While you probably can google “LA nature” and find lots of photos of Griffith Park, Joshua Tree, Santa Monica, or any other nearby relaxing hike and beach locations, I’m here for those of you looking for a more ~chaotic~ take! This semester, I’m taking one of my Thematic Option classes, CORE 103: “Predicting Disaster: The Applied Science of Seismology”, on natural disasters. As natural disasters tend to line up with fertile soil, coastal areas, and tectonic plates, California has an especially rich variety of opportunity for those interested in natural disaster engineering and research.*
Surely the first natural disaster that comes to mind regarding LA—especially with last summer in mind—would be earthquakes. As we are on the San Andreas fault that is moving LA closer to San Francisco centimeter by centimeter each year, LA is fairly earthquake-prone. Earthquake science still has a long way to go in terms of understanding and predicting earthquakes. However, plate tectonics that create earthquake-prone areas can be explained with concepts closely related to physics and engineering. The stress, or forces on the rock, occurring at faults leads to strain (a change in shape due to that stress). A plate moves against, apart from, or towards the other plate with motion that can be understood through Statics or Strength of Materials coursework.
A few other natural hazards include those that can occur with earthquakes to multiply their damage. However, these disasters also frequently cause damage independently. These include landslides and wildfires. While engineering cannot influence wildfires, landslides are heavily based on physics and forces that are man-made; landslides can also be prevented with engineering. Landslides involve a balancing act between forces of friction holding the rock in place (i.e. soil and its material, tree roots and plants, etc.), and the forces of gravity pulling it down. As a result, added weight such as homes, water in soil, and other factors make landslides more likely. In addition, a steeper slope causes the forces in the y-direction to overpower those in the x-direction (i.e. weight force wins) and makes landslides more likely. However, engineers have used methods such as drilling into the ground to help friction forces and decreasing slopes to prevent landslides.
Last but not least, as shocking as it may be, California even has volcanoes—yes, volcanoes. I did not realize that many large mountains are active volcanoes, but—here’s a fun surprise—they are! Mammoth mountain, my favorite ski destination, has had its fair share of seismic activity and potential volcano explosion warnings. Volcanic explosions involve a good deal of fluid dynamics and depend mostly on the viscosity and water content of the earth underneath.
Though I initially envisioned a class on natural disasters to be, well, disastrous, I was shocked to discover all the applications of engineering and how exciting these learning topics were. This field combines passions for the environment and climate change (as this only makes disasters worse), and the mystical history of natural disasters as random occurrences outside of human control. If you have any interest in these topics, seismology and related fields may be a great option to explore!
*A note: one of the biggest takeaways of my class has been that disasters are everywhere! Education on disaster preparedness—especially for earthquakes—is important, but California has some of the best research and funding in this field so don’t stress about this!