Chapter 10: So, You're Bored by Doomsday?

Not Just One Great Flood

In 1994, when an earthquake off the Russian coast triggered a tsunami alert in Hawaii, coast guard helicopters hovered over the seashore with bullhorns urging surfers to leave the water and seek safe ground. The surfers refused. They wanted to ‘catch the big one’.

Meanwhile, bewildered tourists thought it was a ‘salami alert’ and swore off sandwiches for fear of food poisoning.

One expert who saw this noted, in a wry understatement, that most people have no idea of what these waves are or the power behind them.

We’re sea-loving animals. More than a third of world population and economic capacity are less than two hundred miles from a coastline. As long as our love affair with the ocean persists, we face the constant threat of mass
destruction by tsunami, hurricane, and sea rise or fall. Still, many of us seem blissfully unaware of the implications.

In the year 2000, discovery of ancient houses hundreds of feet beneath the Black Sea surface gave convincing evidence that, 7,500 years ago, it was transformed from a lake to a sea by a gigantic flood, when a dam collapsed
that had held back the Mediterranean.

If such collapses seem too fantastic or remote to believe, look back only to 1958 in Alaska, when a giant piece of a peninsula collapsed, carrying fishing boats on a titanic wave inland then out to sea again. Several eyewitness accounts, photographic evidence and records gathered by established scientists confirmed this event.

This was the highest wave ever recorded - over 50 times the height of an ordinary tsunami, and taller than any building in the world.

Hawaii and North America’s west coast have long been known to be at risk from tsunami, but most residents of America’s east coast would be shocked to learn that they’re also in the potential path of such a monster. New Scientist writer Tristan Marshall puts it concisely:

“Any day now, a gargantuan wave could sweep westwards across the Atlantic towards the coast of North America. A mighty wall of water 50 meters [150 feet] high would hit the Caribbean islands, Florida and the rest of the eastern seaboard, surging up to 20 kilometers inland and engulfing everything in its path…. The Atlantic wave…will start its journey 6000 kilometers away, when half an island crashes into the sea.”


Chapter 11: An Elephant in the Room of Environmentalism

A sad commonality links disasters such as the Kobe earthquake with destruction of Homestead, Florida by Hurricane Andrew, annihilation of Nicaragua’s economy by Hurricane Mitch, and hobbling of the Los Angeles infrastructure by the Northridge earthquake. In many cases, after emergency relief crews have left, victims are exploited.

For example, the California earthquake insurance system suffered a blow to its credibility when its Insurance Commissioner, whose role was to protect consumers against questionable insurance industry practices, was found by the California State Auditor to have “abused his discretionary authority in the settlement of enforcement actions”
against insurance companies that handled claims from the 1994 Northridge earthquake.

The scandal made newspaper headlines for more than a year. It was especially pertinent because it occurred in one of the wealthiest and most closely regulated economies in the world, rather than, for example, in a developing nation.

Thus, it appears that no one is immune to exploitation after a natural disaster.

Reconstruction is also often botched. In the rush to rebuild, the same mistakes are repeated. Often we fail to take advantage of the openings offered by such disasters to modify the underlying infrastructures that led to the problem in the first place.


Chapter 14: Tools for Diffusing Time Bombs

For millions of years, species have adapted to their environments or perished. Adaptation comes instinctively and genetically. Yet the techno-structure on which we’ve come to depend has evolved so fast that it’s like a powerful but gangly adolescent whose defenses are inept.

We’ve seen how governments, the insurance industry and disaster agencies have spent billions studying climate change, earthquakes, and volcanoes, only to reach a sobering conclusion: our systems are vulnerable to big natural attacks.

In some ways, such disasters are worse than nuclear enemies, because they don’t negotiate. There is no Mutually Assured Destruction to deter one party from attacking another. Asteroids for example are indifferent to the size of our intellect, missile count, or bank account.

Furthermore, rich and poor are in this together. None of the personal wealth today is sufficient to protect someone against big natural catastrophes and subsequent societal disintegration. The Hamptons and West Palm Beach stand square in the path of an Atlantic tsunami for example. Malibu, Santa Barbara, and Monterey on the West Coast are exposed to similar risks from the Pacific. Therefore, wealthy communities are just as exposed.

So how do we cope?

Resilience

In Hawaii, they learned a bitter lesson from giant tsunamis that occasionally rip through coastal cities: we can’t yet affordably build seaside dwellings to withstand hits from such waves. So instead, they began designing the
lower floors of buildings to accommodate the waves, rather than resist them. This also works with tidal surges from storms.

Many buildings have been constructed with flow-though ground floors. When moderately high waves have torn through, upper floors were left intact. Cars in the parking lot don’t do so well, but at least the occupants of the building
are left alive.

This is the difference between Resistance and Resilience. One method tries to stand up against the threat, while the other opens the door to let it pass through unhindered, thereby saving the larger infrastructure.

 

These excerpts taken from Our Molecular Future - Reproduction with written permission only

 

 

"If it doesn't sound like
science fiction, then it's probably wrong."

 

Christine Peterson, President,
Foresight Institute

 

 

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