ESSAY | There's a prevailing sense in society of being on the verge of a disaster or in the midst of one..
Fires? Tornadoes? Asteroids? How we prepare for looming disaster.
By Joel Achenbach, Published: July 10
The apocalypse will be budgeted. That is our trajectory, anyway: The bureaucratization of disaster. That which cannot be stopped will still be crammed, heroically, onto a spreadsheet. We like to tell ourselves that we're ready for the day when the eschatology hits the fan.
A week after 19 firefighters died in their emergency shelters in Arizona, and just days after a Quebec town was largely destroyed in an explosive train derailment, we're collectively steeled for the next calamity. Death and destruction are carefully enumerated in the modern world. There were 18,200 weather catastrophes (or "loss events") worldwide between 1980 and 2012, totaling $2.8 trillion in losses (in 2012 dollars), including $885 billion in insured losses, according to the reinsurance giant Munich Re. These disasters have killed 1,405,000 people. (Stalin, apocryphally: "The death of one man is a tragedy; the death of millions is a statistic.")
At any given moment you can look at a NASA Web site to see which asteroids have the potential to strike the Earth. There's one called 2007 VK184, for example, that's about 425 feet in diameter. It's a minus-1.57 on the Palermo Scale and a 1 on the Torino Scale. What does that mean? It means that it's very unlikely to hit us when it swings close in 2048, but it's worth keeping an eye on.
At some level, we're all doomsday preppers now. We're part of a paradoxical society that is, in the aggregate, wealthy and powerful, yet feels vulnerable and insecure. The flip side of a cultural sense of entitlement — to life, liberty, happiness and the freedom from accident or misfortune — is the hurt and outrage when something goes terribly wrong.
Our civilization is increasingly like a fine-tuned sports car that is very expensive to fix. It burns too much fuel. It's dangerous to drive. And when it's not in the shop, we're anxious about the slightest dent or scratch.
We have a sense of being constantly on the verge of disaster or in the midst of one. If there's not a disaster in the news, wait a week. There are disasters that come with warnings, and those that appear from nowhere. Bulletin: On Friday, an engineer parked a train hauling crude oil on a hill above Lac-Megantic, Quebec, and went to a hotel for the night. For some reason, the air brakes failed. The unoccupied train rolled for miles, back into town. When it derailed, the explosion leveled much of the downtown, including a bar packed with late-night partyers, and killed at least 15 people, with dozens more reportedly missing. They never knew what hit them.
Perhaps a modern civilization always feels disaster-prone because we're all so connected, with live-streaming video from every part of the globe. There are no faraway disasters anymore.
So the question is: How much of this vulnerability is real, and how much is it some kind of mass hysteria?
We've got our best committees working on that right now.
'Your go pack'
To be alive today is to be forced into nonstop risk analysis. We weigh myriad threats from forces and agents we barely understand, ranging from earthquake faults to viruses and industrial chemicals. We're stuck with anecdotal minds in a statistical world. How should we think about such low-probability, high-consequence, barely comprehensible events, like asteroid impacts or solar flares? How do we prep for doomsday?
Buy batteries, of course. Drinking water. Fill the car with gas. Make sure you have some cash on hand.
"You should have the equivalent of a disaster supply kit in your home and kind of a backpack with essential things in it. Your go pack," says Susan Cutter, director of the Hazards and Vulnerability Research Institute at the University of South Carolina.
Her institute has published a map showing the social vulnerability to disaster of every county in the United States. It's a resilience map that takes into account such things as poverty, age and the percentage of people with special needs. The five most vulnerable U.S. counties or equivalent areas are, in order: the Bronx; the Wade Hampton Census Area, Alaska; New York (Manhattan); Buffalo, S.D.; and Daniels, Mont.
A couple of weeks ago in Washington, the American Geophysical Union held a science policy meeting on "mega-disasters." A routine earthquake or hurricane isn't a mega-disaster, but a solar flare knocking out the grid for two years would be. Or the Yellowstone caldera having a full-scale eruption (last happened 640,000 years ago). Or an "atmospheric river" causing 45 straight days of monsoonal rain in California that turns the San Joaquin Valley into a bathtub 300 miles long and 20 miles wide (such a thing put Sacramento under 10 feet of water in 1861-1862).
The archetypal mega-disaster is an asteroid impact. Until this year, scientists had always said, reassuringly, that no human being in recorded history had ever been hurt, much less killed, by a rock from space. Then came Feb. 15. Just as scientists were looking in one direction, toward an asteroid scheduled to pass close to the Earth that afternoon, another one, undetected, emerged from the glare of the sun and exploded in the atmosphere over Siberia. More than 1,000 people were reportedly hurt by broken glass and other damage caused by the shock wave.
