I wrote an article earlier this week about how we're all going to die in an earthquake this year. I'm just going to come right out and say it -- that might have been a bit of an exaggeration. Don't get me wrong, I stand by everything I wrote until a scientist who doesn't publish his or her work exclusively in the comment section on this site tells me otherwise, but still, even if "the big one" does hit sometime soon, there's a decent chance you'll come out the other side just fine.
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That's the topic of discussion on this week's Unpopular Opinion podcast ...
... where I'm joined by Cracked editor and all-around cool guy Alex Schmidt and the mayor of Podcast City, Brett Rader. We kick things off by talking about the same mega earthquakes that I swear are going to destroy Oklahoma any moment now. For the sake of continuity, I'll do the same here!
#4. An Earthquake in the Midwest
Fine, oil company apologists, let's say those earthquakes in Oklahoma really don't have anything to do with fracking and that Jesus will make them stop as suddenly as they started and everything will go back to normal in the region any day now.
When Iowa reconsiders their position on same-sex marriage, no doubt.
That doesn't change the fact that a mega earthquake nearby is a very real possibility. For that, you can thank the New Madrid Seismic Zone, a gigantic fault line that produced an earthquake in 1811 that would have killed significantly more people than the far more famous San Francisco earthquake of 1906, if only there were more people in the area to kill at the time.
So what does that mean for people in the New Madrid area today? What with there being buildings and all manner of other big city trappings there now, the death and destruction would surely be far more significant, right? That is approximately 50 percent true. The destruction would be off the charts, but I'll get to that momentarily. For now, let's talk about death.
Here's what should be mildly comforting news for people in the region (provided your friendly neighborhood wastewater disposal wells don't multiply the damage exponentially) -- a FEMA report from 2009 states that approximately 650 people would be killed in the event of a 7.7-magnitude quake in the New Madrid Seismic Zone. No, that doesn't mean the 86,000 casualties I mentioned in the Oklahoma article was a lie, it's just that casualties aren't necessarily deaths. In fact, of those thousands of casualties, approximately 75 percent would consist of minor injuries only.
So, that part is great. Chances are you'll live through a New Madrid quake if one happens while you're around. Whether you'd want to, though, is another story. As I mentioned before, death totals would be relatively small. Damage estimates are a different story. For the eight states that would be most impacted, the total damage is nearly $300 billion. That includes 715,000 buildings, which, considering this is the Midwest we're talking about, has to be just about all of them.
Do we even use those things anymore?
Before you scoff at that notion, keep in mind that it's precisely the reason why a New Madrid quake wouldn't kill a more frightening number of people. No matter how long ago the 1811 New Madrid quakes happened (our research team tells me it's approximately 203 years ago), it doesn't change the fact that there still aren't a ton of people in the area. As this report from the Missouri Department of Natural Resources points out, the areas closest to the expected epicenter are mostly rural. Granted, that's because farming is one of the main industries in the area, which means it's worth mentioning that agriculture in the area would be crippled for a good long while. Sorry.
As for major cities, St. Louis is expected to receive the most damage, followed closely by Memphis. So, good luck tracking down anything that might have been on its way to your place from FedEx if there's another quake. Depending on the package, that could be a huge bummer. On the bright side, if that's something you're sad about when this all inevitably goes down, that means you're probably not among the 650 people killed. Congratulations!
#3. A Dirty Bomb Explosion in a Major City
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The great thing about the Cold War was that for the most part we always knew who our enemy was and where we could find them if need be. It's a war everyone could pretend to serve in by virtue of doing nothing other than living in the United States and not revealing secrets to the Russians. As citizens, our job was mostly to shut the fuck up about stuff. That's the kind of battle I can get behind.
That, sadly, is no longer the case. I mean, it's great that we're pretending to be friends with Russia from time to time these days, but our new favorite enemy is a little harder to track down. I'm speaking, of course, about rogue terrorists, like those who planned and executed the events of 9/11. They weren't official representatives of their respective governments. We would have gone to war over it if they were!
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Instead we got over our grief by spreading democracy in Iraq. You're welcome, world.
Since then, the target of every single bit of our defense-department-funding fear has been aimed at rogue terrorists. The days of fighting the good fight by pretending you know nothing (which we're great at) are gone. We have to do things. We have to look for things now. We have to be mindful of backpacks without owners and people with fuses jutting out from the soles of their shoes. If we see something, we have to say something. It's our duty as Americans, lest we fall prey once again to the wicked intentions of the terrorists of the world.
Whoa, why is that kid's backpack so huge?
One of the most talked about threats posed by freelance terror creators is that one of them will detonate a so-called dirty bomb, which is jargon that roughly translates to "a regular bomb that also emits radiation." Think the Boston Marathon bombing, except with fallout that comes in the form of something other than Rolling Stone's decision to put a terrorist on the cover of their magazine.
Was Drake doing nothing noteworthy around this time?
Nuclear fallout, specifically, which we probably wouldn't even know was present at first. It's not like you can see it or smell it. It's just "One minute I'm standing there, the next I'm showering with a fire hose in the basement of a military base." Pretty scary stuff, right?
Well, yeah, any bomb is going to have at least some capacity to frighten a person. No matter how overstated any other threat associated with dirty bombs may be, if one explodes in your lap, it will kill you. That's what explosions do to people. That's why we walk away from them in movies. What about that radiation, though? Would it significantly increase the death toll if a regular bomb was filled with radioactive materials? Probably not, as demonstrated by the wackiest nuclear disaster story you're likely to hear all day.
While a real one has never gone off, the closest the world has come to actually seeing the events of a dirty bomb attack play out in real life happened in Goiania, Brazil, in 1987. It was there that two scrap metal scavengers broke into an abandoned radiotherapy clinic and stole the source capsule from a teletherapy machine. What's a source capsule?
This has to be close.
As it relates to radioactive materials, I'm guessing it's exactly what it sounds like, because when the junkyard owner who bought the capsule from the thieves managed to break it open, he noticed that the substance inside glowed blue in the dark. Realizing that the makings of a great party were afoot, he took the capsule back to his house and showed it to friends and family. Some of them spread the substance on their face like Carnival glitter.
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Not making that up, for the record.
That substance turned out to be cesium-137 chloride, which is, of course, highly radioactive. Part of the festivities surrounding the blue party powder included two individuals taking the leaking capsule on a city bus, thus contaminating the bus and spreading radiation around a sizable area of the city. Granted, there's no explosion, but in terms of radiation dispersal, this silly but also completely tragic story is as close as we've come to knowing what kind of havoc the radioactive fallout from a dirty bomb might be. So, what were the final numbers? In all, 28 people suffered radiation burns and, sadly, five died.
As tragic as that is, the carnage was relatively minor compared to what most of us imagine a person running around town with a leaky radiation egg is capable of inflicting. In general, the biggest threat from a dirty bomb is psychological. People would lose their shit, stock markets would fluctuate, that kind of thing. As far as physical damage goes, though, a dirty bomb isn't a whole lot more effective than a regular bomb. Sure, all of those people in Brazil might die of cancer 30 years from now, but who among us won't? You don't need a dirty bomb for that.