Researcher on the Road: Step One

I have joined up with strangers from New Zealand and run away to the coast.

We drove many hours through city traffic, beautiful rain forest, and blooming marshland.
We drove many hours through city traffic, beautiful rain forest, and blooming marshland.

Drs. Johnston and Orchiston from Massey University in New Zealand are studying tsunami risk perception on the Washington State coast and I and Kimberley Cowrin (Geology student from Boise State) are helping. They’ve come all the way here because New Zealand has a very similar fault and socio-economic population who are also thinking about tsunami mitigation. (Anyone remember the NZ Christchurch earthquake? It’s what we like to call a “focusing event”.)

Washington State, Oregon, and California are putting together a joint earthquake-tsnunami disaster drill ominously called “Cascadia Rising” and I want to know the people who are participating. So I came too. Besides, I should learn how research works, no?

While the Cascadia Rising drill and this research project aren’t really connected, they are studying the same scenario and involve a few of the same people.

Here it is: Washington et al sit on the North American Plate while most of the Pacific Ocean sits on the Pacific Plate. There’s a tiny Juan de Fuca plate in the middle getting squished and pushing under the North American Plate.

The Juan de Fuca plate is an oceanic plate which is denser and smaller so it's getting pushed under the North American Plate.
The little black arrows on the map point to which plate is going on top. Volcanoes form on the top plate, so you can remember how to read the map by thinking of the little black arrows as volcanoes. Pic courtesy of Cascadia Earthquake Work Group. who explains this all in more detail.

The Juan de Fuca plate is an oceanic plate which is denser and smaller so it’s getting pushed under the North American Plate. That area with the black arrows is called the Cascadia Subduction Zone. They say that eventually a large earthquake will hit there just off the coast and cause a tsunami. Unfortunately, it will all happen so fast that the authorities won’t have time to sound the tsunami alarms, so people who live on the coast have to know that if there’s shaking, they move to higher ground whether they hear warnings or not. So we’re running focus groups to see whether these small towns know these things or not.

We've been at the Long Beach and South Beach communities so far.
We’ve been at the Long Beach and South Beach communities so far. Pic courtesy of Wa Coast tourism.

The towns are small and double or triple in size during peak tourist season. There’s clam digging, kyacking, fishing, shopping, beaching, and more. The towns are also built on sand which will most likely sink and flood during an earthquake. (Sinking, flooding, and liquefaction are all a little different, but all amount to impassable roads).

This is an
This is an “Inundation Map” which scientists use to show how far the tsunami water might come up. Pic courtesy of Esri geohazards maps.

Unfortunately, some people might have to travel 30 or more miles to a safe zone on roads which may not exist after an earthquake. Most of the all-year residents are elderly. All of this makes for a pretty gnarly problem (as our So. Cal friends say). In fact, many people we talked to cited a wide ranging apathy about tsunami evacuation. As one retiree said, the last time the alarms sounded, we went to the bar and had a drink. Where were we going to go?

There’s a tension in Emergency Management between delivering realistic, sobering information and frightening the public into nihilism. When people believe their actions don’t matter, they won’t take any (as the retiree so playfully illustrated). We talked to many civilian activists committed to changing that perspective in their community.

Inevitably, as we share these facts, someone in the focus group will say, “then what’s the point? It sounds like we’re all dead no matter what we do.” Then Dr. Johnston will lean forward and share the story about a study that was done on the most recent Japanese tsunami. Every step taken upwards or inland reduces your risk, he says. Sure, you might not outrace “The Big One”, but it might not be the big one this time. You can never tell. And since Tsunami waves reduce in size and power exponentially the further in land they get, you could maybe outrun this one. If you got up. Every step makes a difference, he says.  A few people nod to themselves.

Later, I stand around with our host Emergency Manager watching our focus group filing out. Sometimes, he says, if you can reach just one person, you’ve made a real difference. If you can reach one person then maybe they collect a Go Bag, and maybe they start telling their neighbors about how to prepare, and maybe they can help others when they do reach the high ground. That’s all you can do, he says shrugging. Get them one at a time.


Female Hurricanes: Why it’s OK when Research Messes Up.



I like the social side of Emergency Management-ology. We already know a lot about the mechanics of Earthquakes and Tornadoes and building failures from Earth Sciences and Engineering. But we know a lot less about the interface between society and disasters. So I got all curious about a recent news story this last week.

I heard on NPR–which was confirmed by USA Today, National Geographic, and the Washington Post that this study out of Illinois University claims that female-named hurricanes kill more people than male-named ones. Ostensibly because Americans subconsciously believe that “female” hurricanes will be less forceful than “male” hurricanes. The 6 part study found (among other things) that students asked to imagine Hurricane Alexandra was bearing down on them were less likely to say they would evacuate voluntarily than those who were asked to imagine a Hurricane Alexander. That sounds like important news for an Emergency Manager who spends a large chunk of her time thinking about how to get people to listen to warnings.

So… I looked further into it (Oh, how I love National Geographic). Unfortunately, there are several things wrong with the study.

1. The study focused on Hurricanes which hit the US between 1950 and 2012 (excluding Hurricane Katrina in 2005 because it is widely considered to be such an outlier) but before 1979, ALL hurricanes had female names which skews the statistics.

