These days, it's hard not to be a little jaded when it comes to disaster. Every day, we're reminded of the threat of global warming, terrorist attacks, and the fact that someone could just tweet us into the Apocalypse. So we're pretty detached from the kinds of massive earth-shaking terrors that have shaped human history in the past, but don't worry, there are lots more global tragedies coming down the tube, for example...
Ask Californians about the most pressing natural-disaster issue facing them and they'll tell you it's the so-called "Big One" -- the long-anticipated San Andreas Fault earthquake that, according to Hollywood scholars, will sink the whole west coast into the sea, leaving only Dwayne Johnson to save us all. But while we wait for that probably overblown scenario, they seem to have forgotten about the true threat to the birthplace of Michael Bay movies: the surprisingly reliable California Superstorm.
The California Superstorm happens every 100-200 years and drowns the whole state in a catastrophic flood. And oh, good heavens, would you just look at the time. The last time this megaflood struck the Golden State was in 1862 when it rained for an excessively biblical 42 days and nights. The deluge not only drowned thousands of people and hundreds of thousands of cattle, but it temporarily forced California to move its capital from Sacramento to San Francisco and bankrupted the entire state. In some places, the tops of telegraph poles were submerged, and survivors were forced to travel by rowboat.
And the next one isn't going to be any better. According to a simulation called "ARkStorm" (short for "Atmospheric River 1000 Storm" and proof that scientists shouldn't be allowed to name things), researchers with the U.S. Geological Survey project that a stretch of the Central Valley 300 miles long and 20 miles wide will be completely underwater. One quarter of the houses in the entire state of California will suffer some kind of flood damage. "Cities up and down the coast of California would flood. Winds would howl 60 to 125 miles per hour, and landslides would make roads impassable." So, at most, Americans have 45 years to figure out something the Native Americans have known since forever: California is the biggest of the Great Lakes.
If volcanos were wrestling champions, then Mount Vesuvius would be Hulk Hogan. But scientists are becoming concerned that there's actually a much bigger volcano, like the Andre the Giant of volcanos, just a few miles away from Vesuvius, and it's getting ready to go Wrestlemania III on Italy's ass.
Campi Flegrei, just a stone's throw from Naples, is what scientists call a "supervolcano" -- because regular volcanoes aren't terrifying enough. For the past 60 years or so, it's been showing signs that it's getting ready to blow its lava-y load all over southern Europe. And these signs, like seismic activity, land deformation, and gas chemistry, have been accelerating since 2012. That's bad news for the nearly one million people living in Naples, 360,000 of whom live right on the sides of the volcano itself. If the experts are right and Flegrei pops within the next century, those million people will have to evacuate or die while Naples, one of the most important hubs of European culture for the past thousand years, might go the way of Pompeii -- first utterly destroyed, then be made into a terrible movie.
And that's the best case scenario. 40,000 years ago, some scholars think a Campi Flegrei eruption contributed to the extinction of the Neanderthals. But even that's small potatoes compared to 200,000 years ago, when the supervolcano blackened the skies of the entire planet, causing a worldwide volcanic winter and almost wiping out all life on Earth. Any way you look at it, the prognosis isn't good, and if you're living in the south of Italy, "Stop, drop, and roll" probably won't get you anything except a lava bath.
The island of Japan just happens to sit upon some of the biggest fault lines on the planet, so when earthquakes strike there, they strike hard. Remember the catastrophic 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan? That was just nature warming up. Scientists are predicting that the chances of a magnitude 8 or 9 earthquake striking population centers within the next 30 years are 70 freaking percent. Such a Big One could rack up to 323,000 casualties, because not only would this quake (and its bff, the massive tsunami) hit population centers, it would happen with only around five minutes of warning -- a less than ideal timeframe when you need to evacuate millions. In response to this terrifying prospect, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has advised his citizens to be "calmly and appropriately afraid."
The epicenter of the predicted quake also happens to be the heart of Japanese manufacturing, so a large enough disaster could wipe out its economy overnight. And if you're thinking "So what? I have enough Nintendo games to last me a lifetime" you're seriously underestimating how much of your life is Made in Japan. The area that this terrifying quake is predicted to strike happens to be the home of Toyota, as well as most of Boeing's factories. It's also where the leading global manufacturer of industrial robots is based, where half of the world's musical instruments are made, and where the factories that make the parts for one-third of the world's smartphones are located. So unless you like the idea traveling half a day on horseback because your buddy sent you a pigeon message inviting you to a jug-blowing concert, start worrying about Japan a whole lot more.
The 1930s was a horrible time for America -- not only was it the canned spam in a World War sandwich, but the United States was suffering from the most severe drought in its history, a time of severe hardship known as the "Dust Bowl," both named after the dust storms and the most popular breakfast of the time. And we should be getting ready to bite the dust once again, as scientists think the Dust Bowl is coming back for a second round. And this time it'll last for decades.
While most of us saw it as a bunch of celebrities complaining about not being able to water their avocados, the drought that hit California earlier this year might have been a warning. According to Cornell University Professor Toby Ault, the Southwest United States typically experience a severe drought once or twice a century. The Dust Bowl was followed up by a less intense but still pretty bad drought in the '50s, and now we're overdue for the next big one.
But there is some good news: This Dust Bowl will finally make climate change denier shut up, because global warming will make this disaster last 35 years. According to Ault and his team, the chances of this multi-decade drought striking the American Southwest within the next century are upwards of 80 percent, and it will "make the megadroughts seem like quaint walks through the Garden of Eden."
