The Importance of Geology in Science Teaching

Since January, we have experienced a number of geological events that have caused havoc and misery to many people around the Earth.  On January 12, Haiti was rocked with a magnitude 7 earthquake causing the destruction of the many cities and towns including the capital, Port-au-Prince.  Then, on February 27, a magnitude 8.8 earthquake occurred off the coast of the Maule region of Chile, causing enormous damage to property and life.  In late March, Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull volcano erupted for the first time in 200 years, and volcanologists predict that the activity could last for months.  We all know the havoc that was created when European airspace was shut down stranding thousands of people.  Then on April 20, the catastrophic explosion of BP’s Deepwater Horizon occurred resulting in the death of eleven platform workers and injury to many others, and to perhaps the worst oil spill in U.S. history.  A month later, and the oil is still gushing out (link to a live cam of oil spill) of the Gulf at rate that probably exceeds the estimated 210,000 gallons/day.

In each of these cases, the destruction to property, and the loss of life varies from one disaster to the other, but they all have impacted the environment of vast regions of the earth and millions of people.  In the case of the earthquakes and volcano, students’ understanding of theory of plate tectonics will help them understand how these geological events occurred.  The geology of the Haiti and the Chile earthquakes provide students with a deeper understanding of plate tectonics, and how the earth’s crust works.  Iceland’s volcano occurred along the interface between two tectonic plates, where new crust is moving to the surface from deeper in the crust of the earth.  It is at this interface that these two huge tentonic plates are moving away from each other.  Quite different from the compressional activity of the tectonic plates that come into play in the case of the Haiti and the Chile earthquakes.

Earth's tectonic plates

A few month’s ago the Governor of Louisiana wondered why the EPA had funds in its budget for “volcano monitoring.” He lashed out at this as an example of government funding gone amuck.  In a post I wrote after that entitled Volcano in your backyard, the mayor of Vancouver begged to differ with the governor.   Because of the BP’s horrendous oil spill, the governor now finds himself in the middle of a very significant environmental disaster.

The U.S. produces about 9 million barrels (1 barrel = 42 gallons) of crude oil per day, and imports about 13 million barrels of crude.  The BP oil spill is spewing 5,000 barrels (view this Youtube clip) of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico per day (210,000 gallons).  These are BP estimates, and there many geologists who think the spillage is much greater.  Nevertheless, this is a huge amount of oil that is being pumped into the Gulf, and is threatening the entire Gulf Coast, and some fear that the oil could move up the East Coast of the U.S.

The Gulf Oil spill provides the context for a powerful STS teaching and learning experience for middle and high school students.  To help students understand the oil spill, you might explore the visualizations shown on this website including what a 5,000 barrel/day oil spill looks like, how oil is explored beneath the ocean, how big is Deep Horizon oil spill, and many other questions.

A recent paper by Bulunuz and Jarrett in the Eurasia Journal of Mathematics, Science, and Technology Education explored the research on teachers’ understanding about Earth and space science concepts.  The paper has implications for us as teachers, and also science teacher educators.

How Knowledge of Geology will be Important in Rebuilding Haiti

According to reports from Haiti, the relief effort is in full swing, and although search and rescue efforts were officially stopped, in truth,  they are still happening, and of course this is a hopeful event for the people in Haiti.  According to Christiane Amanpour, the U.N. is beginning to work toward the clearing away of debris by hiring Haitians, and also is encouraging as many people as possible to travel to other parts of the country to be with family and friends, away from the center of the earthquake damaged Port-Au-Prince.  Yet this has resulted in the destination towns being overwhelmed with people, but without any supporting resources.

Plate and Fault Systems in the Caribbean and Haiti

As the U.N. and the Haitian government make plans for the reconstruction and rebuilding Port-Au-Prince, and surrounding communities, it will be crucial buildings and roads be designed with knowledge fault lines, and potential earthquake zones.

To geologists, there was no surprise that the 7.0 earthquake occurred, as cruel as it was to the people of Haiti.  As shown in the Plate and Fault Systems map shows, there are two horizontal east/west faults.  It was movement along one of these two faults, the Enriquillo Fault, a strike-slip fault, that caused the 7.0 earthquake.  Geologists have reported that there have been earthquakes along this fault line, the most recent about 200 years ago.

