On September 28th, 2018, a magnitude 7.5 earthquake struck the coast of Sulawesi, an Indonesian island. A severe natural disaster in itself, the damage it caused was exponentially magnified by the fact that the earthquake triggered a devastating tsunami with waves up to 10 feet high. Aftershocks and floods continued to hit the region for weeks, further magnifying the danger to aid workers and survivors. The extent of the damage is difficult to quantify, but it is known that at least 2,045 people have died and potentially more than 5,000 were still missing as of October 11th, when Indonesian search and rescue operations ceased. And yet, despite the seemingly anomalous severity of the catastrophe at hand, natural disasters of this scale are becoming commonplace.
Hurricane Florence, a storm that recently hit the East Coast of North America, dropped a record 30 inches of rainfall on North Carolina, with costs of damages totalling between $38 and $50 billion. However, such costs alone seem almost insignificant when one considers the 6 severe (Category 3 or stronger) hurricanes and $280 billion of expenses of the 2017 Hurricane season, the costliest on record. Increasingly severe natural disasters constantly barrage civilizations across the planet, and yet, whilst reports on each individual event are numerous and comprehensive, they are presented as just that: individual events, completely separate from one another. The media capitalizes on the anomaly of each catastrophe without recognizing the evident interconnectivity of the events, ignoring a far broader and more dangerous disaster.
In isolation, each of these events appears to be a ‘once in a lifetime’ catastrophe; ‘the costliest hurricane season on record’ should generally seem like an anomaly. And yet, the frequency of these disasters is primed to make them commonplace. One can observe a similar phenomenon with the recent explosion of gun violence in the United States. In 2017, at least 15,549 people were killed by guns and gun violence in the US, excluding the majority of suicides. It appears that, due to the sheer volume of tragedy, the public is ironically losing interest. According to an analysis by The Trace, it took just two weeks for coverage of the Las Vegas mass shooting of October 1st, 2017 to nearly disappear from mainstream media. This was the deadliest mass shooting in United States history. Though the volume of victims and the magnitude of the issue continue to increase, media coverage of each event somehow seems to be falling. Admittedly, this is a spectacularly nuanced issue, but the point stands that these horrific tragedies are becoming normalized in modern culture, such that it might no longer be standard to dedicate air time to their coverage. Natural disaster events are similarly vulnerable to such a fate.
A normalization of severe earthquakes, hurricanes, and typhoons diverts attention away from the issues at hand, creating a mindset that these natural events are out of human control. Increasingly devastating natural disasters, however, are a largely man-made phenomenon, and their capacity to drive the public to further ignore the issues creates a positive feedback loop that, if not addressed, is primed to drive humankind into oblivion.
There are three unique human trends and practices that systematically fuel this vicious cycle, the first being urbanization. The proportion of the human population residing in condensed urban areas has increased steadily since 1960:It is up to 55% today and projected to reach 61% by 2030. Urban areas find themselves particularly at risk for devastation by natural disasters, as the dense populations tend to position large numbers of people in the danger zone. Additionally, large buildings and other structures that at risk of collapsing contribute to the danger. Improvements in urban infrastructure can help mitigate these effects, but the magnitude of change still needed is almost incomprehensible. It is estimated that $1.7 trillion will be needed annually in order to maintain and improve infrastructure in Asia over the next 20 years in order to withstand and recover from the increasingly prevalent natural disasters. These changes are not feasible for many countries in Asia, including Indonesia, where poverty makes such investment impossible. Palu, the Indonesian region most directly exposed to the recent earthquake, only has 335,297 inhabitants, yet it still suffered incredible loss of life. In the case of cities the size of San Francisco or New York, which continue to grow every day, devastation can be astronomical. Cities positioned on dangerous geological features, such as fault zones, hot spots, and plate boundaries, only exacerbate the issue of large swaths of people getting exposed to disaster.
Additionally, human populations in general are growing at an astounding rate, increasing by, on average, 1.2% every year. This brings around 83 million new people into the world per day, resulting in the inevitable spread of human society into areas at risk. Population density across the United States, for example, is on a constant upward trend, reaching a high of 92.2 residents per square mile in 2017. As the bounds of civilization progress to cover more and more of our fragile earth, disasters that previously would have affected wildlands void of human life will begin to take down towns and cities;More houses will be destroyed, more lives will be lost, and more catastrophe will spread.
Anthropogenic climate change is the final and perhaps the most terrifying phenomenon driving the increased prevalence of devastating natural disasters. Already, there are six times more hydrological disaster events (floods, landslides, etc.) than there were 38 years ago, in 1980. The number of disasters that cause more than $1 billion in damages in the United States has also increased dramatically in this time frame. The release of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere through industry and energy use propels not only global warming, but also a more erratic global climate and higher sea levels, which lead to more frequent, and more devastating, geological and meteorological disasters. The climate change-induced increase in sea surface temperature in recent years is one specific example. Worldwide non-polar sea surface temperatures are, on average, 1.12 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than the mean for the 20th century. These temperatures are a primary force governing the formation of hurricanes, and their increase corresponds directly with the increase in the severity and frequency of storms across the world. Hurricanes likes those that struck the Atlantic in 2017 will become the norm, and rising sea levels will increase the destructive capacities of tsunami waves. These storms will clearly exemplify the catastrophic impacts our negligence towards global climate can have, and yet, in society’s current state, with storms becoming more and more commonplace, they will only propel that negligence to continue.
This triad of trends and habits will take lives. It will destroy civilizations. And yet, the most dangerous effect they will have is their capacity to make these horrific storms an accepted part of human life, such that no one will bat an eye at a hurricane; no one will stop their day for an earthquake. Unless governments recognize the anomaly that the frequency of these disasters represents, there will be no motivation to prepare for these disasters or to put programs and technologies into effect to minimize their impact. The programs and technologies exist, but if the motivation does not, human society will perpetually be in an age of natural disaster.