Major earthquake in central Caribbean

There was a major earthquake centered  between Jamaica, the Cayman Islands, and Cuba a bit after 2pm ET this afternoon.  At magnitude 7.7, and shallow (10km), it would have been devastating had it occurred on or near land.  Fortunately, the geometry of this event is such that only a small tsunami was generated.  That’s because the rupture was lateral (side to side) rather than vertical (up and down), which would have pushed water out of the way rather than just shaking it (simplified, but close!).  Here’s the impact map … note the worst is offshore, although I wouldn’t be surprised if there was not light structural damage on all three islands. The models indicate economic impact at most of $15 million USD or so.  It was even felt in Miami …

UNNAMED! Winter storm impacting US (Now with ranty goodness!)

There is a big winter storm located in the midwest that will be sweeping through the North East this weekend.  It’s a typical winter storm, inconvenient as always but not unusual or dangerous.  Here’s the situation map as of Saturday at 9am: the background is the MRMS Surface Precipitation Type – red for thunderstorms, dark blue for rain, cyan for mixed (which can be hazardous with ice accumulations), and white for snow.  As always, click to embiggen …

I also need to rant, as I do every year, that WINTER STORMS DO NOT HAVE OFFICIAL NAMES!  There is a certain “weather channel”, who shall go unnamed as well, which started to give winter storms names as a marketing ploy to engage (eg scare) people and try to keep the hurricane hype going into the off season.  A note to journalists: The AP Stylebook guidelines say don’t do it.:

  Major storm names provided by government weather agencies, the European Union or the World Meteorological Organization are acceptable. Do not use names created by private weather agencies or other organizations.

It’s a gimmick. Research shows it doesn’t help preparedness (and may actually harm it). Please don’t contribute to hyping normal weather; save it for the truly dangerous stuff.

Cyclone Tino hit Fiji (17 Jan 2020)

Cyclone Tino has hit Fiji, with winds in the 140kph (87mph, 75kt, or Category 1 on our scale) winds.  This is the second storm to hit the islands in the last few weeks.  Here’s the damage swath map; economic impact is likely in the millions of dollars:

The storm is expected to hit several  islands over such as Tonga over the next few days as it begins to decay, and the north coast of New Zealand will likely see some waves from it.

Fiji does get bad storms from time to time.  Cyclone Winston in 2016 killed 44 people and cause perhaps upwards of $2 Billion in economic impact – a lot for these small islands.

Another strong earthquake in Puerto Rico (Sat, 11 Jan 2020)

Sadly another fairly strong and shallow earthquake has hit the southwest coast of Puerto Rico:

From satellite images this morning before sunrise, it looked like lights were back on along the north west coast as well as around Ponce that had been out since the 7th.  Early word is that power is back out again, and additional structure damage and collapse is likely despite this being a weaker event due to previous, unrepaired damage.  The cumulative impact of the series quakes and aftershocks (and likely aftershocks from this one)  are now estimated at over $3.5 Billion.  Hopefully this series is not a precursor to something bigger.  The region has had M7 and has the potential for even M8 earthquakes.

Please don’t forget about Puerto Rico in all the noise over Iran, Impeachment, and the political horse racing season … yes, it’s a vulnerable place for earthquakes as discussed previously, and of course is in hurricane alley, but that is no excuse for the human suffering being played out down there.

Background on ongoing earthquakes in Puerto Rico

What’s going on with Puerto Rico?  To start with, Puerto Rico is in a very active seismic region. The really short version is that the surface of the earth consists of seven large and a bunch of smaller “plates” – chunks of the earth’s crust that float on the molten mantle below.  These plates are pushed around by plumes of molten material from below. Imagine stuff floating on top of a boiling pot, only in very slow motion, plates only move on average an inch or so a year.  If you want to learn more, here’s the Wikipedia article plate tectonics. All those gigatons of rock moving around builds up a lot of energy, and where they bump up against one another or pull apart, you get mountains and/or oceans, as well as volcanoes, earthquakes, and other neat stuff.  The Greater Antilles (Cuba, Hispaniola – Haiti/Dominican Republic – and Puerto Rico) are in a double subduction zone.  What that means is the region is being “pushed up” as two plates are trying to dive under each other.  Here is a 3d diagram from a recent research paper on the region

The north side, the Puerto Rico Trench, is pretty well understood.  The round of earthquakes we have seen the last few weeks is probably more related to the Muertos Trough to the south, which is not as well understood.