2. Additionally, hurricanes have been doing LESS damage over the years as society has developed better building materials and warning systems. (Again… Hurricane Katrina is an outlier here…) So all the heavy-hitters in the past were more likely to have female names.

3. The people studied were landlocked Illinois students who are probably not representative of people accustomed to making decisions about Hurricanes.

4. The factors that influence whether or not you will decide to evacuate are incredibly complex including such considerations as culture, vulnerability, information source, previous experience, etc.

So, according to one critic “what the team has basically done is to show ‘that individuals respond to gender’…” which isn’t really news at all.

But that’s ok; it’s not a waste. For one simple reason: Critics. This study has attracted a lot of media attention. In it’s own small way, it has caused a conversation. (Probably short lived, but it’s something, no?) It has sparked a chorus from the peanut gallery–the nit-picking, nay-saying, obnoxious arm-chair critics who have torn apart a lot of hard work to say: you did it wrong, but hey… next time we’ll know how to ask the question better.

You see, most of science isn’t about finding answers, it’s about finding the right question. And finding the right question is harder than you might think because sometimes you think you’re asking a particular question until you hear the answer. (That makes no sense, of course, because you are a very practical person who only has to think about words but science has to translate words into numbers and then back again which is tricky.) The trouble with the Illinois study was that it asked “Do people respond to gender in this particular scenario?” (receiving a resounding yes) when what it meant to ask was: “Does how you name a hurricane affect the decision making process enough to matter?”  That’s a question that 1. we didn’t know about until Illinois tried for it and 2. will take a dozen or more different studies to parse (because translating a concept into words, then into action, then into numbers, then back to words again is really hard).

That’s why science never goes to waste. Because even when you fail, you raise better questions.

Research Sunday: The Danger of Decentralizing for Minority Voices

Now that Finals are done (Woo hoo!!!), I’m turning my attention to my (ever so severely) neglected Research Assistantship duties. My PI (Private Investigator–my boss), is trying to argue that local science is a community resource and–as such–should be freed from the constraints of tenure and the other academic incentives.

Anyway, during my research, I came across a compelling tangent: when a government decentralized control over a forest, the high-powered groups benefited.

First, some background: Eleanor Ostrom is a nobel-prize winning economist who studied how communities protect–or not–communal resources (like forestries, fisheries, open grazing grounds, Congressional budgets…). Usually, individuals use up communal resources in an unsustainable fashion (over fishing, etc) She argues that, traditionally, we use two solutions to protect communal resources: the government limits access to the resource or private companies limit access. Either way, it’s an external limitation imposed on the people actually using the resource. The problem is, that since they’re outside, they don’t have accurate information and tend to make mistakes in administering the system. She argues that it works better when the users themselves enter into a communal contract to monitor use and limit consumption themselves.

And for the most part, it DOES work better. But later one of her students, Anderson, was studying two Bolivian cities who reorganized their corrupt handling of Forestry conservation. They both decentralized control of the forest to the users. In one town, it worked extremely well–violence ended, illegal cutting disappeared and new markets opened up. In the other town, decentralization made everything worse. One very powerful company was able to monopolize the negotiations and walked away with de facto control over the forests. They steamrolled all the other less powerful constituents which wasn’t possible (or at least as easy) when the government controlled the forests.

I am a firm believer in giving control to the people. Not just electoral power but administrative power too. I believe that people on the ground have better information, more timely information, and incentive to create a really good, fitting solution. And then when they DO find a solution that works, they generally are much more committed to upholding the solution because they have “bought in” to it. Furthermore, a multiplicity of perspectives generally generates a better solution than a homogenous perspective.

HOWEVER, there appears to be a problem with giving power away to the people. The problem is that more powerful groups can over-run less powerful groups. Groups who enjoy white-privilege for instance, may be able to create a system which perpetuates their privilege over minority voices. This is why we have institutions to help minorities get into school and into jobs. It’s the best way we’ve found to make sure their voices are protected. We limit one group’s influence to make sure they don’t take over the communal resources. To make sure the negotiation power of minority groups stays intact.

Still… I can’t help but wonder if there is a better way. Is there a more equitable way to negotiate over common resources? Or are we too human to allow it? Perhaps it require too much understanding and love for our fellow humans. Perhaps there isn’t enough incentive to overcome our naturally self-interested tendencies.

On the other hand, maybe we could find that incentive…..

Andersson says (in setting up his research parameters), “We assume that a governance system that manages to distribute capabilities and duties in such a way that perverse incentive and information problems at one level are offset to some extent by positive incentives and information capabilities for actors at other levels, will achieve better outcomes than either a highly centralized or fully decentralized system” (p. 73). In other words, what a President Wilson called “a community of power” rather than fully decentralizing the power.

Tell me what you think that would look like in the comments below!

PS: If you want to look up the articles, here are the citations:
Andersson, K. & Ostrom, E. (2008). Analyzing decentralized resource regimes from a polycentric perspective. Policy Sci.

Ostrom, E. (1990) Governing the commons: The evolution of institutions for collective action (Chapter 1). Cambridge University Press.