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The Next Five Disasters - MOUNT RAINIER - DALLAS TORNADO CLUSTER - NY TSUNAMI - BOULDER, COLORADO, FLASH FLOOD - AVIAN FLU PANDEMIC

 
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The Next Five Disasters - MOUNT RAINIER - DALLAS TORNADO CLUSTER - NY TSUNAMI - BOULDER, COLORADO, FLASH FLOOD - AVIAN FLU PANDEMIC
Katrina was only a precursor to the destruction that lies ahead.

By Chris Bushnell
We’re not sure that anyone used these exact words, but it cannot be denied that in the wake of Hurricane Katrina’s destruction of New Orleans, the overriding attitude from the scientific community was “We told you so.” In fact, so many experts have come forward to say how they knew all along that New Orleans would one day turn into an alligator-inhabited fecal stew that there isn’t anyone left who will admit to not knowing New Orleans was a catastrophe waiting to happen. The truth is that as late as Labor Day, only a few meteorologists knew not to book their Mardi Gras hotel rooms in advance; the rest of us simply thought “When The Levee Breaks” was the worst song on Led Zeppelin IV.

Which made us wonder: What other natural disasters do scientists know are coming that we will all one day pretend we knew were coming, too? If you answered, “Major California earthquake,” you’re wrong. Even the illiterate know that California will one day be an uninhabited island visible only from the beaches of Utah. We wanted to dig deeper. We wanted to know the new, creative ways in which Mother Nature would one day exact her revenge. Our criteria were simple: The disaster must happen in the continental United States (sorry, Hawaiian typhoon), the disaster cannot be man-made (sorry, pharmaceutical companies) and the scientific community must agree that the likelihood of the disaster eventually happening is 100 percent (sorry, earth-will-stop-spinning crowd). We’re not sure which is scarier, the impending doom or the fact that we are ill prepared for any of the occurrences on this list. But at least you’ll be able to say, “Told ya so!”


AREA: PACIFIC NORTHWEST
EVENT: MOUNT RAINIER AWAKENS

Each year, more than two million tourists visit Mount Rainier National Park to camp in its 200,000 acres of wilderness, climb its 14,410-foot summit and ski on its majestic slopes. Few realize that they’re treading on ground zero for one of the United States’ most devastating impending natural disasters.

“We’ve got a number of volcanoes in the Cascades that have been active within the last few hundred years and which certainly have the potential for erupting again, really at a moment’s notice – you know, at any time,” says Tom Pierson, geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey’s Cascade Volcano Observatory. “Mount Rainier would be one of those.”

An eruption of Mount Rainer would include lava flows like those that scientists have discovered from past Rainier eruptions – flows that stretch more than nine miles from the volcano’s peak. In and of themselves, these scalding rivers of molten rock will be the least of our worries. What’s far scarier is the prospect of a massive, eruption-triggered lahar that travels more than 60 miles per hour down the side of the mountain.

“Lahars can be directly triggered from the eruptions because there’s a lot of snow and ice on the surface [of Mt. Rainier],” says Pierson. “You dump out a bunch of hot rock and have it flow over all that snow and ice, you’re gonna produce a lot of water from melting snow, and mix it with the rock to form devastating lahars.”

The largest mudslide the world has ever seen occurred on Mount Rainier 5,600 years ago. The Osceola Mudflow dumped 10 billion cubic meters of mud over more than 200 square miles. Six other massive lahars have occurred since then. The most recent happened only 600 years ago and didn’t require an eruption to begin. With a 4.5 billion cubic meter glacier resting atop Rainer, lahars that stretch more than 50 miles are not unimaginable, which puts the city of Tacoma at risk of being submerged in mud, trees and volcanic ash.

An eruption of Mount Rainier would also produce a pyroclastic flow, an enormous cloud of superheated rock fragments that blasts miles into the sky and flattens everything for miles in all directions. The volcanic ash, also known as tephra, could easily get caught in a wind pattern that carries it towards Seattle. A tephra fallout there would result in massive water contamination and lead to water shortages that far surpass those seen in Spokane after the 1980 eruption and tephra fallout from Mount St. Helens.

And then there’s the fact that Mount Rainier is one day going to collapse.

