By Lee Anna Sherman
Bob Yeats would like you to know he cannot predict earthquakes. He is not prophetic. He claims no association with the supernatural. He can’t tell you when disaster will strike.
But Yeats, an emeritus professor in geosciences at Oregon State University, has been mapping fault lines for more than 40 years and can tell you when a quake is overdue. And he can tell you what areas of the world are most likely to suffer the greatest impact when one occurs.
So it wasn’t a fluke when Yeats told a reporter from Scientific American last year that Port-au-Prince straddled a time bomb, not a week before a magnitude 7.0 earthquake devastated the city. Yeats drew his conclusion from decades of mapping fault zones around the world and from understanding that when builders ignore geological processes, things can go horribly awry.
“I don’t have any second sight. It’s something anyone working on this problem would be aware of,” says Yeats. “It’s just a question of, ‘Do you keep that to yourself, or do you tell people about it?’”
Yeats has crafted a good portion of his career around telling people about it. Consider it his personal mission, but Yeats isn’t into doom. He’s wants to make sure that people recognize the danger and do something about it.
That’s why he wants people to participate in the Great Oregon ShakeOut, the first statewide earthquake drill on Jan. 26. Yeats helped champion the event to increase the public’s awareness of what a major earthquake would be like. But his involvement runs even deeper than that. The ShakeOut might not have come to Oregon at all if it hadn’t been for OSU researchers, including Yeats, who in the mid-1980s were among the first to suggest that Oregon is subject to massive subduction zone earthquakes.
79 and Active
Yeats, who is 79 years old and still active in earthquake research, has played a key role in the field. His technique of using oil-well data to map faults in three dimensions has provided the Northwest with a more detailed look at the extensive, active fault network in the region. It also gave Yeats a niche in mapping faults worldwide: No one had used the wealth of oil-well data to identify volatile seismic areas.
His outreach work has been passionate and consistent for more than 20 years. He has written books about earthquakes for non-scientists. He’s taught students from California to the Northwest about earthquake risk. He’s advised governments and community groups. He’s made sure his findings and practical advice have received news media attention.
Meanwhile, Yeats’ protégés have made groundbreaking discoveries. To date, he has mentored more than 50 graduate students. Among them is OSU professor of marine geology and geophysics Chris Goldfinger, whom Yeats advised during the latter’s graduate studies at OSU. Goldfinger has used Yeats’ mapping techniques in part to demonstrate that the Northwest has experienced repeated, significant earthquakes over the past 10,000 years — and that we will experience them again. Goldfinger also models the paths that tsunamis could take if they strike the Northwest coast after a major Cascadia subduction zone quake.
“A lot of scientists stay detached from the meaning of what they do, and from the outcome. Bob didn’t have that barrier,” says Goldfinger. “I like the personal model that makes everything tie together and be more relevant to what you do every day. And Bob’s still doing that.”
Another of Yeats’ former students is Andrew Meigs, OSU associate professor of geology, who is carrying on Yeats’ 30 years of work in the Pakistani Himalayas.
Yeats finds hope for the future in OSU research on earthquake and tsunami awareness. “OSU is really a leader in this arena,” he says. It leads to practical applications: tsunami evacuation plans and earthquake resistant bridges.
Yeats has been so important to his students that 30 of them donated a total of $500,000 to create an endowed professorship in his honor.
Get Ready and ShakeOut
Saving lives is what the Great Oregon ShakeOut is about, and that’s why it’s important to Yeats.
On Jan. 26, thousands of people throughout Oregon participated in a drill to help them understand how to prepare for, respond to and recover from a catastrophic earthquake. The National Science Foundation, Federal Emergency Management Association and U.S. Geological Survey sponsored the event.
For Yeats, though, it isn’t enough. He wishes every Oregonian would participate. But considering that the last major Northwest earthquake occurred more than 300 years ago, it’s not only easy for people to overlook the threat, it’s nearly impossible for them to conceive of it.
“We had a really bad one in 1700, but that was forever ago to most people here,” Yeats says. Jan. 26, in fact, was the 311th anniversary of that big quake, which was so strong, it is believed to have altered the physical makeup of the Oregon and Washington coasts to a stunning degree. Written records from Japan, which was hit by a 30-foot tsunami, and geological evidence on the Oregon Coast detail its severity.
And that’s what Yeats wants people to understand. Severe earthquakes like that don’t just happen once in a region. They happen repeatedly, and the key to minimizing damage and casualties is realizing that the Northwest is a region rife with seismic activity — and being ready for it.
