The Washington Post

Disasters everywhere

I have a story in the works on disasters, and it ponders the question of why there seem to be so many disasters these days. I’ve been reading about the Lac Megantic train derailment and explosion. Air brakes fail, unmanned train rolls downhill. Gravity in charge now. It’s hauling North Dakota crude to a refinery in New Brunswick. Did the people in that Canadian town know they were living next to an industrial artery? Do any of us know what’s on the rails, or in the trucks barreling down the freeway? Andy Revkin has a fine piece about the dangers of long-distance oil transport by rail, saying that pipelines are safer.

My story will tell you that Munich Re has compiled data on “weather catastrophes” between 1980 and 2012, and determined that there were 18,200 of them. They caused $2.8 trillion in losses (2012 dollars), and 1,405,000 fatalities. Insured losses: $855 billion. (Seventy percent of the insured losses are in North America, but only 4 percent of the fatalities.)

Munich Re is having a briefing this morning on catastrophes in the first half of the year, but I have to miss it because I’m going to listen to people talk about asteroids — potential disasters, though mostly of interest now as a target for a NASA human spaceflight mission.

Of all the disasters I worry about, the ones caused by humans concern me the most. War in particular. I hope the world wars of the 20th century never regenerate themselves in the 21st, and I think they won’t, simply because we’re all so connected now, and so invested in each other. But these are still perilous times. I admit that I’m confused about what is happening in Egypt, and what, exactly, the U.S. would like to see happen. Obviously something other than soldiers killing scores of protesters. It looks like a political disaster at the moment.


Joel Achenbach writes on science and politics for the Post's national desk and on the "Achenblog."



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Joel Achenbach · July 5, 2013

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