“Rainier is a little bit different than some of the others because it is one of the older volcanoes. It’s had thousands and thousands of years when very acidic gasses and fluids have been able to circulate up through the rock on the volcano itself, causing chemical reactions that affect the rock and weaken it, basically turn hard rock into clay,” says Pierson. “Recent studies have shown a big chunk of the upper western flank of Mount Rainier looks pretty rotten and unstable.”

Unlike a volcanic eruption, which might give warning signs days or sometimes weeks before a catastrophic event, Rainier’s eventual collapse will offer no time for evacuation.

“A big chunk of this western flank will just one day suddenly let go. And this would be totally without warning,” says Pierson. “There would be no precursor that we could pick up on and [the collapse] has the potential for sending a massive lahar down to populated valleys where upwards of 60,000 people now live. … This will definitely happen someday, we just don’t know when.”


AREA: DALLAS/FORT WORTH, TEXAS
EVENT: DOWNTOWN TORNADO CLUSTER

Whenever a tornado touches down, it leaves destruction in its path. While Category Five hurricanes can see sustained winds of over 155 miles per hour, tornadoes frequently top out at over 200 miles per hour. And while hurricanes can be large enough to cause destruction over several states (versus dozens of miles for the largest tornadoes), twisters have a tremendous capacity to do massive harm, especially in parts of Texas where urban expansion has been rapid.

“Back in 2000, our office engaged in a research project with the North Central Texas Council of Governments in which we basically took the data from the 1999 Oklahoma City area tornado outbreak and overlaid it onto the Dallas/Fort Worth area here in North Texas,” says Gary Woodall, warning coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service Forecast Office in Fort Worth, Texas. “The objective was to determine, if we had a major tornado outbreak like that in North Texas, what sort of impact we would see. The numbers were quite staggering. We saw anywhere from 17,000 to 18,000 homes impacted, between 3,000 to 9,000 apartment units that were impacted, and damages anywhere from $811 million up to $2.8 billion, depending on what areas the tornados hit.”

Similar reviews of the Red Rock Tornado Outbreak of 1979 by Al Moller, another Texas-based meteorologist with the National Weather Service, paint a grim picture of the destruction that awaits Dallas. In Moller’s scenario, which superimposes the Red Rock super-cyclones over a current map of the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex, all of the major freeways wind up in the path of one of that day’s tornadoes, blocking any rescue teams from entering the destruction zone. The roads will also result in the most casualties.

“If something like this were to happen during rush hour – we don’t have the same traffic problems that you do in the Bay Area, but we have our share – we would potentially have a large number of people caught in traffic, in vehicles and in harm’s way,” says Woodall. “Our average tornado warning lead time across the country is about 12 minutes, but one would hope that with a big event like the one we’re depicting here we’d have more warning, maybe 20 or 30 minutes.”

The threat of tornadoes hasn’t halted growth in DFW, one of the fastest growing metropolitan areas in the country, likely because the odds of a tornado hitting any one particular area are quite small. But Woodall warns that as the Dallas/Fort Worth area continues to grow, it “essentially becomes a bigger and bigger target for a storm to hit.”

“Meteorologically, there is no reason why something like this can’t happen here,” he continues. “It happened in 1999 up in the Oklahoma City area, which is only 190 miles to the north, and it happened in 1997 in Gerald, Texas, which is about 190 miles to the south… We can predict the damage to the infrastructure, but we can’t predict the human impact, but it would be major. This is going to be a tremendously destructive event.”


AREA: EASTERN SEABOARD
EVENT: MEGA-LANDSLIDE/TSUNAMI

You may not have seen the 1998 action-disaster movie Deep Impact, but you almost certainly remember the trailer: President Morgan Freeman is told a meteor is going to crash into Earth before audiences are teased with a shot of a massive tidal wave sweeping away the skyscrapers of Manhattan.

While not every scientist agrees that a meteor will one day collide with Earth, every seismologist and geologist is familiar with the mega-landslides that have taken place on the sides of volcanoes over the past 20 million years.

“We know if a particular island collapsed 500,000 years ago. You can go see the collapse, the debris that’s still on the sea floor,” says Dr. Steven N. Ward, a research geophysicist and earth sciences professor at U.C. Santa Cruz. “So it’s not that we’re predicting [mega-landslides]. We know they’ve happened before.”

Because a mega-landslide has failed to happen in recorded history, it is relatively unknown what happens to the ocean when such a slide occurs. But Ward doesn’t think it requires a Ph.D. (which he has – from Princeton, no less) to figure out what happens when you dump several hundred cubic miles of rock into the ocean.

