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.
5San 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.
4Venice, 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?"