Plate Movements in the Caribbean

The seismic activity in the region is caused the movement of tectonic plates.  In a New York Times article, the geology of the region is explored by Henry Fountain.  In this piece, Fountain reports that:

The recent quake on the Enriquillo fault and the forecast for the Septentrional are bleak reminders that the Caribbean is an active seismic zone, one with many hazards. Major earthquakes have regularly devastated the region’s cities, including the Jamaican capital, Kingston, which was destroyed twice in three centuries.

In the reconstruction of Haiti, it will be important that the knowledge of the potential for earthquakes be taken into account in the development of new buildings, especially schools and hospitals.

Humanitarian Assistance for Haiti

The United Nations initiated a “flash appeal” for assistance after the devastation earthquake in Haiti.  As the map below shows, the earthquake intensity, based on the Modified Mercalli Intensity Scale (a measure of the violence of earth motion).  Here is a map from USAID which shows the earthquake intensity from the epicenter out to surrounding areas of the country.  The fact that such extreme, violent, and severe intensity was experienced by so many people has resulted in the worst disaster in the Western Hemisphere in recorded history.

United States Agency for International Development Earthquake-Intensity Map

The United Nations, individual nations, and relief and charity organizations mobilized immediately after the earthquake.  The United Nations implemented a flash appeal for resources and money as shown in the chart below.  The initial appeal amounted to about $575 million, and as can be seen in the chart, many organizations and countries have responded to the appeal.  Assistance has also extended beyond this initial flash appeal to individual organizations, and last night’s Hope for Haiti Now Telethon which raised more than $57 million in the USA, and $16 million in Canada.

United Nations Flash Appeal Snapshot

As we listen to people who are on the ground helping the Haitian people, and working with their respective organizations to build an infrastructure that will bring food, shelter and medical care to the people who have been hurt by this earthquake.

Assessment of the Haiti Earthquake and Aftershocks

The aftershocks that have rocked the region near the 7.0 earthquake of January 12 in Haiti will continue for months, if not years, according to a report by the United States Geological Survey (USGS).  It is important to understand the nature of the seismic activity in this region as this knowledge will be significant in the near-term relief efforts, but perhaps more importantly, in the long term rebuilding of the infrastructure of the country near Port-Au-Prince, and the many surrounding communities.

M7.0 Haiti Earthquake and Aftershocks Map. Click on map to go to USGS active map site.

Here is a brief synopsis of the USGS assessment of the 7.0 earthquake and the aftershocks.

Aftershocks. According to the USGS, aftershocks will continue for months if not years in the area seen on the map here.  The map shows the initial earthquake (largest red circle), and the aftershocks as of January 21.  The USGS initial assessment includes the possibility of an earthquake greater than 7.0 (less than 3%), but earthquakes ranging from 5.0 to 6.0 have a higher probability.

Precautions.  As we watch the pictures and video from Haiti, we are all aware of the rescue activity that is in progress where the work is being done in damaged structures, which are extremely vulnerable to further destruction by these aftershocks.  Aftershocks (earthquakes) in the 5.0 range are quite powerful, especially since these earthquakes are fairly shallow with the energy being concentrated near the surface.

Concerns for the Near-term.  As I have discussed, the fault that caused the Port-Au-Prince earthquake is part of a very active seismic region existing between the North American and Caribbean tectonic plates.

The Caribbean Plate showing its boundaries with the North American, Cocos, & South American Plates

The Caribbean Plate is an oceanic tectonic plate that encompasses roughly 3.2×106 km² and underlies Central America and the Caribbean Sea off the north coast of South America.  As you can see on the map is located between not only the North American Plates, but the Cocos plate to the west, and the South American plate to the south.  The North American Plate is a tectonic plate covering most of North America, Greenland and parts of Siberia and Iceland.  The boundary between the North American and Caribbean plates is what geologists call a strike-slip fault or transform boundary.  It is along this boundary that the 7.0 Haiti earthquake occurred.  As seen on the map this boundary extends across quite a distance starting in east in the Virgin Islands, extending westward through Puerto Rico, Hispaniola (Haiti & The Dominican Republic), continuing to Cuba, and then into Honduras, Guatemala, and Belize.  This entire boundary is active seismically.

