Author Topic: Lookback: Shock-and-awe English in 2013 Bohol earthquake reportage  (Read 11355 times)

Joe Carillo

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This retrospective to my Forum critique of the domestic media reportage of the 2013 Bohol killer earthquake is simply a cautionary note on the jitters fanned by the Intensity 6.2 earthquake that struck Batangas and parts of south Luzon yesterday, August 11, 2017.*

There’s no doubt that the Bohol killer earthquake on October 15, 2013 was a horrendous cataclysm, but I think some of the media reportage about it has been terribly amateurish and, at worst, misleading. I’ll analyze from a language standpoint just two descriptions of that earthquake by two major Metro Manila dailies.


Here’s Description #1:

“An earthquake with energy equivalent to ‘32 Hiroshima bombs’ jolted the Visayas, and parts of Mindanao and southern Luzon early Tuesday morning, causing centuries-old churches and modern buildings to crumble, disrupting power and phone services, setting off stampedes and killing at least 97 people.

“The nuclear bomb dropped over Hiroshima, Japan, on Aug. 6, 1945, packed power equal to 20,000 tons of TNT.”

That description is actually a paraphrase of this generic statement of Dr. Renato Solidum, Phivolcs executive director, in a televised briefing: “A magnitude 7 earthquake has an energy equivalent to around 32 Hiroshima atomic bombs.” What that newspaper did was to directly equate Dr. Solidum’s estimate of the seismic energy theoretically released by a magnitude 7 earthquake with the real-life destructive power of the Bohol earthquake.


I’m sure that Dr. Solidum meant well in trying to give media and laymen a sense of the immense energy unleashed by that earthquake. I must say though that his comparative mathematics just evoked sensational but misleading imagery that some media people were only too glad to latch their news stories on. Indeed, I think that although his natural science and mathematics are beyond reproach, it was most unfortunate for him to make that comparison in his briefing.

The most problematic aspect of Dr. Solidum’s comparison is that the energy released by the Bohol earthquake was largely in the form of seismic waves that caused the ground to shake perilously, thus demolishing or damaging so many infrastructures and killing scores of people over a wide swath in the Visayas; in contrast, the Hiroshima bombing was a massive explosion and firestorm in just one city.

Specifically, based on historical accounts, that blast was equivalent to 16,000 tons of TNT with an estimated total destruction radius of 1 mile or 1.6 kilometers, killing 70,000–80,000 people and injuring 70,000 others.

So, although ostensibly of the same magnitude, the forms of energy released by the two cataclysmic events—one seismic and the other atomic—are different and therefore not comparable at all. We can readily see the fallacy of making them equivalent by imagining 32 Hiroshima-type atomic bombs simultaneously detonating on Bohol and its adjoining islands. The destruction would be unimaginably horrific—truly the end of the world for that part of the archipelago!

This kind of misleading mathematical analogy reminds me of a factoid about the energy produced every second by the Sun—our sun. It’s about a trillion 1-megaton bombs, or, in Dr. Solidum’s mathematics, the energy equivalent of 50 billion Hiroshima atomic-bomb explosions. Yet, despite all that energy unleashed by the sun on Earth and the rest of the planets, humanity has survived over the millennia and has been none the worse for it. (The reason, of course, is that it’s neither seismic nor explosive but radiant energy that reaches us.)

Now here’s Description #2: “The magnitude 7.2 earthquake that struck Bohol and Central Visayas on Tuesday morning is as strong as dozens of atomic bombs used in World War II, the chief state volcanologist said.”

I won’t even bother to analyze this grossly erroneous paraphrase of Dr. Solidum’s comparative imagery. I’ll just point out that historically, only two atomic bombs—not dozens—were used in World War II, one each in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

This is really the problem with esoteric comparative mathematics that experts glibly provide as sound bites for mass media. As in this case, they can lead to all sorts of misinterpretations that only serve to confound or alarm the public. (2013)

This essay first appeared in the column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in the October 18, 2013 issue of The Manila Times, © 2013 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.
*A swarm of earthquakes struck Southern California in the United States (July 5 and 6, 2019, magnitude 6.4 and 7.1) and in southern Philippines (July 9, 2019, North Cotabato, magnitude 5.3).
« Last Edit: July 10, 2019, 11:05:03 AM by Joe Carillo »