Whether we’re considering corking the top of an erupting volcano, erecting a wall to guard against a tornado or pumping water into a fault line to stop an earthquake, humanity’s solutions are often shortsighted and sloppy.
“All of these ideas sound like they took their cues from the physics of a Looney Tunes cartoon,” said Peter Brannen, a science writer and author of “The Ends of the World,” a book about Earth’s mass extinctions. “And things don’t tend to work out well for the characters in those cartoons.”
“I think it’s human nature to be insufficiently humble in the face of the natural world, about its complexity and its ability to overwhelm,” he added. “We should be humbled before we embark on any crazy, harebrained schemes like nuking a hurricane.”
That urge to recklessly problem solve is the extension of another human reaction to disaster, said Lucy Jones, a leading seismologist, veteran of the U.S. Geological Survey and author of “The Big Ones: How Natural Disasters Have Shaped Us.”
“We don’t believe things are actually random. So when they are, we have to come up with some reason for it,” Jones said. “We are very driven to find solutions. That’s a human thing."
When we’re scared, we often rush to do this, she said. The results are ... not pretty.
They sometimes remind Jones of a scene from the 1978 “Superman” movie, when the hero burrows into the ground beneath California to seal the San Andreas Fault, which has set off earthquakes after taking a hit from a Lex Luthor missile. She remembers watching the film with a group of other scientists and laughing so hard they were asked to leave the theater.
When she hears some proposals for preventing earthquakes (or hurricanes), she said, all she can do is chuckle — although one idea kicked around 50 years ago could have had grave consequences.
In the early 1960s, the U.S. Army decided to dispose of more than 150,000 gallons of nerve gas by drilling a well deep into the Colorado earth and pumping the toxic waste into it. Soon after, earthquakes began breaking out in the Denver suburbs. The implication was tantalizing: if they could figure out how to set off small earthquakes, maybe they could do so selectively, thereby relieving seismic pressure and preventing “The Big One.”
“They actually proposed this idea, to drill wells and pump in water and trigger small earthquakes along the San Andreas,” William Bilodeau, chair of the geology department at California Lutheran University, told VCReporter. “And they got fairly far along in the planning process and then people began to say, ‘Wait a minute — what happens if we set off a really big earthquake?’ ”
We should know by now, Jones said, that we can’t stop earthquakes, we can’t stop plate tectonics. And if we keep trying, we might just make them worse.
“There are a lot of cautionary tales,” she said. “When we get in there and try to mess with it, it we don’t understand the complex system well enough to actually pull it off.”
One such scenario would surely unfold if anyone tried some of the suggestions that volcanologist and science journalist Robin Andrews has heard bandied about, he said. People most often ask about three ways of dealing with volcanic eruptions: somehow plugging the top of a volcano, drilling beneath it and sucking out its magma and — an American favorite — just bombing it.
He’s never heard of the first two being used, he said, and for somewhat obvious reasons. If a volcano is stopped up, the pressure will still build and will eventually burst out from somewhere else.
“It will come out one way or another,” Andrews said. “If it’s going to erupt, it will erupt.”
If anyone were able to successfully extract magma — in itself a Sisyphean task — the impossible next question would be: What to do with it then?
In the 1930s and 1940s, however, the U.S. Air Force did indeed bomb Hawaii’s Mauna Loa, attempting to disrupt the flow of molten rock and protect the surrounding population. In short, it didn’t work. Either time.
“I’d love to go back in time and hear the discussion,” Andrews said. “You get the impression that someone was like, ‘We might as well try.’ ”
Good, old-fashioned American hubris, at it again.
“People think we’re so powerful as a species that we can just sort this stuff out by bombing it,” he said. “But I can’t think of a single instance in human history when that has worked.”
A 2014 paper applied another increasingly popular American solution to tornado threats in the Midwest and Plains states: build a wall. Or several walls, rather, strategically placed to break up the air flows that develop into devastating tornadoes. But they would have to be so comically tall — nearly 1,000 feet, or almost twice the size of the Washington Monument — that the idea is impractical at best.
After the paper’s publication, a graduate student at North Carolina State University wrote a rebuttal study that found the proposed walls wouldn’t break up tornadoes, they would simply redirect them, potentially creating a new Tornado Alley.
Such is the law of unintended consequences.
Trump, whose own history with science includes his colorful and vehement denials of climate change, has also taken on other types of natural disasters: notably, wildfires. Last year, he won international mockery for suggesting that Californians — then recently ravaged by the deadliest and most destructive blaze in state history — should rake their forests to prevent fires. Just like Finland.
The Finnish president denied talking to Trump about large-scale raking efforts, and the reality of California’s wildfire problem is much more complex. It’s also made much worse by a changing climate’s hotter temperatures and drier land. A real solution will take much more than rakes, experts have said. However, clearing debris on the forest floor is a much better way to prevent fires than, say, a nuclear bomb is to prevent a hurricane.
Such tactics ignore the fact that humans are a part of nature, not in contest with it, Brannen said.
“I think we will be in a battle with nature for as long as humanity sees itself in opposition to nature rather than embedded in the systems of nature,” he said. “It’s going to be a war with nature until we lay down our arms.”
On Monday evening, Trump repeated his denial that he had suggested nuking future storms. Such an idea, he said via Twitter, would be “so ridiculous.”
And on this point, he and the scientists agree.
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