Posted at 01:08 PM ET, 05/16/2011

Is this the century of disasters?

Story Pick


A police patrol car cruises the streets near the University of Alabama where there was massive destruction and several persons killed. (Michael S. Williamson - The Washington Post)
This will be the century of disasters.

Or so says The Washington Post’s Joel Achenbach. After a year in which the Mississippi River experienced what may be the worst flooding in decades, Japan was rocked by the most powerful earthquake to ever hit the island nation, and then a tsunami, and residents of Alabama and other states were hit by a historic tornado outbreak, Achenbach says we’re just getting a started.

He writes in Slate:

In the same way that the 20th century was the century of world wars, genocide, and grinding ideological conflict, the 21st will be the century of natural disasters and technological crises and unholy combinations of the two. It'll be the century when the things that we count on to go right will, for whatever reason, go wrong.

Achenbach makes a short list of disasters we can expect:

1. Solar flares, which could fry transformers and knock out the electrical grid.

2. The ARkStorm, a hypothetical storm that “would turn much of California's Central Valley into a bathtub.”

3. The Cascadia subduction zone, a plate boundary off the coast of the Pacific Northwest that could generate a tsunami like the one that devastated Japan.

Achenbach calls these disasters “black swan” events, events that are both low probability and unpredictable.

He says that they will occur with surprising frequency over the next century, because of the vast networks of technology we’ve built whose failures are harder to predict, and because we have more people living in more cities.

But Achenbach also reminds us to keep things in perspective, knowing that it might feel like there are more disasters than there are because of how fast information is traveling. And he advises we all get a diaster plan.

“Having done that,” he writes, “go on about your lives, pursuing happiness on a planet that, though sometimes dangerous, is by far the best one we've got.”

Read the full story here

Popular Mechanics has a list of the 10 worst disasters of the past century, and what we’ve learned from them, here.

By  |  01:08 PM ET, 05/16/2011

 
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