Change Is Nothing New

Thankfully, we have the collective ability to solve the problems it can create

By Mifi Purvis, ’93 BA

Change can take place slowly, nearly imperceptibly, or it can come all at once. If living through a pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that the pace of change and how we cope with it matter.

The Pacific Northwest, from Mendocino, Calif., through Vancouver Island, is a green and lovely landscape. There, in our millions, we settled and built over the course of generations, thinking the area was exempt from the worst of the seismic upheaval that characterized the rest of the Pacific Ring of Fire. But it turns out that violent change is a fundamental feature of the landscape.

In the 1980s, scientists discovered that the whole of written history in the Pacific Northwest has happened in a quiescent period between major quakes, along a line called the Cascadia subduction zone. There were signs. Oral history from Indigenous communities records a generations-ago earthquake, followed by a great wave that drowned whole communities. Written history in Japan documents an unexplained tsunami, unheralded by any Asian quake. And natural history reveals coastal “ghost forests” once thriving but suddenly swamped and drowned, the trees’ death practically time-stamped in the growth rings of the stumps that remain.

This research, pieced together in the 1980s, finally identified a 9‑plus magnitude quake that hit the Pacific Northwest coast on Jan. 26, 1700, says Claire Currie, professor of geophysics in the Faculty of Science. That quake was followed by a tsunami that swept away villages in the area and hours later reached Japan.

People struggle with change, but the pace of it is the real challenge. It’s either too slow or too fast. Like fruit flies, we are born, live and die knowing nothing aside from this season. How do we solve a problem we can’t see coming? Well, research, for one.

Currie explains that study into sediments in the Pacific Northwest provides evidence that violent seismic changes have happened there over and over, and we’re due for another. “Based on the history, the entire margin ruptures about once every 500 years, but there’s variability,” Currie says. “It has happened as little as 200 years and as many as about 800 years apart.”

Now that we know it’s coming, people have begun building and retrofitting public structures like schools, hospitals and bridges with more stringent earthquake protocols. Research has created new seismic detection techniques, Currie says, that reveal new features of the tectonic plate boundaries and the effects of local geology on ground shaking.

Every such discovery aids in a better understanding and hopefully better mitigation.

And we create change as well as predict and endure it. With our sheer numbers and our technology, we’ve altered habitat with farming and settlement, and released toxins into the air and water, accelerating the pace of climate change. Our developments create incursions into wild habitats, increasing our exposure to zoonotic disease. When we lived in small groups and travelled slowly, a disease suffered by one was unlikely to affect others further afield. But now we’re chockablock and a virus can make it from anywhere to your town at the speed of air travel.

The good news is that we are problem-solvers, adapting to cope. We deploy teams of researchers to find answers where we don’t even fully understand the questions, as in the case of hepatitis C. The 1989 discovery of this killer virus has led to treatments and eased the burden of disease, saving millions of lives. This is the reward of basic research. The discovery of the virus by the U of A’s Michael Houghton and his colleagues won a Nobel Prize this year and his imminent vaccine holds further promise.

Of course, hepatitis C is not the virus we’ve been hearing about lately, and Houghton’s lab, which also developed a vaccine for SARS before that 2003 epidemic died out, is working on COVID-19 now, too.

Vaccines and treatments will ameliorate the jarring societal changes we’re experiencing due to the coronavirus. And research might even arrest the next pandemic.

“But why does this pandemic even exist?” asks Don Tapscott, ’78 MEd, ’01 LLD (Honorary), a business strategist and executive chairman of the Blockchain Research Institute. He says we have the technology right now that could have given us early warning.

Imagine if there were a global public health system that alerted authorities that residents in a couple of neighbourhoods in Wuhan, China, were coughing and spiking fevers, or that their oxygen saturation was lower than normal? “If we had the data, we could’ve stopped it, but there were no early warning systems and our health-care data is all tied up in silos,” Tapscott says. It’s possible to gather real‑time health data with wearable technology and to safeguard personal privacy in a blockchain, he says, to broadly and deeply monitor public health.

Tapscott describes our personal data as our most important property and, right now, the only ones benefiting from it are giant corporations. Privacy and information once ran counter to each other, he says, but using blockchain, the technology that underlies many digital currencies, we can provide enough anonymized information to protect the interests of public safety.

“Imagine if all that data were available, in an anonymized way, to epidemiologists, clinicians, government planners,” Tapscott muses. “You could stop a pandemic in its tracks.”

Maybe we’ll manage this in time for the next pandemic, because as surely as the Cascadia subduction zone will rupture, another bug will come along. And while our individual capacity to effect positive change or deal with the negative consequences of change is impressive, our collective ability to solve problems is staggering.

Go Deeper

What if you could get a roadmap of your health just by flushing the toilet? Read how research in precision medicine could help us prepare for future pandemics.

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