Japan’s nightmare comes in the wake of two other events that scientists found surprising in their location and intensity: the highly destructive earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand, on Feb. 22, which was triggered by a little-regarded fault; and the tsunami-spawning Sumatra earthquake Dec. 26, 2004, on a trench not considered likely to cause such a “mega-quake.”
It may seem as if there are more natural disasters these days, but the real issue is that there are more people and more property vulnerable to the violent forces of Earth. Natural disasters are supplemented by technological disasters — last year’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico being one example. Disaster planners in the United States have to ask themselves how they would deal not only with the obvious types of calamities — Gulf Coast hurricanes, for example — but also the events that are of low probability but come with high consequences.
“You don’t get to pick the next disaster. You don’t necessarily know where the threats are,” W. Craig Fugate, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said this week as he contemplated Japan’s horrific combination of catastrophes. “We plan for the things we know, but we also plan for the things we don’t know.”
‘The highly improbable’
The term “black swan” was coined and popularized by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, a New York University professor of risk engineering and author of “The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable.”
People debate what qualifies as a black swan. Most alleged black swans turn out to have obvious precursors and warning signs — the Sept. 11 attacks included. Nothing comes out of the blue, truly.
The next big disaster could be something off the radar of most Americans. A solar flare, for example, could trigger a geomagnetic storm that could knock out much of the nation’s power grid. Or an earthquake could hit an East Coast city not generally considered vulnerable to a major temblor. That sounds like paranoia, but mainstream scientists and government officials research such things.
“South Carolina’s got a very significant seismic history,” Fugate noted. “There’s a fault that runs through Charleston, South Carolina, that has devastated that area before.” That 1886 event, with an estimated magnitude of 7.3, killed 60 people and was felt as far away as Wisconsin, Boston and Cuba.