The disasters you might not think of
If you scan a movie theater tent, chances are you’ll find some kind of disaster story: a killer asteroid, a zombie apocalypse, the moon falls from the sky. Turn on the news and the picture is still pretty bleak as we enter the third year of the COVID-19 pandemic and a changing climate is accelerating hurricanes and wildfires with alarming regularity. But even though we’re inundated with these tales of disaster, many of us are unaware — and unprepared — of some of the biggest potential threats.
We sometimes think of disasters in terms of either natural events (like hurricanes) or man-made events (like an explosion in a nuclear power plant). For disaster experts, however, the boundaries are fluid.
“There are no natural disasters,” says Shanna McClain, disaster program manager for NASA’s Applied Earth Sciences program. Natural hazards such as floods or earthquakes are simply part of the earth’s geological and meteorological processes – even if they are driven by human activity. They are considered neutral events that only become “disasters” when people’s lives and livelihoods are affected.
“We don’t call disasters natural because there are human choices involved,” explains McClain. These human choices can be as obvious as a property developer erecting a building over a known fault line, or as complex and subtle as the systemic injustices that deprive communities of the resources they need to evacuate a disaster area.
When it comes to geological and weather-related disasters, most of us are pretty much aware of what’s going on out there; rather, unknown disasters are those that people have heard about but didn’t know could happen them. For example, we are all familiar with the concept of earthquakes. But millions of people living along fault lines are unaware that their homes may be overdue for disaster. That’s partly because some earthquakes occur cyclically every few centuries — a gap long enough for people to let their guard down.
This long period of time (along with the dismissal of Stories from the Indigenous Peoples of the Pacific Northwest) led to the creation of cities like Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver in a region known as the Cascadia Subduction Zone. In this region, one of the planet’s tectonic plates is pinched beneath another, causing an earthquake every few hundred years that deforms the ground and makes the floor look like a liquid. The last took place in 1700, which means we’re probably overdue for another big shock.
Continue reading: Could a cataclysm have altered the course of one of ancient North America’s most important cultures?
The probability that the Pacific Northwest will be devastated by a magnitude 9.0 earthquake in the next 50 years is about one in ten. For comparison, the earthquake of 2010 on Haiti which killed about 220,000 people, measured at a magnitude of 7.0 on the Richter scale; the scale is logarithmic, so a 9.0 magnitude tremor would be more than a thousand times stronger than a 7.0 magnitude tremor. According to Alex Amparo, a deputy administrator for FEMA’s National Preparedness Directorate, the eventual Cascadia earthquake is “one of the greatest disasters facing our nation.”
A man leaves a restaurant in Port-au-Prince, two days after a 2010 earthquake struck Haiti. (Image credit: Photo Marco Dormino/The United Nations Development Programme, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons)
Though Utah’s Wasatch Fault and the New Madrid Fault along the Mississippi River aren’t as potentially devastating as the Cascadia, big tremors are also due — and they’re nothing to scoff at. When the New Madrid Fault shook in 1811 and 1812, This temporarily caused the Mississippi to flow backwards. Many of the areas at risk from these earthquakes are places that have not experienced severe tectonic action for decades. “When they don’t happen for that long or in a generation, it’s easy to forget you’re in an earthquake zone,” Amparo recalls. “In terms of disasters, these three scenarios keep me awake – very real, very likely.”
Sometimes a natural hazard triggers a cascade of other unanticipated hazards—for example, a hurricane can cause flooding that subsequently leads to a landslide. “It’s not just a hazard,” says Dalia Kirschbaum, director of NASA’s Hydrological Sciences Laboratory at the Goddard Space Flight Center. “It’s a set of impacts that need to be observed, modeled and measured so that we can better contain them.” Her work specializes in landslides, which are often overshadowed in the public consciousness by the major disasters that preceded them.
“We study precipitation-triggered events to understand where and when landslides can occur around the world,” says Kirschbaum. “Unlike earthquakes, which have a global seismic network, and satellites, which can constantly track hurricanes from space, landslides don’t. They’re much smaller.” Rather than looking at optical data from around the world to locate a landslide, she and her team use data on precipitation and topography to identify where there is immediate risk.
Landslides can be deadly, but because they tend to affect smaller areas than, say, hurricanes, and often occur after major disasters, they often attract less attention. But for disaster specialists, they are no less important. “For me, there are no small disasters,” Amparo says, adding that even something that seems small, like a family’s house burning down, can be earth-shattering for the people who experience it. “This house fire is someone’s Hurricane Maria or someone’s Hurricane Sandy.”
A landslide after heavy rain on the Spanish island of Gran Canaria Spain in 2017. (Credit: Thomas Dekiere/Shutterstock)
Many “natural disasters” have their roots in human activity; while hazards like hurricanes are only part of what the earth is doesFor example, human-caused climate change is the culprit behind the increasing severity and frequency of the disasters it causes. But some disasters are more directly the work of humans, whether accidental or intentional.
cyber attacks be able to turn off parts of the internet or stop people from accessing the internet altogether. Hackers do this in two main ways: 1) by sending so many repetitive requests to a server that it crashes, or 2) by breaching a network’s security system and denying access to it. Cyber attacks are able to paralyze economies or deprive people of resources, e.g The oil pipeline network was hacked in 2021. While the attacks, in and of themselves, cause more direct economic damage than physical damage, “the economic fallout can be really devastating,” says Joe Blass, a JD PhD candidate in computer science at Northwestern University.
Naturally occurring phenomena with the ability to shake up our man-made electronic systems could also wreak havoc. Blass says he’s worried about a solar storm the magnitude of 1859 Carrington Event, causing electrical equipment to burst into flames and explode. Luckily it was the 19th century – so most of the destruction was relegated to telegraph wires.
But a similar event today, Blass speculates, could be really bad: “It’s hard to imagine that literally anything with a battery in it, anything with current flowing through it, will explode[ing] into the flames.” And even on a smaller scale, a power outage can be deadly, especially in times of extreme cold or extreme heat. Several hundred people died as a result of the 2021 Texas power outage, Blass notes, and that situation was “entirely man-made.”
Regardless of the origin of the present disaster, experts agree that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Amparo recommends governments and communities invest now, rather than after a disaster — such infrastructure improvements could include moving wastewater treatment plants out of floodplain areas, bolstering power grid infrastructure, and earthquake-resistant buildings.
Volunteers distribute emergency water relief in Austin, Texas to people in need due to outages caused by a 2021 winter storm. (Image credit: Vic Hinterlang/Shutterstock)
Blass notes that improving transit could also help get people out of disaster areas and provide resources: “A high-speed rail system nationwide would ensure that you never really had to worry about the power going out in a whole region.” , because you can bring groceries from other areas,” he says. These infrastructural improvements are particularly important for protecting vulnerable populations; Systemic injustices often lead to People of color are disproportionately affected by disasters and receive less help when recovering from them.
But while we depend on larger systems to make these big changes, personal actions are also important. “Individual computer security is enormous,” says Blass. Changing your devices’ default login credentials, installing spam filters, and choosing unique and long passwords can not only prevent your identity from being stolen, but also help ensure that your device is not unknowingly involved in a larger cyberattack.
Similarly, you should be prepared for the disasters that may occur in your area, put together an emergency kit and staying well-informed about emerging crises can help keep you personally safe. “Prepare to take care of your family in the event of a disaster,” says Amparo. “And then immediately, when you know you’re fine, go to your neighbor. That’s a civic responsibility we must see in every disaster across the country.”