So can we expect more earthquakes?  The short answer is of course yes, but that avoids the key question of “how bad” and “when.”  We just can’t answer that given our state of knowledge about this stuff.  For example, did this round of events dissipate energy along the faults on the Island, and will things calm down?  Or is it just transferring energy and strain into a locked part of a fault that will rupture with a much bigger event?  At this point, we just don’t know.

In any event, please don’t forget the people of Puerto Rico who are suffering from yet another natural disaster. Satellite images from this morning still show extensive power outages across the west and south side of island.  These are our friends, neighbors, and fellow countryman – this situation is unacceptable.

Puerto Rico Earthquakes (7 Jan 2020)

There have been multiple earthquakes along the south coast of Puerto Rico over the last 24 hours, the latest a shallow (10km deep) 6.4 magnitude at 3:24am this morning.  Power is out in many areas, and damage could be extensive in areas from Santa Isabel to Guanica, particularly around Ponce.  We won’t know for sure until the sun comes up and damage surveys can be conducted.

Here are some quick look maps.  Am working on a new integrated seismic damage estimation system, so these are pretty basic … economic impacts are likely to be in the high hundreds of millions to under two billion for both events combined.

Yesterday’s 5.8:

This morning’s 6.5:

Puerto Rico has been hit hard the last few years.  I hope this event and those hurt by it are not get overlooked in all the turmoil over Iran, Impeachment, etc.

Iran, Iraq, and the attack on Soleimani (Updated 6 Jan)

The news that the US conducted a “precision attack”, “preemptive strike”, “assassination”, “act of war”, whatever you want to call it, and killed not only the Iranian General Qasem Soleimani and a PMF leader (perhaps legitimate targets), but a number of Iraqi government security personnel has roiled Near East Asia and put the world on edge for what will happen next. I won’t spend much time discussing whether or not it made any sense to conduct this attack because the reason why it was a bad idea is obvious from the analysis of what might happen next.  But I will say it was an irresponsible thing to do, especially in the where and when it was done.

My position is that overt, public attacks on the leadership of sovereign nations outside of war is highly questionable both from a legal and effectiveness standpoint, and causes more harm than good. There must be a bright line between war and judicial/legal enforcement.  Of course there is a third way – the covert op way – but that’s a different and complex discussion.  I certainly won’t argue that Soleimani wasn’t behind a lot of actions that the US views as terrorism (a term I dislike in this case – what we are seeing is asymmetric warfare conducted by a nation-state).  If it’s that bad (and and argument could be made it is), collect allies, take it to congress, declare war, follow international law, take action.  Here comes the angry rant: In my opinion, in this case any analyst that thought this was a good idea should be fired.  You could put the skull of anyone associated with this operation up to your ear, and you would hear the ocean.  This was next level dumb.  Yes, I’m angry about this because it puts a lot of lives at risk, it violates international law, and compromises the US moral and strategic position both in the region and globally.

My position isn’t based on domestic politics – that’s not an attack on the Trump Administration, because Iran policy has been stupid for a long time, and the concept of assassination by targeted strike in third countries with which we are not at war has been around a long time; in modern times, the Clinton administration used cruise missiles, the Bush II/Obama and now Trump admins use drones. It has distorted US foreign policy, and should stop.  OK, now that’s out of the way, lets gaze into the crystal ball and try to figure out what it means.

Some in the US are hoping on the Iranians “get the message” and back off their support for various proxies around the Middle East; but I think a lot of analysts (not just Republicans, but those on the neoconservative foreign policy wing of the Democrat Party a well) are actually hoping Iran will react directly and give the US an opportunity (excuse) to execute a “regime change” operation.  Only the second has much of any chance of happening – and given the “success” of the last three attempts at regime change operations (Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria) it’s hard to see how an outright war with Iran could play out successfully.

How will Iran react, and when?  My guess is nothing happens until Monday (6 Jan) for several reasons.  First, they will want to exploit the mourning period (three days), and fire up the masses.  Second, they will need time to come up with a plan (or, more likely, decide which pre-planned response to trigger) and implement it.  Finally, they are watching developments in the world, especially Iraq.

