Good news -- we're not actually getting more earthquakes. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, in the last 100 years, the earth has averaged about 17 major quakes (7.0 - 7.9) and one huge one (8.0 or above) a year.
I hesitate to write this for fear of jinxing the planet, but with Chile's quake registering 8.8, it's unlikely we'll get another this year. (If you're reading this, Pat, don't blame me if there's another. Even though I'm gay. And liberal.)
So why does it feel like there's a whole lotta shakin' going on?
For starters, we know more. In 1931, there were 350 seismograph stations in the world; today there are more than 8,000. And digital technology has made it possible to instantly report what's happening. But the major reason the disasters seem worse is urbanization.
In 2009, for the first time in humankind, more people live in cities than in the country. Just two hundred years ago, Beijing was the only city in the world with more than a million inhabitants. Now there are 381 -- and growing. So the problem isn't the ground shaking under our feet -- it's the sheet of glass raining down on our heads. As University of Colorado seismologist Roger Bilham said in The New York Times, the growing urban population faces "an unrecognized weapon of mass destruction: houses."
Which is why the devastation is so much worse in poorer nations. Dense cities with lax building codes like Katmandu, Caracas and Lima are disasters waiting to happen.
Good news -- it'll be another 25 years before we have to listen to another version of "We Are the World."
Closer to home, the U.S. Geological Survey estimates that about 75 million Americans are vulnerable, with quakes occurring in 39 of 50 states (including Pat Robertson's home of Virginia, which kind of blows his theory). But Robertson can take comfort that the entire "Left Coast" is overdue to crumble like a cookie. California has a 99% chance of a 6.7 in the next 30y years. And in the Northwest, a big quake should have hit over 10 years ago.
Which means it's definitely time to pack up that emergency kit -- you know, the one we all think about making, but never do. But while you're planning but not making it, here are a few things you can do to be ready for any disaster:
- Choose a meeting place with your family in case you can't get home. I'd lean toward the fire station rather than Starbucks.
- Designate an out-of-state contact person you can all call into. Preferably someone calm in an emergency.
- Don't let your gas tank go below half full. You'll thank me once you see people lugging those gallon jugs of water.
- Stop watching Pat Robertson. Even if the earth quakes -- and it will -- you'll feel less shook up.