Topography along the Enriquillo-Plaintain Garden Fault, Haiti

In fact many geologists describe the area between these two plates as a micro-tectonic plate, that is being squeezed and ruptured by the three plates that surround it.  In the USGS report, geologists suggested that the earthquake did relieve some of the stress on the fault system, but they caution that the Enriquillo fault to the east of the January 12 earthquake is still under great stress, and could result in a damaging earthquake in the future. The red lines on the map indicate fault zones, which the black circles show the location and magnitude of earthquakes in the region.

Long-term Concerns.  As shown in the map above, Haiti has major fault zones cutting across the country, and the historical record shows that major earthquakes have happened in this region of intense seismic activity.   Rebuilding of structures in Haiti needs to take into account the effect of earthquake shaking on buildings.  Structures need to be designed that take this into account, and meet standards that will help new building withstand intense ground movements.  One area that the report emphasizes is that it is essential that structures such as hospitals and schools be rebuilt with greater ability to withstand earthquakes.

Caribbean Seismicity.  The Haiti earthquake was the result of earth movement along a fault that is part of the zone between the Caribbean and North American tectonic or crustal plates.  This region, is sometimes called a small-scale “ring of fire,” analogous to the Pacific rim “ring of fire.”  It includes Puerto Rico, Jamaica, Dominican Republic, Martinque, and Guadeloupe.  The map below shows the extent of the seismic activity in the Caribbean, as well as to the region further to the West along the coast of South America.  Rebuilding efforts in the region need to take into account the knowledge we have of seismic activity in the region.

Seismicity of the Caribbean Tectonic Plate region, USGS

Haiti Relief Effort: Global Resources & Agencies

The Haiti relief effort is in full operation, with the United Nations, individual relief organizations, the U.S. government including the U.S. military and eight additional departments and agencies within the government, and humanitarian aid, and resources from countries around the world.  The earthquake caused widespread damage, and ruined the infrastructure of the country.  The head of the International Monetary Fund has called for a “Marshall-like Plan” to help rebuild the country, and help establish a viable infrastructure and economy.   This blog post comments on some of the efforts that are underway.

In lessons learned from the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia, the United Nations developed a “Cluster System” to coordinate relief efforts.  The purpose of the cluster system is to put experts on the ground as soon as possible, and to organize them into groups based on expertise.   For example, according to U.N. officials, there are meetings every day at 3 p.m. at the Ministry of Water in Port-au-Prince, in the offices which have not been too badly damaged, so that all water and sanitation agencies will go to that meeting and coordinate how they best respond.  Although the cluster system is not without its critics, it was implemented in recent disasters in the Pakistan earthquake, and floods in the Philippines.

Port-Au-Prince Medical Infrastructure Information, Jan. 22

Another example of the cluster system is the Health Cluster, in which partners will work with the national health authorities and health partners to ensure a coordinated response to the needs of the Haitian population.

Here is a list of some of the efforts underway in Haiti, and links to further information.

United Nations Humanitarian Map of Haiti

United Nations.  The U.N. has a multi-pronged effort underway involving Children (UNICEF), Development (UN Development Program), Food (World Food Program), Health (UNAIDS & World Health Organization), Humanitarian Coordination (OCHA), and Population (United Nations Population Fund)

U.S. Haiti Earthquake Relief.  Firstly, if you go to this White House site, you will find links to many agencies within the Federal Government which are directly involved in relief efforts in Haiti.  The most visible form of assistance has been the U.S. Military, and you can visit this site to find out how U.S. Defense Department is aiding the Haitian population. You can find how the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is helping at this site.  An important part of the effort is organized by USAID.  USAID is an independent federal government agency that receives overall foreign policy guidance from the Secretary of State.  The U.S. Department of State has established this website that describes its activities, and how the Department of State is helping the Haitian people.  You can link to the U.S. Embassy in Port-Au-Prince, Haiti at this website.  Further assistance is provided by Department of Homeland Security, and the Interior Department.

Independent Aid Organizations.  There are many organizations that have had a presence in Haiti long before the January 12th earthquake.  These humanitarian organizations are there on the ground, working to help the people of Haiti.  There is a very extensive list of these organizations at this New York Times site for your information.