If you turn on the news and hear that some city is being devastated by its fourth flood in 20 years, or that a village at the foot of some volcano has just been buried under lava, there is a 100 percent chance that someone in the room will ask, Why don't those people just move?
It's a good question, and the answer gives us a nice insight into mankind's absolute refusal to back down from nature, even if it means certain destruction.
Brave? Stupid? You be the judge. All we know is that a whole lot of us are in the same boat.
#5. San Francisco, USA -- Earthquake
Back in 2001, before 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina, the Federal Emergency Management Agency announced a short list of the three most likely disasters to hit America over the coming years. One was a terrorist attack on New York, another was a hurricane in New Orleans, and the third was an earthquake in San Francisco. Note that this was shortly before two of those things actually goddamn happened.
"FEMA: Using our powers for good, and occasionally the lottery."
Withholding speculation as to whether FEMA are in fact wizards, that's a pretty "oh shit" moment right there if you live in San Francisco. It also emphasizes the fact that the continued existence of San Francisco is a testament to mankind's ongoing desire to engage in a staring contest against horrible catastrophe.
And let's be clear, this isn't some sensationalist scare tactic -- at some point, an earthquake is going to devastate the city. The United States Geological Survey says that the chances of a quake of at least 6.7 on the Richter scale hitting San Fran in the next 30 years sits at a cozy 99 percent.
And there is nothing we can do about it. It happened in 1906, and in 1989 it gave everyone a preview of what was coming.
Yeah, nature, 45 degrees is OK, too, we guess. Whatever you say.
Holy Shit! What Can We Do?
Of course, San Franciscans are more than ready for this kind of thing, right? When you know that your city is prone to devastating earthquakes, then you're going to make sure that earthquakes factor into your building ordinances. Well, it's true that the state of California did decide to start earthquake-proofing all their new buildings ... in 1980. So if you're wondering whether your highrise office is going to withstand the inevitable Big One, you'd just better hope that the building doesn't outdate hair metal.
"Your threat level is Motley Crue but could rise to above Kiss at any time."
The problem is the fact that most of the Bay Area is built upon a foundation of soft mud that, during an earthquake, is prone to something frighteningly referred to as liquefaction, which is exactly what it sounds like. Estimates say that a quake in the range of a 7.8 on the Richter scale (which is right in the range of what we'd expect -- the 1906 quake was an 8.0) would topple 1,500 buildings and badly damage another 300,000. The government has just started rushing against time to brace the Golden Gate Bridge after reports showed a quake would cause it to utterly collapse.
Like this, but with a billion-dollar special effects budget.
But what's really standing between San Francisco and avoiding total annihilation is money. With a $25.4 billion budget deficit, the California government wants property owners to retrofit their own damn buildings if they're so scared of earthquakes, a cost that no average person can afford, forcing them into a much cheaper but less effective form of earthquake insurance -- prayer. Never mind that the cost of earthquake-proofing San Francisco would only be around $260 million, compared to the estimated cost of rebuilding after a quake -- $200 billion. But, hey, we're not economists.
Although we have left plenty of them in San Francisco. Underneath the rubble.
#4. Venice, Italy -- Sinking
Likely the only things you know about Venice is that it has water in the streets, that people get around in gondolas, and that it is all very romantic. There's a good chance you've never asked yourself why it has water in the streets, and, in fact, you might think that they did that on purpose, just for the tourists.
The reality is that the city is sinking into the Mediterranean Sea at a horrifying rate.
"Crap. I forgot to pack my rush-hour snorkel."
It turns out Venice, built practically on top of a body of water, is not exactly the best-planned city. Back in the 12th century when Venice went through a population explosion, the city used up all of its available land and was forced to build upon acres of really shitty mud. Since these were the Dark Ages and everyone was an idiot, the rulers decided to just cover the ground with millions of wooden planks and build on top of that. Unsurprisingly, the whole thing has been very slowly sliding into the ocean ever since.
It didn't help that, in the early 1900s, city officials began pumping water out of the bedrock underneath the city for some reason, which is kind of like playing a game of Jenga by taking all the blocks out from the bottom first.
Fuck over the next guy and hope everyone forgets your mistakes.
Because Venice smartly sits right at sea level, it already floods basically every Tuesday. The Acqua Alta is the name the locals give to the regular flooding that turns the morning work commute into a 3-mile breaststroke. The thing is, back in 1900, the Acqua Alta came 10 times a year, while these days it's closer to 100, because the city sank 20 centimeters over that time.
"If we're quick, we can eat lunch here and blublublublublublub."
And now we have global warming.
As in, the thing that causes the sea levels to rise thanks to melting ice and thermal expansion of ocean water. Scientists say that the combined threat means that Venetians will need to evolve gills by 2100.
As long as they're designer gills.
Holy Shit! What Can We Do?
The Venetian government is making plans to offset the rapidly encroaching Atlantisification of their city, though it sounds more like something Mr. Burns would propose than anything practical. The Moses Project is a plan to surround Venice with a series of gigantic, ridiculously expensive moving barriers that are supposed to hold back the ocean if it starts acting like a mean drunk.
"You guys killed all the whales, and now there's no one to drink with!"
But Italy is under constant pressure to scrap the project with concerns that it simply won't do shit, though nobody has proposed a better solution that doesn't involve retrofitting the entire city with giant inflatable balloons.
"... bit inappropriate, don't you think?"
#3. Seattle, USA -- Earthquake
Yes, an earthquake. In Seattle. The coffee-soaked home of Frasier isn't exactly on the edge of its seat waiting for the ground to start shaking, but maybe it should be -- it's looking down the barrel of what could be one of the worst earthquakes in history.
Also it may mess up Portland and Vancouver a bit, but they're not as pretty so they don't count.
The state of Washington was last hit by an earthquake in 2001, and while no deaths were recorded, nature was just getting started. Some science people say that there is an 80 percent chance within the next 50 years that a massive fault off the shore of the Pacific Northwest is going to break apart and trigger what they are unnervingly calling a "megaquake."
"Megaquakes on the Ring of Fire" was a massive hit in the 1980s.
The fault, which could be the biggest in the world, has started building up strain, which is the earthquake equivalent of smoke billowing from the top of a volcano, and scientists have been scrambling to find some way to get the residents of Seattle and the surrounding areas to give a damn.
Here's a computer simulation of the devastation, put together by the Washington State Department of Transportation:
That's simulating a 7.0 quake. The fault line could produce a 9.0 -- as powerful as the one that just devastated Japan.
Holy Shit! What Can We Do?
If you built a city along the most gaping fault line on planet Earth, that should be the most earthquake-prepared city in existence, right? The buildings should be made from adamantium. But the truth is, Seattle just doesn't know much about earthquakes. Ask around, and old timers will tell you tales of the dreaded 5.5 Duvall quake which momentarily interrupted a Mariners game. Because it's been so long since the last "big one," modern-day Seattle is so unprepared for earthquakes that it's full of completely unreinforced masonry structures that basically fall over if you sneeze too hard.
"We can probably just ... caulk that closed or something."
The last time the megaquake happened was in 1700. Native Americans still tell chilling campfire tales about it, and the devastation was well documented in Japan. That's right -- the last time this fault line went off in a big way, it damaged Japan.
On the bright side, the Space Needle is predicted to withstand a quake of up to around 9.1, so when the big one hits, you know where to go.
Yep, that's right. China.