I don’t think the Government of Iran will act until they see how the Government of Iraq reacts to the fact that the US violated our agreement on keeping troops in their country, not to mention quaint concepts like international norms and law.  Iran has the high ground diplomatically right now, and won’t want to squander it.  If the US is thrown out of Iraq, its position in Syria is utterly undermined, and much of US containment policy against Iran unravels.  If asked to leave and the US refuses, it will rapidly get bogged down in a major counter-insurgency operation in Iraq that will make actions against Iran difficult or impossible.  Even if, ultimately, Iraq decides not to take drastic action, it has soured the relationship and will make future operations much more difficult. Iraq is a very complex place.  Yes, some are cheering this attack, and others are plotting revenge for them.  But for those in the middle, who don’t really like either the US or Iran, it has placed them in a very difficult position and moved the balance towards Iran.   This is why it was utterly foolish for the US to attack Suleimani on Iraqi soil – especially killing Iraqi security forces in the process.  It totally undermines an already iffy presence and will lead to the US being forced out, or, more likely, bogged down and compromised.

At this point, neither side is in a position to back down unless there are no further incidents by either side, but that doesn’t seem likely, as the US has conducted additional strikes Saturday, and Iran feels it must respond.  Worse, the problem is that Iranian proxies, who have a long personal relationship with Soleimani, may not give Iran time to let things play out.  They may give the US the excuse it needs, and any attack by a proxy will be played as an attack by Iran, even if Iran didn’t want or ask for it.

Most media analysts are discussing this in primarily military terms.  The force structures and objectives are so different, it’s almost nonsensical.  Certainly the US could, at some cost, eliminate the Iranian military in a few days or weeks at most.  Only Russia or China could potentially stand up to an all out assault from the US, and those would be bloody for both sides with “victory” unlikely for anyone but the cockroaches.  But Iran just doesn’t have the technology or resources to stand up to a US conventional attack.  It won’t be as easy as some might think, but Iran has no conventional chance at all.

However,for the most part Iran won’t fight conventionally, even if attacked that way.  Iran could inflict harm on the US via asymmetric means (aka terrorism), but I think this is somewhat overplayed with respect to the “homeland”.  Europe and the Middle East are another matter, and regional disruptions are assured if this escalates.   Those analysts discussing the economic aspects seem to be focused on the impact on Iran, and the fact that the US has enough domestic energy (oil) production to ride out major disruptions in Persian Gulf Oil that would result from an all out conflict. Some would even argue the US would benefit – China is very dependent on Middle East energy, so some also argue it’s a win-win: take out Iran, disrupt China.  That’s probably correct from a narrow view, but this misses a vital point.  Despite stock market trends, the US economic situation is extremely fragile on a number of levels – it would take a very long post just to provide the background on that.

While it is true that US oil production is rather high, it is based on the rapidly diminishing returns from fracking and shale oil.  It might ride out a short crisis – and that may be part of the rush to war, since once the boom ends, the US will again be vulnerable to Middle East disruptions.  But the main problem is how intertwined global economies and credit markets are.  The view that a oil disruption induced financial crisis would remain confined to China or Europe is probably wishful thinking.  If Iran (or proxies) attack Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, disrupting supplies, it may cause the economic dominoes to start falling across Asia and Europe, ultimately impacting the US.  Interestingly Russia would likely be little impacted by all this, in part because of US and European sanctions, which has forced them to insulated themselves somewhat from the Western economic system.  And of course they have significant oil and gas supplies, and could profit from the situation.  A few are making the utterly ridiculous argument that Trump is Putin’s puppet, and because Russia might benefit directly from this conflict they are orchestrating it.  Any serious student of Russian foreign policy would know this is absurd.  Russia has been pushing for stability and stabilization in the region – on their terms, to be sure, but if they were given advance work of the strike (and there is absolutely zero evidence they did) they would have opposed it.

A further revelation came this Sunday, that Soleimani may have been involved in passing messages between Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Iran to de-escalate the conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia in Yemen (and the resulting attacks on Saudi oil infrastructure).    If so, that makes the US strike even more inflammatory and questionable.

So, while the reasons are complex, ultimately the risk isn’t war – bad as that might be for those involved – the risk is that conflict will trigger a major economic crisis.