So what does a globally warmed Dust Bowl look like? According to University of Arizona professor Jonathan Overpeck, there are two possibilities: either a "warm megadrought" or a "searing megadrought" within the next century. A searing megadrought basically turns the country into a Mad Max prequel. "Toxic dust storms could rage across the region, making driving extremely dangerous. The vast majority of trees in the region would die. Agriculture would become all but impossible." There will be massive water shortages across the west of the country and monster wildfires will devastate states like California and Arizona. Farmers would have to give up on thirsty crops such as corn and wheat and grow more drought-friendly crops like nuts instead. So not all bad news if you're gluten intolerant. Or if you're a big fan of starvation.
Fortunately, just a warm megadrought could "probably be endured," but would require the U.S. government to actively start combatting global warming and put more stringent laws on industrial pollution.
So, yeah, hopefully almond bread won't taste that bad.
When it comes to diseases, people pay too much attention whatever snazzy new outbreak is dominating the news. Zika, Ebola, SARS ... they're all just flavors of the month. The MVP of slowly killing mankind is the regular old flu, and with each warm forehead and missed school day, it's getting better at wiping us out.
Since the Spanish Flu, there hasn't been a decade without some panic over a new influenza strain -- usually some kind of bird flu or swine flu. Right now, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) considers the most threatening flu strain for a global pandemic to be H7N9, which has recently broken out in China. Another bird flu -- big deal, right? Except that the really real Spanish Flu also jumped to humans from birds. For reference, the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 was the worst global disease outbreak since the Black Death, and easily one of the worst in history. It killed up to five percent of the world's population, and the only reason it doesn't occupy a lot of space in high school history books is because it got overshadowed by another disaster happening at the time: World War I. Leave it to humans to be self-absorbed when it comes to wiping out humans.
Since 2013, 1,364 people have come down with H7N9, and 40 percent of them have died, mainly from respiratory and organ failure. While we're busy not caring about it, it's getting better at spreading among humans. But even if this one doesn't catch on, the next one will. Or the next one. The flu itself isn't the big problem, it's that we're completely unprepared for another big pandemic.
For one thing, the world has a much higher population today than it did a century ago, which means that there are more of us packed more closely together, making us a flu version of an all-you-can-eat buffet. We also travel much more easily than we used to, which means that diseases have a much easier time getting around the world quickly. On top of that, the systems in place to prevent such tragedies have grown so complacent about the risks that, as evidenced by the Ebola situation, they're slow to act. In short, if another Spanish Flu broke out tomorrow, we best make World War III as spectacular as possible -- that way we can at least go out with a bang.
We keep thinking of climate change as something only our grandchildren will have to deal with, even though we're the grandchildren of the dickheads who started that trend. By now, we have to accept that global warming could rapidly change the face of our planet tomorrow and reduce our lives to the blur of running and screaming and landmark-exploding typical of a Roland Emmerich flick. Case in point: the West Atlantic ice sheet.
It's speculated that the West Atlantic ice sheet is just one crack away from collapsing into the ocean, maybe triggered by that squirrel thing from the Ice Age movies trying to retrieve his acorn. If it goes, it will change the coastlines of our world, and experts say it's not a matter of "if," but "when."
The troublemakers are the Pine Island glacier, which is around 25 miles wide, and the Thwaites glacier, which is a whopping 75 miles wide. Each of these massive chunks of ice has the potential to raise sea levels by two feet if they suddenly crumble into the ocean. Which is a lot, but the bigger problem is that they're acting like corks holding back a terrifying amount of ice that is just desperate to slide into the water.
This catastrophe would dump so much ice into the water that, as it melted, it would rapidly raise sea levels between 10-12 feet. How would that alter the coastline of the United States, the only country worth worrying about? Around 28,800 square miles of coastal land would start to feel a little moister -- by which we mean it would be completely submerged under water. This would displace around 12.3 million people, especially from doomed cities such as New York, New Orleans, Boston, and Norfolk. But there is some good news: it would also drown basically all of Florida, like, the entire thing. Silver linings, eh?
Don't get us wrong here: Nuclear power is a relatively safe, efficient, and remarkably clean alternative to filthy, planet-destroying coal. That is, if we'd finally figure out what to do with all that filthy, planet-destroying nuclear waste. Because what we're doing with it right now is just slowly transforming the subterranean United States into one big atomic bomb that's one major quake away from turning all our skin into a boiling liquid.
When nuclear waste is removed from a power plant, it's typically stored underwater in "cooling pools" until the government decides what to do with it. So depending on the government, that could take years or, you know, never happen. According to a group of concerned scientists from Princeton writing for Science journal (the most sciency of all journals), these cooling pool facilities are so densely packed with radioactive waste that they're a time bomb for nationwide nuclear disaster, and the federal government has been covering up the risk in the name of fiscal conservatism.
According to the scientists, if some kind of catastrophe happened at any one of the dozens of reactor cooling pools across the country tomorrow -- say, an earthquake, or a major fire, or even a deliberate terror attack -- the resulting radiation storm would Chernobyl-ize an area twice the size of the state of New Jersey, kill around 8 million people, and cause $2 trillion in damages. We still lack a proper scale with which to properly measure nuclear disasters, but the scientists confidently tell us that, if a disaster strikes one of these facilities, we're looking at "several" Fukushimas. For most people, no more than the one Fukushima we already got would be ideal.
Of course, we have much better methods for the long-term storage of nuclear waste that don't run the risk of turning the country into a Fallout sequel, but according to the scientists, the U.S. government has been downplaying the risk and dragging its feet on the matter. They've even been accused of letting the Nuclear Regulatory Commission massage the data to arrive at a low-risk conclusion. Why? Because it saves the government from having to spend money on keeping you and everyone you love safe from nuclear annihilation.
Politicians. They'll kill you faster than any natural disaster.
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