Scientist: Recent Natural Disasters Perfectly Normal
HOLLY NOTES: For the record, we agree with the quoted scientist that natural disasters ARE perfectly normal, but we diverge on many points within the article. You'll find notations like this in blue throughout the page to separate my comments from the original article in black. Supporting images and material have been supplied as well.
This article goes to prove that some people will pen anything, skew it to a particular viewpoint and expect people to swallow it unquestioningly. This may be attributed to poor research. For a scientist to say that the rising number of natural disasters is due to better monitoring equipment questions reason.
USGS frequently puts forth the "better monitoring" argument to explain increasing earthquakes. This statement is true IF you're talking about quakes smaller than Richter 6. Richter 6 is the magnitude where less sensitive equipment isn't always capable of picking up seismic activity. However, larger events of mag. 6 and greater are felt over too wide an area and can inflict too much damage to conceal, and would be picked up by weaker seismometers.
Natural disasters are large events by definition - hardly something even the best scientists can hide, no matter how hard the Bush administration tried to silence them. This again may be government's clumsy attempt to keep what's really going on quiet and the credible scientists muzzled. Here a few examples:
HOLLY NOTE: Look at the following graph developed from Munich Re data. Munich Re, the world's second largest re-insurer, would rather see LOW disaster stats. Since re-insurers insure insurance companies, it's their financial solvency that's on the line when disasters strike. Big events like Katrina can wipe out insurers in a blink which is why so many are bailing out on insuring homeowners and businesses. After huge claims on previously insurable natural disasters floods, earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes and such are now shunned by State Farm, Allstate which dropped most earthquake insurance two years ago and other major providers like Citizens in Florida, Quanta, Atlantic Preferred and Lloyd's of London are raising premiums to cover hurricane claims. Many, including Farmer's Ins. try to get out of paying claims. Even the Feds are trying to find wiggle room with the National Flood Insurance Program set to expire in September. It's hard to argue with this Dallas Morning News article: "In Last 30 Years, Natural Disasters Raised Insured Losses by 1500%". As a result insurers have shifted risk to clients and the public. Munich Re's statistics below tell the real story.
That also means the recent Midwestern quake (centered in Illinois) and temblors near Reno, Nev., though unnerving and frightening to locals, were just another day for Planet Earth.
HOLLY NOTE: You'll note that this article's opening salvos address natural disasters of a global nature. However, when it gets to citing specific statistics, it moves to U.S. data. No matter how they try to spin it, the U.S. is not immune to these natural events. The USGS has stated that it's only a matter of time till California, Utah, Nevada, the Cascadia Subduction Zone up into Canada and the New Madrid area all are hit by mighty quakes. In fact, admits USGS, it appears their previous hazard rating has been too low.
Now probably wouldn't be a good time to remind the author about magma surging below Lake Tahoe, which is just a stone's throw from Reno.
WEATHER JUST ONE FACTOR
Disasters don't have to be billion dollar events to cause massive damage. Below are a few examples over the last two and a half decades weather-related only. Earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, pandemics and such wouldn't qualify for this NOAA map, but have the power to inflict great loss.
Mt. St. Helen's 1980 eruption was triggered by a 5.1 earthquake. Lava rocketed down her slopes at 80 mph too fast and too far for victims to escape. Ash shot 12 miles skyward and piled up nearly a foot deep some 10 miles away. Then came the lahars - those horrific unstoppable mudflows.
Before she finished belching, St. Helen's killed 57 people, destroyed countless wildlife and millions of fish, wiped out over 45,000 acres of trees, and ended up costing nearly $1 billion. Since the U.S. ranks third in the world for most active volcanoes, it's just a matter of time before another one awakens. (See Prudent Places USA.)
A look back at events in 2007 serves to remind just how wild this world routinely is. EM-DAT, the OFDA/CRED International Disaster Database, tracks natural disasters in which either 10 or more people were killed, 100 or more people were affected, a State of Emergency was declared, or there was a call for international assistance.
In the United States in 2007, EM-DAT tallied four such tornado disasters, five winter storms, seven floods, two wildfires and a drought in various locations.
HOLLY NOTE: Yes, 2007 was remarkably quiet after two back-to-back "years from hell" 2004 and 2005. In 2004, hurricanes were responsible for the year's most costly weather events. Combined Jeanne, Ivan, Frances and Charley killed nearly 200 people and cost taxpayers over $48 billion. That was just a warm-up for the next year.
2005 brought four unforgettable hurricanes: Wilma, Dennis, Rita and Katrina. Together they killed over 2000 people and racked up an unprecedented $170 billion in damages. No one will ever forget Hurricane Katrina or the disastrous effort put forth by FEMA and its then director Michael Brown.
