Doom is a growth industry. There are credentialed scientists who talk of Atlantic hurricanes becoming as powerful as Pacific typhoons. They tell of Antarctic ice shelves disintegrating, glaciers melting everywhere and open water at the North Pole. Global warming could shut down the Gulf Stream, throwing Europe into its own private Ice Age.
Dig into the literature and you'll read about 100-year droughts on the Great Plains, dry spells so extreme they make the Dust Bowl look like a brief break in the humidity. There are tales of islands sliding into the sea and spawning tsunamis 150 feet high, racing across the sea at the speed of a jetliner.
Even today, in the background, you hear a sound: Mount St. Helens is rumbling. Volcanoes are the calamities that we tend to forget until suddenly something blows, like Mount Tambora in Indonesia, which exploded in 1815 and led to the fabled year without a summer.
An earthquake last month on the San Andreas Fault registered 6.0, just strong enough to remind California that the Big One is somewhere out there, that the North American and Pacific tectonic plates are groaning and straining and aching to slide past one another, and will do so someday with a tremendous jolt. And that might not even be the worst U.S. quake: that could come on the New Madrid fault, near St. Louis and Memphis, where the earth moved so dramatically in 1811 and 1812 that the Mississippi River changed course.
And then there are Florida hurricanes. Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne represented a run of bad luck with a whiff of weirdness -- like, it wasn't supposed to be possible. Like the rules had changed. There are those who say we're getting punished for our fossil fuel addiction. William Calvin, a scientist who warns of sudden, cataclysmic climate change, says, "It's a good example of what global warming will look like, which is to say, violent storms."
Nature commands humans to adapt or die. The natural world keeps erupting, shifting, storming, collapsing, whirling. It refuses, despite our entreaties, to become something dependable and constrained and rational.
Calmly, coolly, we must ask the hard question: Is this planet getting a little too dangerous?
The Secular NOAA
Conrad Lautenbacher, the man the U.S. government has put in charge of the weather, doesn't seem worried a bit. He's got the cool nerves of a technocrat, the heart of a sailor. He's the administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), has commanded ships as a vice admiral in the Navy, has a doctorate in applied mathematics from Harvard, and he isn't about to be intimidated by a little wind and rain and the occasional growling volcano.
He is an adaptationist.
"In the winter we heat our houses, in the summer we run around in T-shirts. . . . It's why we're the most invasive species on the planet," he says.
Adaptation is the can-do response to the perils of climate change and other global upheavals (disease, invasive species, resource crises, etc.). Lautenbacher assumes we'll find a way to survive and thrive, though it will take hard work, and ingenuity, and perhaps a passel of new satellites and sensors that can help us understand the Earth.
"I want to wire the world. We want to be able to give the world an MRI. We want to take the pulse of the planet," he says.
This is a dramatic shift from the historic strategy in regards to natural disasters, which was to pray a lot. Catastrophes were seen as acts of God. Today they are more likely to be seen as cyclical and somewhat predictable events whose effects can be minimized. Death tolls from such things as earthquakes and hurricanes have dropped dramatically in the developed world. Homes are sturdier, flood control is more advanced and we are less likely to see the kind of disaster that befell South Florida in 1928, when a hurricane drowned more than 2,000 people in the towns along Lake Okeechobee, with some victims frantically climbing trees only to be bitten by the water moccasins who also took refuge there.
The highest risk factor in disasters is being poor. The four storms that hit Florida may have destroyed thousands of mobile homes, but they killed fewer than 100 people. Hurricane Jeanne by itself killed about 2,000 people in Haiti, and left an additional 300,000 homeless. The Haitian countryside, denuded of forest, proved no match for the inundating rains, and the residents in their hovels watched helplessly as their surroundings turned into a torrent of water and mud and debris.
"Tell me, what's more important here, climate change or poverty?" asks Patrick Michaels, a University of Virginia professor of environmental sciences and a leading climate change skeptic.
The dislocations and agricultural crises projected by many climate scientists would not necessarily cripple a nation with deep pockets. But poor countries could face famine.
Consider the plight of Bangladesh, where tens of millions of impoverished people already live at sea level, and where a quarter of the land could be submerged in little more than a generation.
"They're simply not prepared, as we are," says Bill McGuire, a professor of geophysical hazards at University College, London. "They're living in shantytowns. Climate change, within a few decades, will be devastating."
There are those who argue that there's really no such thing anymore as a natural disaster. There is only a failure to prepare. Adaptationist errors. One of which might be the refusal to admit that there's any danger at all.
The High Cost of Calamity
Climate scientists are the kind of people who would be reluctant to declare that a drought has officially ended even if they are up to their necks in floodwater. They're not about to make a bold declaration about the fate of the world based on some TV weather stud being blown all over a parking lot on some 24-hour cable network.
