Lately, I keep hearing this question: Are there more big events happening now than is normal, or are we so well connected through digital media that it only seems that way?

First, I’d like to point out that these ideas are not mutually exclusive. Recent upheavals in Egypt are unprecedented in our time. Even in the 1980s, the 2010 Haiti earthquake that killed an estimated 222,570 people would have been news, as would have the recent earthquake/tsunami in Japan and the ensuing nuclear panic.

What has changed is our ability to instantly charge our vision with footage on demand, our ability to donate to causes immediately, and our ability to communicate about current events. But that doesn’t change the facts.

To illustrate this, I have taken one aspect of recent phenomena that is getting a lot of attention: Earthquakes.

The yearly worldwide average for earthquakes that register between 7.0 and 7.9 on the Richter scale is 15. In 2010, there were 21 quakes at that intensity. So far in 2011, there have been eight. We’re past the halfway point in terms of the average, but we’re only four months into the year. Check out Graph 1 below, keeping in mind that the red line at 15 is the average for quakes between 7.0 and 7.9.

I want to be very clear that this isn’t some 2012, ohmygodit’stheendoftheworldeverybodyrun doomsday paranoia. There are times when there is more going on than others. That’s the reason the average of quakes of this magnitude is 15 and not eight or ten. There are years and periods when more earthquakes than average occur and years when fewer occur. Earthquakes are quantifiable. Statistics exist, making it possible to compare data year by year, month by month.

A year in recent memory comparable to 2010 in terms of earthquakes was 1995. There were 18 earthquakes that year between 7.0 and 7.9, and two that measured 8.0 or above. Still, the first earthquake measured by the USGS at above 7.0 didn’t happen until April 7 of that year, in the Tonga Islands, and there were no recorded casualties.

Earthquakes don’t have to measure above 7.0 to cause significant damage and loss of life. The reason I chose 7.0 or above is that we can easily see differences year to year. The 2010 earthquake in Haiti that claimed so many lives measured just 7.0. When this sort of thing happens in an area with a high population and poor infrastructure, the results are tragic.

It seems we measure the intensity of an earthquake in terms of the cost it may represent in human lives (see Graph 2 below). It’s not surprising that the majority of earthquakes in a given year are not international news. Many of them occur in the ocean or in areas where populations are small and remain unremarked upon.

Though the Sumatran earthquake and ensuing tsunami killed more people than the more recent one in Haiti, it’s the Haitian one we remember. Did you know that 228,802 people were killed in the Sumatran earthquake of 2004? I feel a little bad about myself saying that I didn’t, but until I started researching this piece, I didn’t. I’d love it if readers would comment on this to get a general idea of public knowledge about this earthquake.

So, the questions still remain: Do we know so much about the Haitian earthquake because of changes in the media? Is our awareness of it affected by our interconnection? Has the media changed the way it covers news in the last six or seven years? Is it Haiti’s proximity to the US media machine that made for such extensive coverage of the Haiti quake?

And there are more questions not examined here. For instance, although the Haitian quake is part of the world consciousness now, have we all moved on? Have the uprising in Egypt, the chaos in Libya, the more recent quake in Japan, and other recent events made what happened in Haiti old news? Do we stop caring when a crisis is no longer front page news? Or do we reach a saturation level that makes us look for something new?

For many, it’s easy to ignore the continuing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and perhaps that’s because it’s been going on for so long now that people just think, “Not that again.” News is a profitable business, and websites, TV, and the print papers that remain need to be attractive to readers so they can be attractive to advertisers. We tune in and move on and there’s plenty to move on to.

As far as earthquakes go, they tend to occur in clusters. While we are going through a period with higher than average instances of big earthquakes, it doesn’t mean that things will continue this way forever. 2010 and 2011 (so far) are big quake years, which statistically means that in upcoming years, we should see fewer quakes.

So, is there more going on now, or are we just more connected? My answer is: Can’t it be both?


GRAPH 1: Earthquake frequency by year

The red line on the graph represents the average. There is more going on in the last 16 months than is average.

Photo: woodleywonderworks, graphic: Kate Sedgwick. All earthquake information for this article and the charts in it comes from the USGS.

GRAPH 2: Earthquake death tolls by year since 1990

You can see here that the Haiti earthquake of 2010 compares only to the Sumatra earthquake of 2004 which was the most intense earthquake recorded since 1900, measuring at 9.1 on the Richter scale and killing 228,802 people.

Photo: Carlos Castillo, graphic: Kate Sedgwick. All earthquake information for this article and the charts in it comes from the USGS.