery through the stereoscopes Ryker would patent upon opening shop as an East Bay map-maker.  The aerial photographic map promised a precision and detail that foretold remote sensing, and anticipated the deal of the Nature in the City map, despite its monochrome:  the view it offers of the lines on playing fields, basketball courts, and paths in the Golden Gate Park promised a visibility that would make it appealing in World War II, in ways that prefigured the pointillistic accuracy of remote aerial sensing.  The crisp local detail recently that was recently made available in interactive form online by the indefatigable Donald Rumsey lets one  navigate the composite record of now lost shorelines, the fluid ocean coastline, once-sandy Outer Sunset, Golden Gate Park and Duboce Hill–

GG Park to Bay

–of the same expanse of the recent Nature in the City map in a way that anticipates the detail LiDar surveys of the city by the bay.  The non-profit updated the accuracy of local detail of the crisp black and white composites from the interactive map Rumsey Associates crafted, allowing us to examine current habitats, ecosystems, and animal life within the city and the surprising taxa that inhabit its denser blocks, after the addition of highways, a far denser downtown, in ways that allow the areas of tree cover of different heights to pop at the viewer to suggest the lush urban canvas in which they live, and the map to pop in into three or four–if one counts the temporal of the lost coastal shoreline, inviting viewers to witness and negotiate a sort of counterpoint between built space and remaining urban ecosystems, and directing attention to the overlooked.  The new synthesis of art and cartography accomplished by Lindsay Irving and artist Jane Kim expand and enrich over 500 datasets to fashion a new symbology of pictorial cartography across time, inviting us to compare shorelines, interrogate built spaces, and consider the city not entirely a human space but one from which we benefits where green cover and contact with a range of animal species persists and survives, using code that tracks the growth of urban habitat to provide the basis for a richly interactive tour of the city’s natural resources–a record interactive not by mouse, but by interpretation, inviting viewers to excavate historical habitats for birds, marine mammals, insects, and butterflies, in not only a “deep history” of place, but a deep ecology of the ecosystem that underlies the city as a palimpsest.

Nature in the City Butterfly Flying free.png

Nature in the City 2018 (detail of downtown)Nature in the City 2018 (detail of downtown)

What would it look like, asked the designers and cartographers at Nature in the City, a local San Francisco-based non-profit, to fashion a dynamic map that reveals the habitats that  flourish–and even be nourished–within an urbanized space.  In so doing, the layers of the map act to orient readers to  a counter-map of the built city, foregrounding the spaces of habitat that the group has encouraged across San Francisco and that actively exists on its streets and in its yards.  The new model of urban exploration in the map that is used in the header of this post is based less on navigating the urban space we know, than exploding the nature/urban dichotomy, and pointing us to the cites where nature has taken shape in the urban environment.  The result shocks the viewer, actively inviting them to recalibrate their own reaction to urban space far more actively–and in a more engaged fashion–than one experiences when reading urban maps.  And the practice of reading the map is not only engaging, prompting new activities of looking at one’s own neighborhood or cycling and running route,–but also extremely fun.

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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.



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:


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:



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.


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.


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