Keiran's World World by word by word

Tracking earthquakes in a bowl of miso soup

miso soup, by Michael Ocampo: www.facebook.com/coolmikeolntwk

  Nov 10, 2012

There’s a ritual we go through every time we eat at a Japanese restaurant.

It starts when the miso soup is brought to the table. Nature Boy gives his a swirl with his chopsticks. Then he reverently bows his head over the bowl in silent contemplation.

This is no memorial ceremony for Japan’s recent natural and nuclear disasters. The ritual predates those events.

No misguided adaptation of the Japanese tea ceremony.

Nor is this grace.

No, this prayer-like pause is Nature Boy’s version of veneration for the geologic forces that shape our planet.

So it does, in a way, relate to the earthquake in Japan, and the ties between this coast and that coast. Ties that extend far beyond and deep beneath the more than two dozen Japanese restaurants that operate downtown and the hundreds of students who cross the Pacific every year to study English here. Ties that physically bind this island to those islands in the form of massive crustal plates underlying the ocean floor.

It also relates to the recent earthquake in Haida Gwaii.

For, as I have been informed—repeatedly—in every bowl of miso soup, the same thermodynamic forces that churn Earth’s interior and move continents across the surface of the planet convect clouds of soybean paste and shift shredded wakame and chopped scallions.

In every bowl of soup, a demonstration of plate tectonics.

Those same forces caused the Haida Gwaii trembler, and the recent earthquakes in Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, Chile, Alaska, off the coast of Indonesia, around the Pacific Ring of Fire and elsewhere.

The soup itself represents Earth’s mantle, the region of the planet’s liquid interior between solid crust and solid core. The micro-curd miso suspended in the liquid enables The Interested Observer (a.k.a. Nature Boy) to identify convection currents within the soup. Soup at the surface, exposed to restaurant air, cools more rapidly than soup deeper within the bowl. Cool fluid is denser than hot fluid, so it sinks—gravity having its inexorable way. Hot fluid is less dense, so as the cooler liquid sinks, the hot stuff rises to the surface, where it subsequently cools, densifies, and sinks. And so on.

The cycling fluid creates troughs and wells, and pushes the soup’s floaty bits around the surface. Nature Boy gets particularly excited when a piece of seaweed wedges beneath some chopped scallion. He is sure to point out—yet again—the similarities to the Juan de Fuca Plate being driven under the North America Plate in the Cascadia Subduction Zone beneath Vancouver Island.

And I point out the similarities to how my cornea subduct under my eyelids when I roll my eyes.

“That,” he says, “is not at all the same.”

Pause.

“Okay, it is sort of the same.”

But a soup bowl is no crystal ball. No way to foretell a trembler’s timing, location, scale, or scope of impact exists. The October 27 earthquake caught Haida Gwaii residents by surprise. Tsunami alerts followed. Fortunately, despite the earthquake’s 7.7 magnitude, minimal damage occurred and only small ocean waves materialized.

Better to issue a warning when you’re uncertain than to wish you had afterwards.

New technology may provide some predictive potential. The seafloor-sensor network operated by NEPTUNE Canada, the Victoria-based underwater ocean observatory, and the instruments the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute installed this year above the Cascadia fault monitor seafloor deformations. The sensors will provide minute-by-minute information about what is happening beneath our feet and off our shores.

If the data are analyzed quickly, they just might enable some warning of The Big One when it comes. Measurements of the fault zone where Japan’s earthquake happened revealed slow, small slip occurring two days before that quake. Seafloor monitors also detected movement. Unfortunately, the data weren’t analyzed in time to provide notice. Nor could anyone have known slow, small slip foretold a 9.0-magnitude shakedown in that case, or the size of the subsequent tsunami.

Greater warning might have made tremendous difference. It might mean all the difference for us.

Perhaps—just perhaps—we’ll have enough warning to gulp our soup and dash for stable, high ground.

 

A version of this article appeared in the  Victoria Times Colonist.

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