In other regions, the threat may feel real because large earthquakes have happened more recently. Californians have photos of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, which led to a fire that devastated the city. They have images of the Cypress Street Viaduct collapsing in 1989’s Loma Prieta quake branded into their memories. They have their own experiences with waking in the night to shaking. It’s why more than 6 million California residents were expected to participate in their ShakeOut.
1971, San Fernando Valley
California earthquakes, in fact, were instrumental in Yeats’ transformation from geologist to messenger. In 1971, he was teaching at Ohio University after working as a petroleum geologist for Shell Oil in southern California. In February of that year, a catastrophic earthquake struck the San Fernando Valley, where he had thought of relocating his family. “It just shows how fate works,” Yeats says. “If I had moved there, my wife and children would have all been there, in their house. And possibly in danger of losing their lives.”
It made Yeats think of all the mapping data he and others were amassing for the oil industry, and using it to determine where the most volatile fault lines were throughout the world. For the next three decades, mapping faults in three dimensions became Yeats’ specialty. It carried him to a department head position at Oregon State in 1977 and around the world, from New Zealand to Afghanistan to Japan.
But Yeats began to wonder if publishing papers and discussing his findings with the scientific community was enough. “I realized what we did — mapping faults — people needed to know about, whether it’s the citizens of Port-au-Prince or the Oregon Coast,” Yeats says. “Because we have a hazard there, and we have to take it seriously and do the preparations necessary so people won’t get killed.”
Once the scientific community understood that there was an earthquake hazard in the Northwest, a conclusion in which Yeats was instrumental, he began to educate the public. He sent the message through news releases and talked to reporters about the potential for Cascadia subduction zone earthquakes. In the mid-80s, he was raising public awareness of earthquake problems in a region that was relatively quiet, unlike California.
Yeats created an undergraduate course at Oregon State called “Living with Earthquakes in the Pacific Northwest.” He taught students how the Northwest’s earthquake vulnerability was discovered and how society responded to that threat when it came to state legislation and to the practical aspects of daily life such as building codes and insurance premiums. The class also taught students how they could respond individually and within their communities to the threat.
Eventually, his notes turned into a book of the same name, published by the OSU Press in 1998. “The book, now in a second edition published in 2004, focuses on getting people to do simple things,” Yeats says. “Bolt older houses to the foundation. Make sure there’s a wrench near the intake valve on your gas meter. Have a disaster plan.”
Although Yeats wrote the book for students, it reached a wider audience: legislators, high school principals, local officials and emergency managers. And it’s still in print, just as his class is still being taught online and in the classroom. Yeats recently gave a copy of the book to the city manager of Bend, Ore., a city that straddles an active fault line.
In 2001, Yeats published the even more ambitious, “Living with Earthquakes in California.” The book describes how California admitted to its “earthquake problem” and helps communities and individuals to prepare.
Yeats also talks to local groups and consults with cities all over the region about infrastructure and new development projects. He’d like Oregon to catch up with California in terms of seismic awareness. “Oregon has upgraded building codes, but we still need to do what California has done and make an inventory of unsafe buildings. Oregon has not done that,” Yeats says.
2011, Cannon Beach to Kabul
But towns in Oregon, such as Seaside and Cannon Beach, regularly conduct tsunami drills with elementary school students. Statewide, and the Department of Geology and Mineral Industries is taking the lead in raising earthquake awareness. “I’d say the general person on the street is aware that we’re in earthquake country. When I first came here, that wasn’t the case,” Yeats says. “Oregon’s had some real leadership, but we have a long way to go.”
Yeats says he can get through to some people, but alerting the public to a potential danger isn’t the same as telling them about a danger that has a date, time and place. And telling people doesn’t mean they’ll listen. It’s a dilemma he’s faced throughout his professional career. It’s human nature, Yeats says, to be unable to appreciate a threat that seems abstract, or that might happen centuries into the future. It’s a little like the children’s book character Chicken Little warning that the sky is falling.
“You ask people the same questions you’d ask the president of Haiti a week before the quake: ‘You’re on a fault running outside your city. It’s going to go. It’s going to kill a lot of people.’ But they say, ‘Is it going to happen during my term of office? You’re not sure? Thanks for your time.’ Can you blame them?” he asks.
Yeats persists in this frustrating mission because, he says, “People are responsive, but the general public has to be reminded, and you have to keep reminding them.”
His latest book, Active Faults of the World, will be published by Cambridge University Press in 2011. The book is part of an international collaboration to create an online worldwide active-fault database. With it, Yeats hopes he can help prompt officials in other earthquake “time bomb” spots — Kingston, Jamaica; Tehran, Iran; Kabul, Afghanistan; Karachi, Pakistan — to take precautionary action. He hopes his message reaches people before it’s too late.