“When you put that much material in the ocean that fast, it’s going to push the water out of the way, that’s all there is to it,” says Ward. “We know the physics of ocean weight and the physics of a landslide. You can go to my website [www.es.ucsc.edu/~ward] if you want and look at the computer models for yourself… You can predict how big [the wave] is going to be at different places.”

Ward’s prediction is dire. A mega-landslide off the Canary Islands, which Ward calls “one of the steepest places on earth,” would result in a wave that is still more than 100 feet tall when it hits the eastern seaboard of the United States.

“Tsunami waves go at about the speed of a jet. The warning time of the wave itself is only about six or eight hours,” says Ward. “You take a hundred cubic miles of material and you drop it off a slope like that. It’s pretty impossible that movement of that much material that quickly wouldn’t make a huge wave.

“If you count up the 500 mega-slides in the last 20 million years [and] just do the division, on average they happen every 5,000 to 10,000 years,” he continues. “The last [megalandslide] we know of was 5,000 to 10,000 years ago in the Reunion Islands in the Indian Ocean. Who knows with these things if we’re ‘due’ or not? But it’s really just the life cycle of volcanoes, so it’s not as farfetched as you might think.”


AREA: BOULDER, COLORADO
EVENT: FLASH FLOOD

On May 30, 1894, the then-fledgling city of Boulder, Colorado was nearly wiped out by a massive flash flood. It took only two days of rain – about six inches in all – to mix with that year’s snow melt to produce a sudden, enormous river that ripped through the city, wiping out bridges, buildings, trees and anything else in its path. Miraculously, no one was killed. Today, however, Boulder is a growing metropolis – and the threat of a repeat flood is always one big storm away.

“Boulder is situated at the mouth of a steep canyon and the clouds can build up quickly and produce a lot of rain,” says Jim Raymond, emergency manager for the city of Boulder. “This city is in the path of the flash flood. I mean, the downtown area is right there at the mouth of the canyon.”

While minor floods in and around Boulder happen annually, the worst-case scenario everyone has been bracing for is that rare occurrence of a heavy rainstorm late in the spring when leftover snow from the previous season is melting off. According to the Natural Hazards Research and Applications Information Center (coincidentally also based in Boulder), five inches of rain in a deforested area could race down hills and quickly overwhelm Boulder Creek, threatening hundreds of homes built on floodplains that have been dry for generations.

“A particularly bad storm at the wrong time of year would be all it would take to create a really catastrophic event,” says Mark McCaffrey, a scientific communication specialist with the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado. “I’ve heard people from the city of Boulder estimate that there could easily be a billion dollars worth of damage in downtown Boulder.”

To date, the city of Boulder has been spared a repeat of the 1894 flood, but there have been plenty of close calls.

“They had some floods just north of here in Fort Collins in [1997] that did huge damage. Then there was the Big Thompson Flood in [1976],” recalls McCaffrey. “There was literally a wall of water coming down the canyon. Honestly, I think it was 20 feet tall in some spots. Many of the people who were killed were in their cars trying to outrun the flood. This is the kind of thing that’s just going to wipe out everything in its path.”


AREA: ENTIRE UNITED STATES
EVENT: AVIAN FLU PANDEMIC

Last month, eyebrows were raised when Dr. Hitoshi Oshitani, a communicable disease expert for the World Health Organization and a frontline warrior in the battle against H5N1 (a.k.a. The Hong Kong Bird Flu), said that it was only a matter of time before avian flu becomes communicable between humans and a worldwide pandemic erupts. Oshitani, who successfully led the effort to contain SARS in 2003, added that “it would take four to six months to develop and produce a vaccine and that might not be fast enough.”

Was this just an out-of-context quote from an overwhelmed public servant? Or is the world facing a pandemic like the 1918 outbreak of H1N1, which killed 500,000 Americans and 50 million people worldwide?

“If a new influenza sub-type emerges, then we would have no natural protection and all people would be susceptible to [avian flu] infections,” says Jennifer Morcone, spokesperson for the Centers for Disease Control National Center for Infectious Diseases. “In a normal flu season, perfectly healthy people may just get a horrible crummy illness for a week. But with H5N1, that illness is very different. It’s much more grave.”

