Flirting with Disaster

Technological advancements and a relative abundance of wealth
(at least in the West) keep modern humans at a comfortable mental
distance from their vulnerability to the elements. So when a wall
of water surges up and wreaks havoc, as happened in Asia in 2004
and again in New Orleans this summer, part of our horror arises
from the realization that newfangled gizmos that should have been
able to predict (and help cope with) a massive natural disaster
ultimately failed to do the job.

While humans will always be at the mercy of nature’s most
violent upheavals, geologists have noted that more careful
monitoring could have mitigated the human devastation in Asia in
2004. And observers have long known that New Orleans was in a
hurricane path; the city’s date with destruction was only a matter
of time. Extreme natural events with probabilities of occurrence
far below 1 percent in any single year approach 100 percent in the
long run, writes Bill McGuire, Benfield Professor of Geophysical
Hazards and director of the Benfield Hazard Research Centre at
University College London, in Prospect (June
2005). McGuire believes humans need to pay closer attention to the
possibility of global geophysical events, or gee-gees, as he calls
them.

So what catastrophes lie in wait for us? Here’s a beginner’s
guide, based on McGuire’s research, to the gee-gees of the future
and how to prepare for their inevitable appearance.

Mega-tsunami (up to 10 times bigger than 2004 tsunami)
Frequency: Once every 10,000 years
Cause: Giant underwater landslide or collapse of
island volcano or a giant comet hitting the ocean floor
Effect: Complete transcontinental coastal
devastation. Likely annihilation of more than one dominant coastal
city. Global economic upheaval.
Prevention: Careful monitoring of precarious rock
formations and sea volcanoes; careful monitoring of space debris
that might be headed toward the Atlantic; as much advance warning
and evacuation time as possible once a shift occurs or a comet
collision appears imminent.
Best Bet: Follow the animals to the highest hill
and hold on tight.

Major earthquake (McGuire predicts that the next big quake will
strike the heart of Tokyo)
Frequency: Once a century
Cause: Shifting tectonic plates
Effect: Widespread mayhem. If a major quake hits
Tokyo, the physical damage will be local, but the global economic
damage will be daunting. Tokyo is home to 30 million people (a
quarter of Japan’s population) and two-thirds of the country’s
industrial giants. While Tokyo rebuilds its financial core, other
markets will take a serious hit.
Prevention: Begin looking for ways to make the
planetary economy more resilient to the financial chaos that would
be caused by a Tokyo quake.
Best Bet: Wise financial structuring and
preparation in the world economy; personally, you should diversify
your investment assets (and buy Sony products while you still
can).

Volcanic supereruption
Frequency: Once every 50,000 years
Cause: Subduction caused by shifting along
tectonic plate boundaries
Effect: Widespread devastation will be caused by
pyroclastic flows and fast-moving swatches of debris, but what
qualifies a large volcanic eruption as a gee-gee is the huge cloud
of sulfur-rich gas that is released. Wind spreads the gas, which
reflects and absorbs solar radiation, across the planet. Dramatic
cooling of the troposphere and a 5- or 6-year volcanic winter will
follow. Result: steep population decline, global agricultural
disruption, and exponential rise in seasonal depression.
Prevention: This one is pretty tricky. Volcanoes
cannot be drained or vented to ‘let off steam’-the energies stored
within are too great. Nor can unstable volcano sections be
dismantled bit by bit; even with the best equipment, that process
would take 10 to 35 million years.
Best Bet: Careful monitoring and evacuation
plans.

Asteroid (.5 mile+ in diameter) collision with dry land
Frequency: Once every 600,000 years
Cause: Space debris
Effect: Obliteration of an area the size of
England; huge death toll; atmosphere packed with enough dust to
cause cosmic winter.With advance warning of a decade or two,
technology would be able to throw an asteroid headed toward Earth
off its course.
Best Bet: Keep our eyes on the skies and continue
to improve our asteroid-nudging technology.

Slowdown or shutdown of the Gulf Stream
Frequency: Ongoing
Cause: Accelerated climate change
Effect: The pattern of circulation in the north
Atlantic is already changing, and meteorologists predict
significant weakening by 2100. Without the warming effects of the
Gulf Stream, the entire Northern Hemisphere will cool. This will
trigger a series of unnatural events such as a ‘little ice age,’
failure of the Asian monsoon season, and widespread drought.
Prevention: Prevention is no longer an option; the
damage is being done, and getting worse, as we speak.
Best Bet: Adapt as best we can, modify our energy,
transport, and agricultural policies to cope with bitter winters
and shorter growing seasons.

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