Running Scared: Observations of a Former Republican
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"Losing my faith in humanity ... one neocon at a time."

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Learning from (ancient) history

posted by Jazz at 12/28/2004 07:35:00 AM


There is a simply excellent piece in the New York Times today by Dennis Smith, a geologist and retired firefighter from California. The title is "When Nature's Wrath is History's Reminder" and it was spurred by the recent earthquake and subsequent disastrous tsunamis in Asia. He provides a wealth of information about other parts of the world where similar (or even worse) disasters are simply waiting to happen, and how we are not taking steps to prepare for such events.

The subject of what can possibly happen on earth is simply too big for most of us to handle if we are to continue to be an optimistic race. And so we hope for the best. Yet there are some things we should be thinking about in a more serious manner. There are facts that we should not let pass into an obscure scientific history, for remembering them will undoubtedly help ensure a safer future for all on our planet. This is harder than it sounds.

The author also reminds us that we shouldn't be surprised to see such activity in that area of the world. Sumatra has seen worse problems, though you have to look at the area in terms of geological time, rather than the relatively short sight of human lifespans.

Yet the single worst explosion in our known geologic history - an eruption of a 20-by-60-mile caldera some 71,000 years ago - occurred on Sumatra, just 100 miles from the epicenter of Sunday's earthquake. The earlier eruption left a 10,000 square-mile sheet of volcanic rock, more than a thousand feet thick, and so filled the sky with ash that it probably created our last ice age.

Here's one that hits closer to home. (Or might hit.) The chilling part is that he says this event is not a matter of "if" but "when."

The possibility of great landmasses falling into the ocean is always with us, and recently scientists found vertical fault lines through a volcano on La Palma, one of the smaller and more westward Canary Islands. The volcano has a crater about five miles wide and a half-mile high, and erupts about every 200 years. The last eruption was in 1948, but the newly discovered fault lines have convinced some scientists that eventually the huge crater will break apart and slide into the ocean, bringing more than a half-trillion tons of rock with it.

Since tsunamis are created in proportion to the amount of land that has fallen into the water, this event would likely create a wave mass never before known to written history, many times bigger than the wave at Lituya Bay. The wave would diminish a little as it crossed the Atlantic, but if it hit the Atlantic Seaboard it could be higher than the skyscrapers of Boston, New York, Washington and Miami. Scientists do not know if it will take one, four, or 10 eruptions to separate the landmass, only that the separation is inevitable.

The only good news is that volcanoes usually send signals before they erupt, and it would take eight hours for the wave to travel from Africa to the United States' eastern shoreline. It is not sufficient time, however, to move all the people who would be in its path. In any event, surely the mountain on La Palma should be reduced in size, to lessen the impact should it ever slide into Atlantic. But, who will pay for such a huge reduction of a landmass?

I suppose the real question is, if there are so very many massive threats from the planet lurking all over the globe, where do we start? If we start tearing down the mountain in La Palma to prevent that huge tsunami, how comforted will we be when an earthquake tears open New York City and half of the skyscrapers come down? (There's a fault line, according to the author, running right under 125th St. in Manhattan. Someday it's going to give.) The worst earthquake in our nation's recorded history wasn't in San Francisco. It was in Mississippi. Only people didn't notice it as much because in 1811 there weren't many people living there, and the ones who were lived primarily in log cabins that stood up well to earthquakes. Now millions of people live in cities there.

Ah, the dangers of living in Coastopia. I suppose the only comfort we can take is in hoping that the big one hits Jesusland around the Big Muddy first.