Instances of humans catching avian flu are very rare. However, the virus will eventually mutate and become contagious from person-to-person contact. Once that happens, it’s only a matter of time before modern transportation carries the new strain across the globe. Then the chaos begins: Once contracted, devastating symptoms appear immediately and the virus proves to be fatal in about 50 percent of cases. Again, there is no vaccine or treatment for H5N1.

“The good news for us is that, right now, the virus is not efficiently transmissible from person to person. The majority of those who’ve become ill with H5N1 influenza have had contact with poultry, dead birds, or were poultry workers themselves,” says Morcone. “But the risk of an influenza pandemic is a real one. You know, if you speak with any experts in influenza they’ll tell you it’s a matter of when, not if.”
Anonymous Coward
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10/12/2005 10:19 PM
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Re: The Next Five Disasters - MOUNT RAINIER - DALLAS TORNADO CLUSTER - NY TSUNAMI - BOULDER, COLORADO, FLASH FLOOD - AVIAN FLU PANDEMIC
Well I learned a couple of new words from this:
lahar and tephra, hope I remember them.
Awake and AWARE!
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10/12/2005 10:24 PM
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Re: The Next Five Disasters - MOUNT RAINIER - DALLAS TORNADO CLUSTER - NY TSUNAMI - BOULDER, COLORADO, FLASH FLOOD - AVIAN FLU PANDEMIC
Thanks op for the info! You better run along and kill your pets or something and climb into your hole to be safe.

Seriously though, dont forget to kill all your pets, even the goldfish.
Anonymous Coward
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10/12/2005 10:33 PM
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Re: The Next Five Disasters - MOUNT RAINIER - DALLAS TORNADO CLUSTER - NY TSUNAMI - BOULDER, COLORADO, FLASH FLOOD - AVIAN FLU PANDEMIC
What about getting hit by a bus?
Anonymous Coward
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10/12/2005 10:47 PM
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Re: The Next Five Disasters - MOUNT RAINIER - DALLAS TORNADO CLUSTER - NY TSUNAMI - BOULDER, COLORADO, FLASH FLOOD - AVIAN FLU PANDEMIC
This was interesting. Thanks. :-)
Trac
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10/12/2005 11:19 PM
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Re: The Next Five Disasters - MOUNT RAINIER - DALLAS TORNADO CLUSTER - NY TSUNAMI - BOULDER, COLORADO, FLASH FLOOD - AVIAN FLU PANDEMIC
Fear mongering. Stop gloating over the death of thousands of people and the destruction of hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses. I told you so my fucking ass. Drop dead.

Victor´s downfall.
Anonymous Coward
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10/13/2005 09:01 AM
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Re: The Next Five Disasters - MOUNT RAINIER - DALLAS TORNADO CLUSTER - NY TSUNAMI - BOULDER, COLORADO, FLASH FLOOD - AVIAN FLU PANDEMIC
:5:
Anonymous Coward
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10/17/2005 05:13 PM
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Re: The Next Five Disasters - MOUNT RAINIER - DALLAS TORNADO CLUSTER - NY TSUNAMI - BOULDER, COLORADO, FLASH FLOOD - AVIAN FLU PANDEMIC
bump for more info.
Anonymous Coward
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10/17/2005 08:59 PM
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Re: The Next Five Disasters - MOUNT RAINIER - DALLAS TORNADO CLUSTER - NY TSUNAMI - BOULDER, COLORADO, FLASH FLOOD - AVIAN FLU PANDEMIC
Thanks for the information. Apparently to some people taking your head out of the sand is fearmongering, and mentioning possible casualties is gloating over the dead:) Is it any wonder so many people nestle their families as close to the foot of the volcano as they can, the world is full of ostriches.
Anonymous Coward
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10/17/2005 09:02 PM
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Re: The Next Five Disasters - MOUNT RAINIER - DALLAS TORNADO CLUSTER - NY TSUNAMI - BOULDER, COLORADO, FLASH FLOOD - AVIAN FLU PANDEMIC
why place a disease in a list of earthchanges?

it is not of the same type of occurence
Anonymous Coward
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10/17/2005 09:03 PM
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Re: The Next Five Disasters - MOUNT RAINIER - DALLAS TORNADO CLUSTER - NY TSUNAMI - BOULDER, COLORADO, FLASH FLOOD - AVIAN FLU PANDEMIC
sophisticated mind control being used here

use known earth change possibilities

to slip in a fear of bird flu

we are smarter than you think

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