Untamable Nature

Natural disasters, such as the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in the Philippines in 1991, are better recorded and more widely viewed than at any time in human history, to an exponential extent.

It turns out that the sea floor was moved laterally during the recent Japanese earthquake by a little less than 80 feet.

People have been wondering, during the recent jag of extreme tectonic events (Haiti, Peru, Japan), whether some connection for a string of recent temblors exists. If such a connection was operative, it would probably need to be something that affected the entire globe. One potential explanation is the grand solar minimum that may have begun in 2007. Links between solar, tectonic, and volcanic activity have been explored in peer-reviewed scientific literature for decades.

If such a link is ever established, it will bring home the fact that our planet is bigger than a lot of people give it credit for being and subject to forces far beyond human control. Nature, for instance, does not start at the nearest state park entrance gate and end at the exit gate but rather starts at every point in space, including in your body, and extends infinitely outward. So far as the Universe is concerned, our entire solar system is as near to us on Earth as that state park is to your house, and the solar system undergoes changes that almost certainly affect the local environment on our planet.

Why the philosophical meanderings? Well, they’re less philosophical than you might imagine. For one, yes, the work of Henrik Svensmark brings home the fact that cosmic rays almost certainly modulate cloud formation in Earth’s atmosphere, leading to “snowball Earth” conditions more than once in the past. For another, if solar activity and volcanic activity are meaningfully correlated, then the grand solar minimum theorized by NASA and other teams of solar phyisicists, which may endure for the next 20 to 30 years may, in addition to being a relatively cloudy and relatively cool time, may also be one in which we see relatively impressive volcanic activity. Even in the absence of supervolcano eruptions, volcanoes do more on the planet than the average person understands, both locally and globally. Last year’s grounding of flights over Europe is just one small example.

What if another Tambora-scale eruption, the one that produced the “year without a summer” in 1815 were to take place during the grand solar minimum? What if two or three similar-scale events were to take place? One volcano thought to be ripe for a game-changing eruption is Iceland’s Katla, although no one knows, no one, which volcano will affect life on Earth next.

Part of my forthcoming book tackles such uncertainty, and matters of scale. The idea that nature used to be friendly is closely tied to the idea that humankind should be able to control it. Those, in other words, who would scare their fellow human beings into reducing carbon dioxide emissions and the like, are, frequently, the very ones who are the most frightened by nature themselves.

What happened in Japan two months ago was horrible, and also par for the course. The planet delivers such blows frequently. Part of what makes it seem more extreme now is something else that I look at in Don’t Sell Your Coat: the effect of modern media and new technology on the perception of natural disasters.

So, if and when Katla blows, if and when Krakatoa does its thing, if and when several new earthquakes cause devastation such as we have seen in the last year, it’ll seem like something horrible and new, but it will only be one of those things.

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About Harold Ambler

I am a lifelong environmentalist. I started my journalism career at The New Yorker, where I worked as a copy editor. Since then, my own work has appeared in The New York Daily News, The National Review Online, The Atlantic Wire, The Huffington Post, The Berkeley Daily Planet, The Providence Journal, Brown Alumni Monthly, The Narragansett Times, Rhode Island Monthly, and Providence Business News.
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