2005: Acts of God and Natural Disasters

Over the past year the earth has been shipwrecked. It has been battered, bullied, pushed and pulled, as if it were the ball on the receiving end of a serve-volley in some galactic tennis match. The Asian tsunami. The Iranian earthquake. Hurricanes 'Katrina', 'Rita' and 'Wilma'. The earthquake in Pakistan. The Birmingham tornadoes. Hundreds of thousands of lives lost. Thousands of Millions of pounds worth of damage. Millions of homes destroyed. The British Queen, not known for placing her finger on the pulse of an emotional zeitgeist, nonetheless spoke for us all during her Christmas day speech on Sunday when she said:
'The world is not always an easy or a safe place to live in. But it is the only one we have.'
So why has it been behaving like this? Has our world, sick of being used, abused and taken for granted by its inhabitants, started biting back? Opinion is starkly divided as to whether we can blame 'Global Warming' -- the one, over-riding factor which, some would argue, features in every incident we have witnessed. Individually, each natural disaster has its own cause. But when so many come together, in such a short space of time, can we be blamed for wondering if there is a link? In August, pre-hurricane 'Katrina', the US American National Hurricane Centre/Tropical Prediction Centre was predicting a 95/100 per cent chance of an 'above normal hurricane season'. In fact, it turned out to be the worst hurricane season in recorded history.
'Based on recent research, the consensus view is that we don't expect global warming to make a difference to the frequency of hurricanes,' Mr.Julian Heming, from the UK Meteorological Office, said recently. 'Activity is naturally very variable in terms of frequency, intensity and regional occurrence; in the Atlantic, there are active phases and not so active phases. We're in the middle of an active phase. 'It's very dangerous to explain "Rita" or "Katrina" through global warming, because we have always had strong hurricanes in the USA -- the strongest one on record dates back to 1935.
Essentially then, Katrina was nothing new. In fact, in the Atlantic, there has been a pattern. The 1940s and 50s were a particularly active time for hurricanes, yet it quietened down in the 1970s and 80s. Nobody really understands why, except that the phenomenon seems to follow some sort of internal earth bodyclock. Our current period of activity kicked off in 1995 thanks, in part, to the sea surface temperature, which has to sit above 27C in order for a tropical cyclone to form -- something which is, apparently, becoming more common. Some experts believe that temperature rise is related to 'Global Warming', although the relatively recent amount of time we've been able to monitor the situation through global satellite coverage means it is difficult to draw any firm conclusions. Following the Boxing Day tsunami last year, which killed over 270_000 people, research scientists now believe it is far more likely that something similar will hit the region again, not because of 'Global Warming', but because if there is going to be an earthquake, it is likely to hit a place where there's just been one. Research carried out earlier this year at 'The University of Ulster' in Coleraine suggests that the tsunami caused dangerous levels of stress to be put on vulnerable parts of the fault zone, significantly raising the chances of a magnitude 7.5 earthquake. In fact, the tsunami-hit region has already had another earthquake. This quake, registering 6.0 on the Richter scale, hit the seabed off the Aceh province on 2005-03-16-- however because it did not cause a tsunami, nobody was killed. As we know now, the Boxing Day tsunami was merely the first of many natural disasters we would go on to witness over the next 12 months. In February, over 600 people died and thousands were injured in the town of Zarand in central Iran following an earthquake measuring 6.4 on the Richter scale. It came only 18 months after the earthquake in the Iranian town of Bam, which killed nearly 30_000. Then it was Britain's turn, with the tornado which ripped through Birmingham in July. Winds hit 130mph, cars, shops and homes were destroyed.
'We were coming from our house when we saw trees and bushes shaking, and big black clouds. The wind got so strong it blew me into the air,' said 10-year-old Ciaran Daly, who had been riding a scooter near the Grand Union Canal when the tornado struck.