Glaciers may be melting at an alarming rate in Alaska, but the sea surface temperature in equatorial regions has risen only slightly in recent decades, about half a degree Celsius, according to Kerry Emanuel, an atmospheric scientist at MIT and a specialist on tropical hurricanes. That's not enough, he says, to make a significant difference in storms at this point in time. "There's no indication that hurricanes today are more intense than they were 50 years ago," Emanuel says.
But then there's Wallace Broecker, a famed scientist at Columbia University, who warns that climate change may happen abruptly, rather than gradually. Ice cores from Greenland show that it's happened many times in the past. Broecker thinks it could be related to a sudden shutdown in the North Atlantic conveyor, the system of ocean currents that carries heat northward and keeps Europe relatively balmy. "We have to have respect for this system we're shoving around," Broecker says.
Regardless of what happens with climate change, no one can dispute that disasters cost more than ever. In America we have the hubris to build luxury homes on barrier islands and coastal floodplains and then claim, when storms blow in, that we're victims of a natural calamity.
The biggest insurance losses have come in the past decade and a half. The second most expensive natural disaster was the Northridge earthquake near Los Angeles in 1994, with about $12 billion in insured losses. The most expensive disaster was Hurricane Andrew, in 1992, with about $15 billion in losses. The four Florida storms this year may collectively top that number.
In the case of Andrew, the damage was a case lesson in adaptability and the lack of it. Evacuations, a highly adaptive move made possible by technology warning of a storm's approach, helped keep the death toll in the low dozens. The storm obliterated mobile home parks but otherwise tended to destroy only the homes that hadn't been built according to code. Nail your rafters together properly and your wood-frame house can survive even a Category 4 monster.
Buildings in California have undergone extensive improvements to make them safer in a quake, but that's not the case along the New Madrid fault in the Mississippi Valley. New Orleans, largely below sea level, remains a prime candidate for a flooding catastrophe. The insurance industry tries to calculate the risks of these events by using "cat models," or catastrophe models. Karen Clark, considered the inventor of the cat model, says a New Madrid quake would probably be the worst U.S. disaster in terms of insured losses, but only because private industry doesn't provide flood insurance and wouldn't be hit by claims in a New Orleans flood.
As the U.S. economy expands and becomes more interconnected with other economies, we become vulnerable to disasters everywhere. An earthquake flattening much of Tokyo would cause an enormous ripple in the world's economy.
"It's a zero-margin society," says William Hooke, a former NOAA scientist who is now with the American Meteorological Society. "Margin is inefficiency, so we're always trying to operate at the edge."
When hurricanes hit Florida decades ago, they tended to wipe out a lot of mangroves. Now they wreck condominiums. Drought in the American Southwest imperils not a small gambling town called Las Vegas but one of the world's most popular tourist destinations. If an earthquake hits Taiwan, it cripples the world's semiconductor industry.
And in the wake of these problems, policymakers aren't always straight with the public. The standard political pitch to the public, Hooke says, is, "You're living in a fantasy world, and I can keep your fantasies alive four years longer than my opponent."
And now, let's talk about serious, white-knuckle calamity.
The respected astronomer Martin Rees catalogues potential horrors in his scary book "Our Final Hour," with global warming-driven catastrophes listed alongside physics experiments gone awry ("a hypothetical strangelet disaster could transform the entire planet Earth into an inert hyperdense sphere about one hundred metres across") and nanotechnological bugs that turn the planet into a lifeless gray goo. Each individual type of risk might be of low probability, but cumulatively, the risks facing the planet are the greatest in our history, Rees argues.
The King of Disaster is surely McGuire, the London professor, who is author of such apocalyptic books as "A Guide to the End of the World."
McGuire writes that global warming will certainly result in more natural disasters, but he is most concerned with freak events such as volcanic "super-eruptions," "earthquake storms" and tidal waves that wipe out entire coastlines. He predicts that global warming will lead to more rainfall on oceanic islands, triggering landslides that, in turn, produce these catastrophic tsunamis. He worries about a possible lateral collapse of a volcano in the Canary Islands, one that could send tidal waves across the ocean, where focusing effects in bays and estuaries might raise the wave heights to more than 150 feet as they head toward New York, Baltimore and Washington.
"The major natural catastrophes are 100 percent certain. The sorts of things Martin Rees writes about may or may not happen," McGuire said in a phone interview.
Humans have no cultural memory, he notes, of the last volcanic super-eruption. It happened 73,500 years ago when a volcano named Toba erupted and hurtled dust and ash 50 kilometers high, to the boundary of space. The ejected material was equal to 100 Mount Pinatubos, he says. The cataclysmic global climate change may have killed all but a few thousand human beings, he said. If it happened again, he writes in his book, "From London to Lagos the law of the jungle would likely prevail as individuals and families fought for sustenance and survival."
Kill or be killed. Adapt or die.
You have to wonder: Will there still be a Weather Channel when we live by the law of the jungle?