To top it off, another calamity struck that same year: the Spring-Summer Midwest Drought. This drought primarily targeted Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, Ohio and Wisconsin. Hardest hit were corn and soybean crops with losses over $1.1 billion.
Non-EM-DAT events included six U.S. hurricanes and 2,789 earthquakes of which 80 were 5.0-magnitude or greater, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
HOLLY NOTE: NOAA statistics further show that the US is seeing an earlier start to tornado season as well as a decided uptick in events.
*The NOAA's National Severe Storms Laboratory states that the US, on average, sees about 1,000 tornadoes in any given year. The NWS' 10-year running average shot up considerably when 1,817 twisters hit in 2004.
This pushes the 10-year number to a distorted average. Even taking this into account, the graph speaks for itself.
THE APPEARANCE OF A CLUSTER
It might look and feel like the recent disasters worldwide are a cluster of events that could be related, but scientists say they aren't.
"It's totally random," said Peter Kelemen, a geologist at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in New York.
Kelemen this week told the story of anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski, who detailed the thinking of Trobriand Islanders in his book, "Magic, Science, and Religion" (1948).
"He said the distinction between magic and science for those Trobriand Islanders was that for magic you only count confirming cases," Kelemen said. "And so, say you had this idea that earthquakes occur right before or after volcanic eruptions, so when that happens you notice and you put a notch in your stick or whatever. When there is earthquake that doesn't occur with a volcanic eruption, you don't notice at all or say there must have been mitigating circumstances in this case."
Scientists can fall into the same trap.
"Scientists do an awful lot of what Malinowski would've called magic all the time," Kelemen said. "We filter data and come up with reasons why our [results] in one instance are not correct and that allows us to overlook that instance. Nevertheless, it's a trap."
Kelemen suspects people are struck by similar coincidences in nature and "probably don't make a note of it when there is an earthquake and no volcano. It is only when these things are happening clusters that it makes an impression on you."
He pointed out that you can use a computer to generate random numbers and plot them graphically and see patterns and clustering. Clearly though, there is no natural or scientific phenomenon behind those figures.
MORE DISASTERS THAN USUAL?
The number of reported natural disasters globally has been on a fast rise since the 1960s. EM-DAT disasters are up from about 120 in 1980 to more than 400 in 2007.
|HOLLY NOTE: On the graph below, using EM-DAT's raw data to compute the global natural disasters, it shows an unmistakable upward trend.
But the increase has nothing to do with the planet.
Rather, the rise is the result better monitoring and reporting of natural disasters, said Charles Mandeville, a volcanologist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
And the actual number of people killed worldwide by natural disasters has been relatively small (under 500,000 per year) since the 1960s, compared to previous decades in the 20th Century, when death tolls sometimes exceeded 2 million or even 3 million, according to EM-DAT.
That drop is the due to better building codes and preparation, Mandeville said.
"And we've done a much better job of evacuating people that need to be evacuated the evacuation of Chaiten, Chile, [this week] being a good example," he said. "We know now that maybe 30 kilometers is a reasonable evacuation distance for a volcano that is erupting explosively from what we have learned from Krakatau [in 1883] and Montserrat [in 1997] and Mt. Pinatubo [in 1991]."
The 1982 eruption of El Chicon volcano in Chiapas, Mexico, helped planners learn about the hazards of volcanoes that have glaciers on them, he said.
"We're starting to learn not only recognizing the precursors to certain things like volcanic eruptions," Mandeville said. "We're trying to get to that state of affairs with earthquakes by mapping out where strains are very high and also trying to build buildings that will withstand a moderate-magnitude earthquake."
Many past fatalities owed to people going back to partially damaged buildings, which then collapsed or experienced fires related to natural gas pipeline breaks.
THE LOCATION FACTOR
The ongoing Reno rumbling and the Midwest earthquake last month spared human lives, unlike the disastrous cyclone in Myanmar, where the death toll could exceed 100,000, according to the latest reports.
"Mother Nature can be cruel especially when human nature is careless and unprepared," Patzert said. "The Earth is very dynamic. People forget that [about] cyclones, typhoons and hurricanes some years are active, some years are not."
The latest natural events are a wake-up call and reminder that Earth is dynamic, he said.
Many homes and businesses are now built in coastal and earthquake-prone regions.
This shows a "disdain for the power of nature," Patzert said. "She's still in charge."
For this reason, if the Indonesian tsunami of 2004 had happened half a century ago, it would've killed some 30,000 people, rather than nearly 300,000, Patzert said.
Copyright © 2008 Imaginova Corp.