Sep 21 9:00 PM

3 natural disasters we're expecting

A boy crouches under a desk during an earthquake drill at Central Elementary School in Albany, Ore. The April 24 drill was part of a celebration of the school’s seismic upgrades, funded by a special grant through the Seismic Rehabilitation Grant Program managed by Oregon Emergency Management.
Oregon Emergency Management

The biblical floods in Colorado this week were both extensive and devastating. They were also expected.

“We’d gone over 14 years without a big flood. Based on our climate history, I was very concerned about that,” says Nolan Doesken, the state climatologist at Colorado State University, who is also responsible for tracking the state’s flood history. “We usually get a very big flood every decade.”

While the flooding was far greater than Colorado's once in a decade events, it was in line with a 50-year flood, or less, University of Colorado geography professor John Pitlick told a room full of students and academics last week, the Los Angeles Times reported

In 2004, the University of Colorado’s Natural Hazards Center listed a flash flood in Boulder as one of six “disasters waiting to happen" in the U.S., reports The Christian Science Monitor, and emergency officials had been preparing for such an event since 1976, when a flash flood killed 144 people.

"The damage was devastating," says Doesken. "... But it was remarkably small considering how much of the city is really close to the river."

This wasn’t the only act of God forewarned by man. Four years before Hurricane Katrina drowned New Orleans, Scientific American declared the following: “A major hurricane could swamp New Orleans under 20 feet of water, killing thousands.” Hurricane researcher Ivor van Heerden also cautioned for years that the levees were ready to blow.

Which begs the question, what natural disasters are researchers predicting right now? And are we heeding their warnings?

A cataclysmic earthquake and tsunami will strike the Northwest

A lesson on earthquake response at Central Elementary School in Albany, Ore.
Oregon Emergency Management

Deep off the coast of the Pacific Northwest, the earth is churning. This region, known as the Cascadia subduction zone, is responsible for the occasional earthquake that ripples through Washington and Oregon, and also blew the lid off Mount St. Helens in 1980. But the last time this fault line really ruptured was the evening of Jan. 26, 1700, when European cartographers left this corner of this earth blank. There are hints of this event in the legends of Native Americans who settled around the area, and the Japanese noted the wreckage left by the tsunami that ripped across the Pacific in its wake.

University of Colorado researchers determined that there is a 40-percent chance of something of this scale in the next 50 years.

That earthquake is estimated to have had a magnitude somewhere between 8.7 and 9.2 -- roughly the same size as the Tohoku earthquake that killed almost 1,600 people in Japan in 2011. Evidence shows that the Cascadia subduction erupts into a great quake like this around every 500 years. In 2012, University of Colorado researchers determined that there is a 40-percent chance of something of this scale in the next 50 years.

The Oregon state earthquake commission published a 290-page report in February, which described the dire fallout at current levels of preparedness, including more than $30 billion in losses and up to 10,000 deaths.

“We have a saying, ‘geology is inevitable,’ in a very planetary sense,” said Art Lerner-Lam, deputy director of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University. “The planet doesn’t care how the human race is developing.”

So far, efforts are focused on seismic retrofits for schools and public works.

“People want to know that their children are going to be safe in a disaster scenario,” said Cory Grogan, the public information officer for the Oregon Office of Emergency Management. Since 2009, the state’s OEM has upgraded more than 18 public safety facilities and 20 schools. Jay Raskin, who helped draft the state’s resiliency plan, told Oregon Public Broadcasting that 8,000 children are now protected -- out of 300,000 at risk. And while this earthquake could strike in 25 or even 200 years, it could also strike next week.

“In some ways we're prepared,” says Grogan. “And in other ways it’s a race against time, because we don't know when it's going to happen.”

