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20 Jul 15 13:37

Within the last several weeks, the number of news articles going into dark and scary places has been relatively high. On July 7th, Esquire released an article titled, "When the End of Human Civilization is Your Day Job," detailing the despair that many climate scientists feel daily because the decades and decades of scientific research are going unheeded. The reporter talks to many who believe we've surpassed the point of no return for our planet, like, "Guy McPherson, a biology professor at the University of Arizona who concluded that renewables would do no good, left his job, and moved to an off-grid homestead to prepare for abrupt climate change." Just the title of the article, although the full prose presents numerous points of view, does leave one with a sense of emptiness that maybe we've done too much damage.

Esquire's article was promptly followed by an article which presented a much different (and far less likely) extreme scenario. The Telegraph published an article with the headline of, "Earth heading for a 'mini iceage' within 15 years." The article featured an analysis performed by solar researchers at the University of Northumbria who modeled fluid movements of the sun which are known to have an impact on our weather. The researchers claim that by the 2030s, solar activity will be so low that we'll observe freezing conditions, similar to the late 17th century, the Maurnder Minimum, for at least a decade. For those who thought the winter of 2014/15 in the eastern United States was bad, this is a nightmare. During the Maurnder Minimum, the River Thames froze over for seven weeks. This analysis is, of course, fodder for climate change deniers, like Senator James Imhofe, who disproved climate changeby bringing a snowball onto the Senate floor back in February (it's worth noting that most scientists believe human-induced climate change will offset any lull in solar activity. 2015 is on pace to break global temperature records, thanks to the on-going El Niño in the Pacific).

Given that we can't forecast earthquakes, like we can forecast the weather, analyses which focus on large, disruptive earthquakes are almost more disconcerting. Everyone, including the officials in the state of California, knows California is at risk from earthquakes. However, California is not the only earthquake prone state in the US. A new report released by Swiss Re, "Four earthquakes in 54 days," finds that if the 1811/1812 New Madrid earthquake sequence recurred today, affecting the cities of St. Louis, Memphis, Nashville, Little Rock and Indianapolis, insured losses alone would be USD 150 billion, far in excess of any previous disaster.

Perhaps the most startling report in all that's come out in the last few weeks is the feature by the New Yorker titled, "The Really Big One," published in July 20th issue. The tagline of the article is, "An earthquake will destroy a sizeable portion of the coastal Northwest. The question is when." The article paints a dire picture for the Pacific Northwest, located on the seismically active but recently quiet Cascadia subduction zone. Subduction earthquakes, like the 2011 Tohoku earthquake, are the most powerful on earth, and, like in Japan, trigger massive tsunamis which arrive quickly, destroying all in their paths. The Pacific Northwest was developed before the existence of the Cascadia subduction zone was widely known, and FEMA's current operating assumption, now that the scientific community better understands the capability of the Cascadia subduction zone, is that, "…everything west of Interstate 5 is toast," in the event of a large earthquake and ensuing tsunami. "Everything," includes Seattle, Portland, the state capitals of both Washington and Oregon, and approximately 7 million permanent residents.

To put it mildly, this is scary stuff; end of days, an iceball Earth, a series of earthquakes disabling the Tennessee Valley, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake and tsunami upending the Pacific Northwest. After reading these, one might expect to look out his or her office window and see the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse running down Park Avenue.

However, it's important that the relevant information in these reports not be buried under "worst case scenarios," and "gloom and doom," headlines so commonly seen in today's media. What is real in all these reports and analysis? What's real is the climate is changing, unquestionably, and we, as a species, are contributing immensely to that change. What's real is that the New Madrid seismic zone or Cascadian subduction zone can rupture at any time, and the longer these fault systems go without producing large earthquakes, the closer we are to the next, "Big One." Our planet, now approximately 4.5 billion years old, has been benevolent to us as species during both our biological and societal evolutions. No Ice Ages, limited to no abrupt climate change, and few paradigm shifting earthquakes and volcanic eruptions have facilitated our advancements, but the status quo is not always going to be present. This is particularly true in the case of extreme weather events, whose frequency and severity is projected to change due to human activities. But the solution isn't to cross our fingers, hope for the best and ignore the changing tides. Instead, it is imperative to embrace our own resilience and prepare, through adaptation and mitigation. Oyster beds, coral reefs and mangroves are basic examples of green infrastructure which can both protect storm surge exposed locations against extreme events and contribute to ecosystem diversity and health. Simple building retrofits done by homeowners in earthquake zones can reduce damage and limit the lngth of time residents are displaced. Earthquake insurance, whose penetration is currently very low in the Pacific Northwest, can help affected individuals and governments get back to their lives sooner.

One day, Mother Nature is going to lob an event at us, as a species and society, which will break homes, businesses, lives and hearts. But our broken hearts and lives can be mended more quickly if we take advantage of the time now to take the steps that we can to prepare for and mitigate the effects of any extreme event, from a hurricane to an earthquake.


Category: Climate/natural disasters: Climate change, Disaster risk, Earthquakes, Resilience

Location: Seattle, WA, United States


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