Tornado in Missouri: Why disasters are becoming more frequent, and what we can do about it.

The state of the universe.
May 13 2011 5:56 PM

The Century of Disasters

Meltdowns. Floods. Tornadoes. Oil spills. Grid crashes. Why more and more things seem to be going wrong, and what we can do about it.

A half-mile wide twister tore through Joplin, Mo., on Sunday, killing nearly 100. The tornado was one of 68 reported across seven states this weekend. Unfortunately, this century will be a time when natural disasters and failures of human design go hand-in-hand. As Joel Achenbach explained earlier this month in the article reprinted below, we've engineered a planet that works well but is susceptible to catastrophic failures. 

Illustration by Rob Donnelly. Click image to expand.

This will be the century of disasters.

In the same way that the 20th century was the century of world wars, genocide, and grinding ideological conflict, the 21st will be the century of natural disasters and technological crises and unholy combinations of the two. It'll be the century when the things that we count on to go right will, for whatever reason, go wrong.

Late last month, as the Mississippi River rose in what is destined to be the worst flood in decades, and as the residents of Alabama and other states rummaged through the debris of a historic tornado outbreak, physicists at a meeting in Anaheim, Calif., had a discussion about the dangers posed by the sun.

Solar flares, scientists believe, are a disaster waiting to happen. Thus one of the sessions at the American Physical Society's annual meeting was devoted to discussing the hazard of electromagnetic pulses (EMPs) caused by solar flares or terrorist attacks. Such pulses could fry transformers and knock out the electrical grid over much of the nation. Last year the Oak Ridge National Laboratory released a study saying the damage might take years to fix and cost trillions of dollars.

But maybe even that's not the disaster people should be worrying about. Maybe they should worry instead about the ARkStorm. That's the name the U.S. Geological Survey's Multihazards Demonstration Project gave to a hypothetical storm that would essentially turn much of California's Central Valley into a bathtub. It has happened before, in 1861-62, when it rained for 45 straight days. The USGS explains: "The ARkStorm draws heat and moisture from the tropical Pacific, forming a series of Atmospheric Rivers (ARs) that approach the ferocity of hurricanes and then slam into the U.S. West Coast over several weeks." The result, the USGS determined, could be a flood that would cost $725 billion in direct property losses and economic impact.

While pondering this, don't forget the Cascadia subduction zone. That's the plate boundary off the coast of the Pacific Northwest, one that could generate a tsunami much like the one that devastated Japan in March. The Cascadia subduction zone runs from Vancouver Island to northern California, and last ruptured in a major tsunami-spawning earthquake on January 26, 1700. It could break at any moment, with catastrophic consequences.

All of these things have the common feature of low probability and high consequence. They're "black swan" events. They're unpredictable in any practical sense. They're also things that ordinary people probably should not worry about on a daily basis. You can't fear the sun. You can't worry that a rock will fall out of the sky and smash the earth, or that the ground will open up and swallow you like a vitamin. A key element of maintaining one's sanity is knowing how to ignore risks that are highly improbable at any given point in time.

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And yet in the coming century, these or other black swans will seem to occur with surprising frequency. There are several reasons for this. We have chosen to engineer the planet. We have built vast networks of technology. We have created systems that, in general, work very well, but are still vulnerable to catastrophic failures. It is harder and harder for any one person, institution, or agency to perceive all the interconnected elements of the technological society. Failures can cascade. There are unseen weak points in the network. Small failures can have broad consequences.

Most importantly: We have more people, and more stuff, standing in the way of calamity. We're not suddenly having more earthquakes, but there are now 7 billion of us, a majority living in cities. In 1800, only Beijing could count a million inhabitants, but at last count there were 381 cities with at least 1 million people. Many are "megacities" in seismically hazardous places—Mexico City, Caracas, Tehran, and Kathmandu being among those with a lethal combination of weak infrastructure (unreinforced masonry buildings) and a shaky foundation.

Natural disasters will increasingly be accompanied by technological crises—and the other way around. In March, the Japan earthquake triggered the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant meltdown. Last year, a technological failure on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico led to the environmental crisis of the oil spill. (I chronicle the Deepwater Horizon blowout and the ensuing crisis management in a new book: A Hole at the Bottom of the Sea: The Race to Kill the BP Oil Gusher.)

In both the Deepwater Horizon and Fukushima disasters, the safety systems weren't nearly as robust as the industries believed. In these technological accidents, there are hidden pathways for the gremlins to infiltrate the operation. In the case of Deepwater Horizon, a series of decisions by BP and its contractors led to a loss of well control—the initial blowout. The massive blowout preventer on the sea floor was equipped with a pair of pinchers known as blind shear rams. They were supposed to cut the drillpipe and shear the well. The forensic investigation indicated that the initial eruption of gas buckled the pipe and prevented the blind shear rams from getting a clean bite on it. So the "backup" plan—cut the pipe—was effectively eliminated in the initial event, the loss of well control.

Fukushima also had a backup plan that wasn't far enough back. The nuclear power plant had backup generators in case the grid went down. But the generators were on low ground, and were blasted by the tsunami. Without electricity, the power company had no way to cool the nuclear fuel rods. In a sense, it was a very simple problem: a power outage. Some modern reactors coming online have passive cooling systems for backups—they rely on gravity and evaporation to circulate the cooling water.

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