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Exploring our relative capabilities for predicting disasters, and opportunities to effect change

volcanic eruption
Photo by USGS
The state of our art of catastrophe prediction is not that good.

This is the last Earth Journal I'll write in 2012 and, if you read the Maya Calendar a certain way, perhaps the last for all time.

I know, I know. We’ve all heard the scholarly debunking of notions that just because the Mayans' last Long Count ends tomorrow, so will earthly existence.

But perhaps you’ve also noticed that plenty of people who dismiss the doomsday-sayers are nevertheless keeping track of the date – and  that more than a few who are not visibly unhinged seem to keep track of all the end-time forecasts.

Seizing on this preoccupation, some savvy folks in the press office of the U.S. Geological Survey sent out an interesting little feature that arrived in yesterday’s mail. The headline read, “Will the World End on December 21?” but the real topic was our current capabilities for catastrophe prediction.

And the state of our art is not that good, really, considering the “certainty that Earth has a tremendous capacity to generate natural disasters on any day of the year.”

We can’t predict earthquakes

Despite our sophisticated methods of detecting, measuring and mapping earthquakes, for example, we remain essentially incapable of predicting where and when they will occur, and in the view of USGS scientists this is unlikely to change. Ever.

However, based on scientific data, probabilities can be calculated for future earthquakes. For example, comprehensive assessments of long-term earthquake rates in California tell us there is roughly a 2-in-3 chance that a magnitude 6.7 or larger earthquake will strike in the next 30 years in the greater San Francisco Bay Area. Within the state of California as a whole, earthquakes this large are virtually certain (a 99% probability) in that same time frame.

How big is 6.7? A bit of online research establishes that the last quake of that magnitude in California was the 1994 Northridge quake near Los Angeles. In the San Francisco area, the Loma Prieta quake of 1989 – which collapsed part of the Bay Bridge – was a 6.9.

We can’t predict wildfires

The USGS provides tools and information before, during and after fire disasters to identify wildfire risks and reduce subsequent hazards. By looking at previous wildfires, scientists can learn more about ignition sources, burn severity, patterns, season of burning, and fire size. The USGS also provides real-time geospatial support for firefighters during the events.

However, nearly all wildfires are triggered by events – a lightning strike, an arson or simple human carelessness with fire – that are beyond prediction. And even our ability to foresee  the course of a wildfire once it starts remains subject to climate and weather conditions that resist precise forecasting.

As with earthquakes, it’s possible to look at patterns and probabilities and make some conclusions. Here’s USGS’s:

Climate change and the resulting hotter and arid conditions are expected to significantly increase wildfire frequency and severity.

Through the end of last month, according to stats compiled by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the 2012 wildfire season in the United States had these key characteristics:

  • The fewest fires recorded in any year since a recordkeeping change in 2000.
  • The largest average fire size recorded since 2000.
  • The second-highest total acreage burned in any January-November period since 2000.

We can predict hurricanes, but …

… only within limits. As Hurricane Sandy demonstrated this year, and Hurricane Katrina showed us just seven years earlier, we can track these big storms for days, gauging size and speed and energy, and still not know what we’re really up against until landfall.

hurricane sandy
REUTERS/Lucas Jackson
Hurricane Sandy showed us that our understanding of hurricanes that come ashore in the northeastern U.S. needs updating to account for changes in climate systems.

If Katrina was a lesson in the price we pay for ignoring our own science – models that had predicted the scenario of August 2005 with  compelling accuracy – Sandy appears to be showing us that our understanding of  hurricanes that come ashore in the northeastern U.S. needs updating to account for changes in climate systems.

USGS’s page also reviews the state of prediction for volcanoes and magnetic storms  (pretty good), landslides and floods (not so much).

* * *

It may strike some as poor taste to dwell on disasters at this time of year, but reading this material moved me to three thoughts that seem to fit the holiday mood.

First is the practical observation that while life is full of catastrophes that lie beyond our prediction, let alone control, still we have the ability to protect our loved ones and ourselves with a bit of advance preparation.

USGS offers suggestions for an emergencies kit, and they won't surprise you. Assembling one is a chore that everybody knows should be done, but it’s easy to put off until we have that extra couple of hours sometime, somewhere.

For me, at least, those bits of free time are more plentiful between Christmas and New Year’s than any other time of year.

Second is to remember to count — really count – the blessings of a year in which most of us escaped disaster, though perhaps enduring difficulty on a less than catastrophic  scale.

My mom died about 10 years ago, and I never think of her final weeks without remembering a conversation I had with a woman who was teaching Buddhist practice at Naropa University. I explained that my mom had had a stroke, that the outlook wasn't good, that she could go at any time. ...

"Yes," she interjected, "just like you or me."

I am thankful not to live in an earthquake zone, a hurricane zone or even a wildfire zone like those of the arid West. I am discouraged to live in a time when our governments remain incapable of meaningful action on greenhouse gas reductions.

But at this time of year in particular — and here's the third thought  — I find encouragement in planning a few small steps toward better care of the planet we've been given to share and to tend.

Every day gives us oppportunities in our private and professional lives, in our households and in our communities, with our families and friends, in our choices about what to consume and what to forgo, and certainly in our politics — not just whether to vote, or for whom, but to show up afterward and insist on progress.

That's enough words for here, for now, because I've got some resolutions to prepare.

See you next year.

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Comments (1)

NOAA NHC peformance on Sandy

Ron is right on in noting the difficulty in predicting random events like earth quakes and the likelihood of a particular hurricanes. But NOAA's National Hurricane Center does an excellent job of predicting a hurricane's path and strength once it appears. In the case of Sandy the NHC predicted the unusual strength as it moved over colder water and the even more unusual turn to the west.