Why is Simon Winchester giving the keynote address at AGU?

I wanted to get some more blog post done before AGU, but that just ain’t gonna happen. This’ll be my last post until the conference. Enjoy!


First some recap, if you’re familiar with the Simon Winchester-Earthquake fearmongering debacle, skip this section.

Back in March Simon Winchester, a popular science novelist, wrote an article published in Newsweek Magazine threatening that the next “Big One” earthquake was due to strike San Francisco. His article caused quite an uproar in the geologic and scientific communities. Simon cited several “facts” that he contrived to support his ideas, mainly that there had been three damaging earthquakes: Christchurch (2/22/2011), Chilean (2/27/2010), and the Japan quake (3/11/2011) in three corners of the Pacific Plate, “…leaving just one corner unaffected–the Northeast.” He goes on to state that strains in the San Andreas Fault beneath San Francisco have built up to “barely tolerable levels.” He also loosely calls upon the idea of earthquake cascading, or triggering of earthquakes by previous earthquakes, using a vibrating brass bell analogy.

Anyway, so the “evidence” in his article, and the fear-mongering tone of his article caused quite a stir in the scientific community. My adviser, Christie Rowe, was at the forefront of this discussion, corresponding with Simon, and writing a rebuttal article for Scientific American.
The main problem isn’t that Simon was stating that an earthquake will hit San Francisco. Many of us have seen the USGS Bay Area hazard map, putting a 63% probability of a 6.7 or greater magnitude quake in the next 30 years, likely along the Hayward fault (which has had two small events in the last month). 
The problem lies in his methods. Not only does Simon make large geographical errors, but he also has no evidence. It’s not science. Many people have already covered this, so I don’t want to belaber the topic. The blog Life’s Little Mysteries has a great article on the topic in which they interview David Schwartz, Head of the San Francisco Bay Area Earthquake Hazards Project. Schwartz provides a great rebuttal to Simon’s cascading theory, “When an earthquake happens, it changes the stress in the [local] vicinity around it, and if there are other faults nearby, this increase in the stress can trigger them and produce more earthquakes. In other places, it relaxes the crust and puts earthquakes off.”
The AGU Fall Meeting

Strangely enough, Mr. Winchester is the keynote address at the AGU Fall Meeting this year (Monday, Dec. 5th). I’m not sure why he was invited, considering the flack he got from the scientific community in response to his article. Perhaps this is a ploy by AGU to get Simon face to face with his discreditors and make him answerable to his statements. Maybe Simon will publicly repeal his article and put forth something that has scientific backing?
Either way, I’m eager to see his speech. Who knows, maybe we’ll get to see the mud fly. 

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