Another Sandy-level surge in the Northeast

Joseph Leader, Metropolitan Transportation Authority vice president and chief maintenance officer, shines a flashlight inside New York's South Ferry 1 train station after Sandy.
Craig Ruttle/AP

Hurricane Sandy was a freak occurrence, a 1 in 100-year event, according to one NASA analysis released in July. But leading storm researchers say the whole East Coast will face a battering in the coming years. Because sea levels are rising at an accelerating rate, there doesn’t need to be a storm the size of Sandy to create Sandy-scale damage.

The waters around New York, which have climbed around an inch per decade for the last century, are set to soar six inches per decade. By mid-century, according to New York City officials, as many as 800,000 New Yorkers could be living in a flood plain.

“When you raise the floor of a basketball court, you’re more likely to make a basket,” Lerner-Lam said. “Even if you’re shorter than the center of the team.”

While the East Coast is vulnerable, Isaac Ginis, professor at the Graduate School of Oceanography at the University of Rhode Island, said the Northeast “is very vulnerable, because we have a very built up coastline, with significant real estate.”

In New York City, that includes large industrial waterfronts in the outer boroughs, a low-lying financial district and an extremely vulnerable subway system.  

Saturday marked the 75th anniversary of the Great New England Hurricane, which made landfall in Long Island as a Category 3, killing more than 500 people. Using 2013 dollars, the storm cost an estimated $4.7 billion in damage.

“If that storm would come ashore today, it would be an estimated $50 billion of damage,” Ginis said. “...It’s not a question of if, it’s a question of when.”

Enormous efforts are underway to better flood-proof New York City in particular. In June, Bloomberg proposed a detailed $20 billion program that includes wetlands, floodwalls, levees, reinforced dunes, retrofitted buildings and bulkheads to hold shorelines in place. That cost is only slightly more than the estimated damages and economic loss from Sandy, the report states, and all but $5 billion of the funds are already allocated from federal and city coffers.

Droughts, droughts, droughts

Ranch owner Mike Ratliff, who sold 75 percent of his lifestock because of drought, looks up to the sky while standing next to his empty hay barn in Colorado City, Texas.
Jae C. Hong/AP

At its peak last summer, more than 65 percent of the contiguous U.S. was in drought, according to the 2012 National Drought Forum report, making it potentially one of the top three costliest natural disasters of the last three decades. And drought continues to ravage the Great Plains. Tree rings show that these aren’t the worst droughts North America has ever faced, and there are comparable periods in the last century. It’s also very difficult to model droughts, since there are so many factors at play. But heat is one of those factors -- shrinking snowpacks and parching soil -- and the world’s becoming a hotter place.

Last summer was a record-busting scorcher for most of the country. “Previously, one of the years during the Dust Bowl, ‘34, was the previous hottest year, and we thought that was an outlier… We surpassed a record we didn’t think we’d pass for generations.”

Last year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change mapped out the predicted dryness across the world in the 2030s, and the Great Plains are thirstier than during the Dust Bowl. Researchers like Richard Seagar of Columbia’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory say this will become the new normal.

“Drought is a nagging disaster,” said Doesken, the Colorado climatologist. “Floods are a much easier to get your hands around -- something bad happens and then you do something about it… Droughts don’t kill people, although people have committed suicide.”

Government agencies are focused on better forecasting and coordination, so that water, in times of scarcity, can be allocated more smartly. A recent U.S. Department of Agriculture report examined ways farmers can adjust their production practices to minimize crop loss, such as more crop diversity and less wasteful use of irrigation. Private industry has invested hugely in developing tougher hybrid seeds, and recently put seeds engineered specifically to be more drought-tolerant on the market.

It isn’t just farmers who are impacted. The Colorado River basin provides drinking water to the equivalent of the population of Canada, and a 2012 Colorado River Basin study says need has already outstripped supply, with a further 8 to 9 percent reduction in flows by 2060. Environmentalists are advocating more water conservation and reuse, but there is skepticism as to whether this can keep pace with development.

“If at some point the water runs out, then yes, we have to ask ourselves, can we support the number of people who are living there?” Lerner-Lam said. “How many people can resources in particular regions support? Are we asking that question correctly?”


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