Earthquake News

Why It's Important to Prepare the Planet for Disasters

Focusing exclusively on the immediate dangers is not the best course of action in today's interconnected society.

Today, catastrophic news spreads nearly instantaneously. With journalists on the site, government organizations providing information, and social media (for better or worse) tweets and the like quickly sharing photographs and videos, we learn about major earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and typhoons in close to real-time.

We live in a time where horrific occurrences on the other side of the world (or even the country) can appear disconnected from your own life despite all the rapid news distribution. We are often under the impression that local events will have the most influence on one's existence, it is a totally typical human reaction. While this is the case in many situations, it is no longer realistic in our connected world.

Thinking about the duration and time periods of natural hazards is a necessary first step before considering the effects of disasters and how we perceive them. The length-scale of each hazard and the frequency with which it can have a major negative effect vary from one risk to the next (the timescale).

Disaster's Timeline

The duration of various calamities can be gauged simply by monitoring the news. The weather-related events that occur the most frequently each year include earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, droughts, and floods. If we apply this to phenomena like human climate change, we will be dealing with tragedies that take place over a period of years to centuries. We're talking millennium periods here, so extend it to include global Ice Age cycles.

Large enough to cause disasters, geologic occurrences like earthquakes and volcanic eruptions often occur over periods of years to centuries. On a decadal or half-decadal timescale, there are typically more truly disastrous earthquakes than destructive ones each year. We can also include tsunamis in this category, despite the fact that very destructive tsunamis may only happen once every few decades or so. Only a few weeks or months may pass between destructive events and landslides.

Although eruptions may be similar, we might consider very big eruptions that might occur globally every few centuries to every 10,000 years with volcanoes. On millennial or longer timeframes, we can even take into account including changes to the Earth's magnetic field as potential geologic hazards.

Large comet or asteroid impacts appear to occur over a period of thousands to millions of years, particularly those that could have catastrophic consequences. In the last 10,000 years, we have undoubtedly had some major but not fatal effects. Other astronomical dangers including gamma ray bursts, solar outbursts, local supernovae, and more occur on timescales that we haven't precisely defined but are most likely in the hundreds of thousands to million year range.

Regional, Local, and Global

A natural hazard's potential impact region varies greatly. One example of a destructive tornado's path across a landscape is when a few hundred feet across are completely destroyed. Another example is when a landslide destroys a row of homes at the bottom of a slope. Cities and areas extending hundreds of square kilometers can be entirely destroyed by earthquakes and eruptions. Large tracts of land could be destroyed by hurricanes, typhoons, and tsunamis that strike a continent's coast (and all the islands off shore).

On the other hand, a large-scale asteroid impact could bring about an impact winter that would have an influence on the entire globe. The same may be said for modifications to the Earth's magnetic field or for gamma ray bursts that would irradiate the entire planet.

People may remark that living somewhere means you are "asking for it" because of the wide variety of length-scales that exist—local, regional, and global. When you reside in Los Angeles, have you experienced damage from an earthquake? You anticipated that it would occur. On Cape Hatteras, a cyclone wiped away a house? You should have anticipated it. This causes those in places where disasters are less frequent to feel that they have "disaster superiority," which reduces empathy for those who are directly afflicted.

However, if the COVID-19 pandemic (yet another form of disaster) has taught us anything, it is that things that happen in distant places can nonetheless affect those who are not directly affected by them. Due to the pandemic, China abruptly stopped all industrial production, which had an impact on global supply chains. Gas prices rise when hurricanes hit the US Gulf Coast because of the disruption to the refining capacity. Despite being in the middle of the North Atlantic and far from any populated areas, the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull in 2010 had a disastrous effect on air traffic over most of the Northern Hemisphere.

Big catastrophes that once seemed far distant are no longer feasible in our more industrialized society. Many people didn't learn about the Tambora eruption for months (or more) after it occurred, which may have contributed to the "year without a summer," crop shortages, sickness, and possibly revolt. They would experience the effects prior to understanding what caused them. Imagine the effects of such an eruption now, more than 200 years after that eruption, on a world where crops in one area provide food for a substantial portion of the population, and how fast we would all learn about this dramatic event taking place.

How Disasters Affect Us

But then what can we do? These kinds of natural disasters aren't actually things we can prevent from happening. We won't practice using a nuclear bomb to "blow up" a hurricane or release pressure from a volcano. It's possible that humans will be able to divert an asteroid in the twenty-first century, but it is still science fantasy. The global impact of a sufficiently massive hazard is obvious, but we are still falling behind in our readiness for such an occurrence.

We must pay attention to all occurrences, including the smaller, more frequent, and local ones. Because the "Big One" that could destroy the Pacific Nortwest wouldn't be felt in the Midwest, you could argue that someone in Ohio shouldn't be concerned about Washington's disaster readiness. However, you would see the economic damage very away if that region of the country were to be cut off for a few weeks or longer.

Possibilities include leaving low-lying nations to fend for themselves in the face of climate change—rising sea levels or more powerful typhoons—and watching what occurs. Some individuals may dislike these natural disaster victims as a result of the sudden influx of migrants from these regions, which can drastically and permanently alter those areas. Although the average Ohioan won't ever have to worry about the Atlantic Ocean lapping up to their property, many people who have their homes damaged may decide to relocate there to escape the relentless waters.

What this boils down to is the need to build in resiliency for disasters on a local, regional and global scale. All the citizens of Earth, especially in countries with wealth, need to realise that disasters are not far-flung events anymore and that we need to prepare ourselves and those far away from these events. Continuing to act like only we can compartmentalise preparedness to what you have direct contact will lead us to more calamities like COVID-19 or much, much worse.

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