Next came hurricanes 'Wilma', 'Katrina' and 'Rita' which ravaged parts of central and South America, devastating the city of New Orleans and much of the southern states of the United States, and providing us with images of the USA that would not have looked out of place in a television report about sub-Saharan Africa. The world responded. Even Sri Lanka, so recently decimated by the tsunami, was desperate to show its gratitude and sent a token amount of aid. It was a different story when, less than two months later, an earthquake measuring 7.6 on the Richter scale hit Pakistan, parts of India, and the disputed territory of Kashmir, killing over 75_000. Aid which had poured in for the tsunami slowed to a trickle. Even now, many thousands of locals are without food or shelter and facing a freezing winter. And there have been other, smaller natural disasters, the ones that don't make the front pages because there aren't enough casualties, or because it's too far away to care, or because after a year of them, we simply do not have an appetite for more. Just three weeks ago an earthquake struck beneath the surface of Lake Tanganyika, on the border between Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of Congo. There were deaths in several Congolese towns but communications are so poor, nobody knows how many. Heartbreakingly, the South African Council for Geoscience pointed out that
'there may not have been much to destroy'.
On 2005-11-27 an earthquake in China killed 14. A day later, another 10 died on the south coast of Iran after another seismic shift. Then there was the twister that ripped through Kentucky and Indiana on 2005-11-16, killing 15, and the Portuguese forest fires, all 26 of them, that destroyed over 70_000 hectares of European woodland during August. Professor Mr.Jeffery Sachs, director of 'The Earth Institute' at 'Columbia University' is convinced that there is no link between these disasters, but says that they cannot be ignored. He believes the earth is trying to tell us something.
'As population rises, billions of people crowd into the earth's vulnerable areas -- near coastlines battered by storms and rising sea levels, on mountainsides susceptible to landslides and earthquakes, or in water-stressed regions plagued by drought, famine and disease. 'Typically, the poorest of the poor are pushed into the riskiest places to live and work -- and also to die, when natural catastrophes strike,' he wrote recently.
And yet somehow, we have managed to ignore the warning signals. 'Global Warming' may have contributed to the earth's problems, but is not the only culprit. Rising populations, increasing poverty and political instability have all played their parts in the disasters of the last 12 months and it is those factors that are contributing to their continued rise and frequency. Early on that Sunday morning in December last year, as the 9.3 magnitude earthquake tore apart the seafloor off the coast of northwest Sumatra, the eight elephants of Thailand's Khao Lak beach started to cry. Those that could, broke their chains. Some stopped to allow the tourists their owners made a living from to climb up on to their backs. But all of them headed for the hills, climbing higher and higher, away from the beach and the impending danger they sensed. When the tsunami wave came, washing more than a kilometre in land and destroying everything in its wake, it stopped just short of where the elephants stood. Elephants, apparently, have bones in their feet that enable them to sense seismic vibrations and pick up the messages the earth is giving them. In a world of 6_500_million people, estimated to rise to 9_100_million by 2050, maybe it is time we learnt from those Thai elephants and started listening to what our world has to tell us. 'Our planet's year of living dangerously', Emma Cowing, The Scotsman, 2005-12-28 We


Anonymous Anonymous said...

For a start, the Asian tsunami was not last year, but in 2004, the year before.

There is always something going on. Pompei was a long, long time ago, Lisbon was during the Enlightenment, and so on through to today.

The fact is that the earth will quake, volcanoes will erupt and the weather can be very stormy. Remember the Hurricaine in Britain in 1987? It is what they do because the system is not a regular stable one.

History is all about two things (a) what people have done (wars and inventions) and (b) the huge catastrophes wreaked upon us and our crops by vengeful gods.

Today is no different to times past; we still have plagues, and diseases (pandemic, epidemic), the weather remains unpredictable and damaging, the earth itself has faults and fissures and is constantly active from hot springs and tremours to full-scale eruptions and landslides. And mankind still has rich and poor, still has exploitation and intolerance and still has war.

Perhaps what has changed is the speed of reporting and the hunger for news.

1/07/2006 11:35:00 pm  

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