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After the Earth Quakes, Elastic Rebound on an Urban Planet

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Human society is organized for a stable earth; its whole machinery supposes that, while the other familiar elements of air and water are fluctuating and untrustworthy, the earth affords a foundation which is firm. Now and then this implied compact with nature is broken, and the ground trembles beneath our feet. At such times we feel a painful sense of shipwrecked confidence; we learn how very precious to us was that trust in the earth which we gave without question.

Earthquakes and their attendant phenomena rank among the most terrifying natural disasters faced by mankind. Out of a clear blue sky—or worse, a jet-black one—comes shaking strong enough to hurl furniture across the room, human bodies out of bed, and entire houses offtheir foundations. Individuals who experience the full brunt of the planet’s strongest convulsions often later describe the single thought that echoed in their minds during the tumult: I am going to die.

 When the dust settles, the immediate aftermath of an earthquake in an urbanized society can be profound. Phone service and water supplies can be disrupted for days,fires can erupt, and even a small number of overpass collapses can impede rescue operations and snarl traffic for months. 

On an increasingly urban planet, millions of people have positioned themselves directly in harm’s way. Global settlement patterns have in all too many cases resulted in enormous concentrations of humanity in some of the planet’s most dangerous earthquake zones.

For scientists involved with earthquake hazards research in that part of the world, the images were doubly wrenching: the hazard from large global earthquakes has been recognized for decades.