"We citizens of Earth are essentially flying around the solar system with our eyes closed," former astronaut Ed Lu, head of the asteroid-hunting B612 Foundation, testified earlier this year at a Senate hearing. Asked by a senator what would happen if a 1-kilometer-wide asteroid hit the Earth, Lu said, "That is likely to end human civilization."
But maybe there are hidden agendas in the room. Asteroid-deflection could be a good business for someone looking for a big government contract.
For a true oracle of doom, one turns to Bill Maguire, a British volcanologist, who sees the planet as essentially one big disaster waiting to happen and whose latest book, "Waking the Giant," says climate change could result in more earthquakes and tsunamis. Earth's crust, unburdened by ice, is still rising. Things break. Things lurch. He suggests that "many potentially hazardous geological systems may be teetering on the edge of stability." A gentle nudge could trigger catastrophe.
"Unless there is a dramatic and completely unexpected turnaround in the way in which the human race manages itself and the planet, then future prospects for our civilization look increasingly grim," he writes.
It's true that atmospheric temperatures globally have been flat for about a decade. Why? No one knows. Particulate air pollution from coal-fired power plants? A heat sink in the deep ocean? Some natural variability not previously understood? Climate is complicated, and the flattening of the curve is likely to be temporary. Step back and the trend line is clear: The 10 warmest years on record, going back to 1880, have all occurred since 1998. And carbon dioxide is still a greenhouse gas.
There seems to be more extreme weather. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has produced the U.S. Climate Extremes Index. It shows extreme weather going up and down over time, but then spiking in recent years.
Before the recent Arizona disaster, there were killer tornadoes in Oklahoma, including one that grew to more than 2.5 miles in diameter. The Northeast this past winter was buried in a historic blizzard. Last fall, a hurricane named Sandy more than a thousand miles wide killed dozens of people, blacked out much of New York City and caused upward of $60 billion in damage — the costliest disaster since Hurricane Katrina drowned New Orleans. And last summer, two-thirds of the country was in significant drought, inciting comparisons to the Dust Bowl.
The weird-weather issue invariably gets tangled up in the "attribution problem." The best you can do is say that X is consistent with Y. As in: The heat waves that killed thousands of people in Europe in 2003 and Russia in 2010 are consistent with anthropogenic global warming. You can note that storms such as Sandy do more damage because of higher sea levels (they're up about a foot in the past century along New York and Washington, and a bit more in the Gulf of Mexico).
The World Meteorological Organization isn't ready to say the weather is worse, according to a report it released last week titled "2001-2010, A Decade of Climate Extremes":
"It is still not yet possible to make a definite link between the increase in the observed losses [from extreme weather] with an increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme events. Other factors come into play, such as increased vulnerability and exposure of populations and the increase in the number of reports of disasters."
Experts use the word "exposure" a lot. We have more stuff to blow away, more houses to be flooded or crushed.
This is the argument of Roger Pielke Jr., a professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado. A century ago, a hurricane could make landfall in the United States without causing significant damage, other than downed trees, he says. The meteorological record shows eight such no-damage hurricanes hitting the United States prior to 1940, according to Pielke. He says, "There's no place a hurricane can go now without being a huge disaster." But he adds, "We're getting richer faster than the cost of disasters has increased."
Munich Re reports that losses from extreme weather globally have tripled since 1980 — and nearly quintupled in North America, which accounts for 70 percent of insured losses. Peter Hoeppe, head of Geo Risks Research for Munich Re, said the surge in losses is driven primarily by the increase in exposure, but even factoring that in, the United States has seen an unusual spike in damage from "convective events" — thunderstorms and tornadoes.
Here's Chris Field, director of the Department of Global Ecology at the Carnegie Institution for Science, talking about the global economy and the burning of all those fossil fuels: "It's like a big truck driving down the highway and it's dropping nails out the back."
We don't want the truck to stop. But the nails are increasing the likelihood of multi-car pileups in the rear. Maybe it's not such a problem if you're rich and can afford really fancy tires.
Or a tank.
'A bad day'
The planet is steadily being reengineered, in haphazard fashion, without an underlying blueprint or much in the way of quality control, by the one species that wields extensive technology (with all due respect to the chimpanzees who use tools to dig up a termite mound). The Holocene has given way to the Anthropocene. We passed 7 billion in population last year, and we're heading toward 9 billion, maybe 10, before the worldwide decline in fertility in recent years bends the demographic curve back to the horizontal.
And so we await The Great Comeuppance.
Engineers who deal with risk, such as those at NASA, use a common phrase to refer to a hypothetical disaster: "a bad day."
The Challenger explosion in 1986 was a bad day. The Columbia disaster was a bad day. The term is not an attempt to play down the tragedies; it merely recognizes that complex systems have hidden vulnerabilities. There are secret pathways for gremlins. We have to accept this as a reality of engineering and, thus, as a fact of modern life.
There will be bad days ahead. And we'll try to be ready.