Just like disagreeing fifteenth-century ship captains who thought Christopher Columbus was unwise for setting sail west to reach Asia, differing perceptions of environmental conditions have prompted discourse among scientists and even laypeople on the street.
Upon closer examination, the argument that the environment sets insurmountable limits on us is no different than those same debates that have raged across time and space.
It is easy to imagine that during the Ice Age, a group of, say, a dozen people stood on the shores of an icy sea and debated the merits of fashioning paddles to move along the coast in search of fish and seals. In a similar fashion, residents of New Orleans, for example, have disagreed over whether they should move to safer environs or if they should trust the technology that has allowed them to live in a place that is below sea level and virtually surrounded by water. Such has characterized life among humans since the dawn of our existence.
Still, whether in ancient or modern times, people have always wanted to live in places situated on or near water bodies where life is best supported. To some observers, this need is deeply felt and affects us in ways that border on the metaphysical. From such diverse and thoughtful people as President John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) to the English professor and writer Norman Maclean (1902-1990), the mystical draw or pull that aqueous places have on the human heart have been poetically described.
There is nonetheless a delicate dance between living near our source of fluids that carries oxygen and nutrients through our veins and our own demise. As the author of The Forces of Nature: Our Quest to Conquer the Planet [Prometheus Books, $26.00], I invite you to consider that many of the places we perceive to be dangerous are not as deadly as other parts of the planet.
Join me on a journey around the world in pursuit of the deadliest air pollution disasters, hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, tsunamis and floods, while we consider the potential for catastrophic destruction should the world's climate return to its normal state.
New York City On November 12, 1953, a stagnant high-pressure center descended over the Big Apple and lingered for ten days. Sky darkening soot accumulated in the air above the city. The city had a measured sulfur dioxide level that was five times its normal level. Airports were shut down due to poor visibility. Ferry trips to the Statue of Liberty were also cancelled due to the pervasive and unrelenting smog. Tens of thousands of people experienced burning eyes and uncontrollable bouts of coughing, but those were minor consequences of the unwelcome shroud that cloaked the city. By the time atmospheric conditions improved on November 22, some two hundred people were dead. Merely three years later, an even more devastating event occurred in New York City. In just an eighteen-hour period, at least one thousand people died from smog related illnesses.
Bay of Bengal and the Gulf of Mexico In 2005, Hurricane Katrina killed some twelve hundred people with most of the deaths occurring in Louisiana. While America's deadliest hurricane killed eight thousand people on Galveston Island on September 8, 1900, more than one-quarter million people lost their lives in a single cyclone (hurricanes are called "cyclones" in the Indian Ocean) that struck Bangladesh on November 13, 1970. Twenty-one years later, another cyclone killed 138,000 Bangladeshis. On October 29, 1999, nearly 10,000 Indians died in a cyclone. Across the Bay of Bengal on May 5, 2008, a killer cyclone named Nargis made landfall in Myanmar. In its wake, 78,000 people were dead, and as of June 16 of that year, another 58,000 people were still missing.
The Mississippi River Valley and the Southeastern United States On April 27, 2011, multiple vortexes destroyed portions of cities from south Alabama to Virginia. At least 340 people were killed. Less than a month later on May 22, residents of Joplin, Missouri were given a twenty-minute warning that a powerful tornado was headed their way. Blocking out the setting sun, the EF5 ripped a three-quarter-mile wide swath through the city. The single vortex packed winds in excess of two hundred mph and killed 142 residents. The death toll from those outbreaks was appalling, but they were not as bad as the 695 lives lost in the Tri-State Tornado of 1925. Like the Joplin twister, the Tri State Tornado began its rampage in the Missouri Ozarks and tore a 219 mile path of destruction across southern Illinois and Indiana.
New Madrid Zone along the Mississippi Aside from the Ring of Fire that surrounds the Pacific Ocean, the most destructive earthquake to strike the Americas was arguably the event that created Reelfoot Lake, Tennessee's only natural lake. The New Madrid quakes of 1811 and 1812 were perhaps the most powerful in American history, but because there were no seismographs, no one can be certain of its distinction in natural history. Based on newspaper accounts, however, we know that the area of strong shaking was ten times the size of that which was affected by the 1906 San Francisco quake. These quakes caused surface areas of the region to rise and fall. Islands in the Mississippi River disappeared and shifts in the riverbed generated waves that travelled north of the epicenter, creating the illusion that the "Mighty Mississippi" was forced to flow backward.
Indian Ocean Tsunamis are great swells and waves of water created by any large force impacting a lake or ocean. The deadliest known earthquake-generated tsunami occurred on December 26, 2004. The earthquake's epicenter was along a fault zone located under the Indian Ocean. Rock on one side of the opposing plates was moved vertically several yards. This uplift occurred along a six-hundred-mile stretch of seafloor. When the uplift occurred, energy equal to twenty-three thousand Hiroshima-type bombs was unleashed. A pulse of energy that moved as fast as a jet airliner spread out toward India, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Indonesia, and the east coast of Africa, creating waves as high as fifty feet. In most cases, the water coming ashore simply rose quickly and pushed inland. The tsunami that resulted from the Indian Ocean earthquake killed an estimated 150,000 people.
Bangladesh and the Bay of Bengal Indian Ocean Bangladesh and the countries around the Bay of Bengal are arguably the most dangerous places on the planet. Bangladesh sits precariously on the low-lying coastal plains of the Bay of Bengal. It has more people per square mile than Lexington, Kentucky or Tulsa, Oklahoma. More than one-quarter million people lost their lives in a single cyclone-caused flood event that struck Bangladesh on November 13, 1970. Twenty-one years later, another storm killed 138,000 Bangladeshis. On October 29, 1999, nearly 10,000 Indians died in floods caused by a cyclone. Across the Bay of Bengal on May 5, 2008, a killer cyclone named Nargis made landfall in Myanmar (Burma). In its wake, 78,000 people were dead, and as of June 16 of that year, another 58,000 people were still missing.
Minneapolis, Minnesota One important fact is revealed by looking back through the pages of history and through the geologic record: climate change happens and it will continue into the future. Ironically, higher levels of atmospheric water and carbon dioxide may actually keep the earth's climate from slipping back into a Pleistocene-like epoch. Not only would a recurrence of an ice age spell certain doom for European cities like Moscow, Berlin, Geneva, Oslo, Manchester, and Birmingham, among others, North American cities like Montreal, Toronto, Minneapolis, Lansing, Buffalo, Lincoln, and Albany would suffer the same destructive fate. In addition, most of the fertile breadbasket of North America would be lost, and the growing season in the southern breadbasket of the continent would be shortened. Given current technology, our ability to feed billions of people would be diminished and the number of deaths could reach into the millions.