Her institute has published a map showing the social vulnerability to disaster of every county in the United States. It’s a resilience map that takes into account such things as poverty, age and the percentage of people with special needs. The five most vulnerable U.S. counties or equivalent areas are, in order: the Bronx; the Wade Hampton Census Area, Alaska; New York (Manhattan); Buffalo, S.D.; and Daniels, Mont.
A couple of weeks ago in Washington, the American Geophysical Union held a science policy meeting on “mega-disasters.” A routine earthquake or hurricane isn’t a mega-disaster, but a solar flare knocking out the grid for two years would be. Or the Yellowstone caldera having a full-scale eruption (last happened 640,000 years ago). Or an “atmospheric river” causing 45 straight days of monsoonal rain in California that turns the San Joaquin Valley into a bathtub 300 miles long and 20 miles wide (such a thing put Sacramento under 10 feet of water in 1861-1862).
The archetypal mega-disaster is an asteroid impact. Until this year, scientists had always said, reassuringly, that no human being in recorded history had ever been hurt, much less killed, by a rock from space. Then came Feb. 15. Just as scientists were looking in one direction, toward an asteroid scheduled to pass close to the Earth that afternoon, another one, undetected, emerged from the glare of the sun and exploded in the atmosphere over Siberia. More than 1,000 people were reportedly hurt by broken glass and other damage caused by the shock wave.
“We citizens of Earth are essentially flying around the solar system with our eyes closed,” former astronaut Ed Lu, head of the asteroid-hunting B612 Foundation, testified earlier this year at a Senate hearing. Asked by a senator what would happen if a 1-kilometer-wide asteroid hit the Earth, Lu said, “That is likely to end human civilization.”
But maybe there are hidden agendas in the room. Asteroid-deflection could be a good business for someone looking for a big government contract.
For a true oracle of doom, one turns to Bill Maguire, a British volcanologist, who sees the planet as essentially one big disaster waiting to happen and whose latest book, “Waking the Giant,” says climate change could result in more earthquakes and tsunamis. Earth’s crust, unburdened by ice, is still rising. Things break. Things lurch. He suggests that “many potentially hazardous geological systems may be teetering on the edge of stability.” A gentle nudge could trigger catastrophe.
“Unless there is a dramatic and completely unexpected turnaround in the way in which the human race manages itself and the planet, then future prospects for our civilization look increasingly grim,” he writes.