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Quakeland: On the Road to America’s Next Devastating Earthquake

Kathryn Miles
368 pp.
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The magnitude 5.8 earthquake that shook western Montana on 6 July 2017 is a reminder that earthquakes in the United States are not limited to the Pacific’s “rim of fire.” In Kathryn Miles’s book Quakeland, she begins by recounting a 1959 magnitude 7.5 earthquake that occurred in this same region. The Hebgen Lake earthquake, as it is known, produced the nation’s largest recorded earthquake-induced rock slide—73 million metric tons—and caused at least 28 fatalities. Although tragic, the quake was neither the most costly nor the most deadly. But, as Miles points out, it forces us to confront the fact that while our knowledge of earthquake hazard has evolved, in many cases our infrastructure has not.

Quakeland offers a guided tour of seismic hazards throughout the United States. In addition to covering earthquake hazards in the Western states, Miles provides an accessible overview of midplate seismicity in regions such as New Madrid and New York City. She also discusses non-natural sources of seismicity produced by, among other activities, fracking and mining.

Importantly, Miles also describes how our built environment, including dams, bridges, levees, and buildings, can (or, in many cases, cannot) withstand earthquakes and their associated secondary hazards. The engineers and scientists she interviews acknowledge that improving our resilience is costly, but the fact remains that the consequences of not doing so are often far more costly.

Improved construction practices prompted by past disasters, as well as scientific and engineering advances, are on the rise. But, while more seismically active areas are acting to improve resilience, Miles makes it clear that other regions of the United States could benefit from similar actions. “We just have no consciousness towards earthquakes in the eastern United States,” geophysicist Charles Merguerian tells her at one point. “And that’s a big mistake.”

Editor’s Note: For a full-length review of Quakeland, see “American movers and shakers,” Science 357, 6351 (2017).

About the author

The reviewer is at NatCatRisk, LLC, Garrett Park, MD 20896, USA.