Unpredictable Predictables

“It was impressive to see an enormous mushroom cloud, with the immense force of the volcano, and to see the ashes. At that point, there was a lot of panic, lots of chaos, traffic jams, people going to supermarkets, everyone looking for water, trying to take out money from the ATMs.” – Ensenada resident, witnessing Calbuco eruption

On Wednesday, more than 4,400 people were evacuated after the Calbuco volcano erupted in Chile for the first time in over 40 years. And then it erupted again, blanketing the surrounding area in nearly 2 feet of ash, as red-hot rocks were hurled into the night and volcanic lightning lit up the sky. Though Calbuco was considered one of the most dangerous of Chile’s 90 active volcanoes, how should those who live in its shadow heed a warning four decades old?

Not that there’s much we can really do about volcanoes, since volcanoes have the power to change the world as we know it, as the Economist writes in How Volcanoes Change the Climate. The sulphur dioxide the volcano releases at eruption gets into the atmosphere and starts running amuck, combining with other particles to warm the stratosphere and cool the surface of the earth. Two hundred years ago, when the Indonesian volcano Tambora erupted, the subsequent cooling caused the “hiatus of the Indian monsoon, drought in southern Africa and widespread crop failures in Europe, where it was known as the year without a summer.”

Granted, these are all massive, macro trends that we can’t predict. And, as Nassim Nicholas Taleb writes in Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, it doesn’t necessarily matter that we can’t predict it, because we humans are terrible at predicting in the first place, often relying too heavily on our belief in evidence. We fail to predict the ‘Black Swan’, an “event, positive or negative, that is deemed improbable yet causes massive consequences.”

Take, for example, the disaster that resulted in Fukushima, or Japan’s Black Swan: “an earthquake larger than seismologists thought could happen in that part of the country, leading to a tsunami too big for the seawalls, and now a nuclear crisis that wasn’t supposed to be possible.”

David Wolman argues in The Aftershocks that our inability to understand these types of odds is because if you “stretch that low probability over time — which is how earthquake risk is estimated — and confusion with low probabilities morphs into complete incomprehension. If you live in an earthquake-prone place for 10,000 days, the cumulative probability gets higher and higher, approaching 1 in 1. Our minds, unfortunately, have a hard time keeping up.” In other words, “where a career scientist hears the word improbable and knows that rare events do occur, a non-scientist hears improbable as shorthand for ain’t gonna happen.

In order to prepare ourselves for these kinds of events, Richard Aster writes that “we will have to increasingly expect the unexpected, not just in the context of the familiar randomness of seismicity itself but also in seismicity’s increasingly unpredictable social effects.” Translation: it’s not just the size of the quake we have to consider, it’s the power plants we’re building that can’t fail behind seawalls that can’t be breached. Or, as 1914 realized, even unsinkable ships can be sunk.
The “potential for future disasters is compounded by the inexorable concentration and buildup of populations and infrastructure in cities, which puts vastly increased numbers of people at peril and can exacerbate all of the aforementioned factors.” Translation: oof.

Compounding interest on a 10-year index fund is one thing. Compounding the likelihood and scale of the sort of disaster with global impact is entirely different. So if you didn’t feel bad enough about your ability to make those predictions before, then you may not want to read how Animals Can Predict Earthquakes. The article has this terrific solution to our earthquake sensing problem: “Since animals are already in place in various parts of the world, they would make great complements to existing monitoring systems.”

For those of us living in Los Angeles, there is a perennial fear of The Big One hitting, so hearing that the Big One could trigger a series of large earthquakes called a “super cycle” is pure terror. Before you decide to flee for the more stable coast (and remember – Black Swans – increasingly expect the unexpected!), know that just a few hundred smartphones could catch earthquakes early – so there’s hope! If all of those smartphones are busy posting status updates about “FELT THE EARTHQUAKE!!!” then all bets are off.

All this technology – from hordes of cell phones to hordes of beasts – is in an attempt to predict the earthquakes that the earth is throwing at us in unpredictable waves. What if we had the ability to prevent those earthquakes entirely? The New Yorker’s Weather Underground details the arrival and discovery of man-made earthquakes in Oklahoma as a result of hydraulic fracking.

In 2008, “Oklahoma experienced an average of one to two earthquakes of 3.0 magnitude or greater each year.

In “2014 [when] there were five hundred and eighty-five, nearly triple the rate of California.”

And now, in 2015, after years of ignoring the connection, this: Oklahoma admits that the oil and gas industry is responsible for the dramatic rise in earthquakes. Even though the state’s government recognizes the role of drilling in earthquakes they aren’t issuing a moratorium.

As Donald Rumsfeld once said, “there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult one.”

What you don’t know, can’t hurt you. What you don’t do anything about, can.

So. Oklahoma acknowledges that fracking turns the unknown known – the effects of blasting water into the earth, for example – into a known known – that it causes earthquakes.

With so many known unknowns – volcanoes! the Big Ones! tidal waves! – beyond our control, why not take a minute, or a month, or a year, to figure out what kinds of impacts these things we’re doing might have decades down the line? Of course, if we did that, and allow ourselves to expect the unexpected, we’d be acting like, in Rumsfeldian terms, a real bunch of unpredictable predictables.

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