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    The Rise of the Natural Manmade Disaster

    Written by

    Brian Merchant

    Senior Editor

    An investigative commission called the meltdown at Fukushima an entirely preventable “manmade” disaster, and the media blew up. Any editor or reporter worth his salt in sensationalist muckraking, after all, knows nuclear disaster stories get eyeballs. The story goes: this was good ol’ fashioned regulatory capture, the fox watching the hen house. A failure of government, a case of brazen recklessness from the nuclear industry — this was no freak fluke of nature. This was a disaster that could have been avoided altogether. This catastrophe was manmade.

    Well, obviously. I can’t really imagine a less surprising conclusion. The point of the investigation’s revelation is to highlight the collusion between the government watchdogs and the plant operators, but let’s go macro. The moment man builds a nuclear power plant along one of the most active fault lines in the world, he is guaranteeing that should a disaster strike it, it will be manmade.

    There’s no such thing as a natural disaster anymore, a wise man who has been SEO-spammed out of history once said. The quote has been applied to the earthquake in Haiti, to Hurricane Katrina, to other “natural disasters” that wrought destruction in a decidedly manmade manner. And it’s true, to a point. Even the most organic, seemingly unpreventable disasters — nobody has figured out a way to keep the tectonic plates from sliding around — clearly wreak havoc based on how they influence the manmade environment. But there’s a new shade of ambiguity on the rise: Are these natural-cum-manmade disasters genuinely and actually “preventable”?

    Of course, we have a slew of explicitly human-caused disasters under our belts — the Union Carbide gas leak at Bhopal, our interminable parade of oil spills, our dam failures, the Love Canal, Seveso, Chernobyl, etc, etc — but our history is lined also with manmade disasters that rode in on nature’s coattails. These “natural manmade disasters” in the vein of Fukushima are only likely to grow more frequent as we continue to rely more heavily on technology, pollute vaster swaths of the planet, and experiment with the climate itself. So let’s get acquainted with some of history’s natural manmade disasters, to prepare for a future full of them:

    London’s Great Smog of ’52

    Here’s a fine example. In 1952, unusually cold weather combined with an anticyclone and windless conditions to coat the heavily polluted city in a layer of smog. It blanketed the streets, looked like “pea soup” fog, and killed 4,000 people. A hundred thousand people fell ill, and research eventually concluded that 12,000 died as a direct result of the event. The cold spell was at the heart of the disaster, but again, it was the energy source that did folks in — as it got colder, they shoveled more coal into the furnace to keep warm, exacerbating the miasma of pollution that choked London.

    The Dust Bowl

    image: NOAA

    After decades of farming without bothering to rotate crops, farmers across the Great Plains had depleted the nation’s topsoil rather thoroughly. So, when the major drought of the 1930s struck, drying out the land, there was nothing to keep all that dust on the ground. So it created one of the biggest ecological disasters in US history, the Dust Bowl. Dust storms consumed entire communities from the South to the Midwest and forced millions to relocate and to inspire The Grapes of Wrath.

    Hurricane Katrina

    The greatest natural disaster to hit the United States in recent years might not be exactly that. Scientists have speculated that climate change might have been responsible for giving Katrina the extra juice it needed to become a full-bore catastrophe. Kenneth Trenberth, a climate scientist and a lead author of the IPCC’s 4th Assessment of Climate change, has described it thusly:

    “This is not to say Katrina was due to global warming … There is an influence of global warming, something like an 8 per cent influence. So if about 305 millimetres of rain falls in New Orleans that means about an extra 25.4mm of rainfall more than might have occurred anyway. Often it’s the straw that broke the camel’s back. Was 25.4mm of extra rainfall enough to cause the levees to break?”

    Scientists now believe that rising temperatures may be making hurricanes more intense (though perhaps less frequent). No scientist would ever say that global warming caused the destruction wrought by Katrina, but it likely made matters worse. Also, New Orleans had levees that were supposed to be able to withstand Katrina-scale wrath; design and operational flaws led to its failure. In short, man made a city below sea level in hurricane territory, relied on technology to keep nature out, and failed. Sounds like a manmade natural disaster to me.

    Russia’s Heat Wave

    As with Katrina, we have to consider the same kind of climate inputs for the Russian heatwave of 2010, which killed over 56,000 people. Climate scientists worry that rising global temperatures fueled the extreme weather, and helped turn the event into a full-scale disaster.



    The deadliest earthquake in recorded history hit China in 1556, and it killed some 800,000 people. Hundreds of thousands of people were living in dwellings built into artificial caves; the quake caused a landslide that wiped them all away. That might have been filed away as a natural disaster, but today, we know so much more about earthquakes and how to mitigate their impacts that our failure to prepare for them seems to place the ball more squarely in our court.

    For instance, the devastating earthquake in Haiti annihilated its cities; shoddily built homes collapsed everywhere and left 50,000 – 80,000 people dead. So was this disaster then manmade? Man built the infrastructure that caved in upon him, after all. But it’s a thornier question: In this case, it’s really poverty that killed so many Haitians — Japan’s comparative wealth and better building codes severely limited the death toll when it was hit with a comparable quake.

    Of course, by heading down this road, we’re forever blurring the distinction between natural and manmade disasters — a natural progression given our expansive adoption of failure-prone technology, our tendency to build societies that depend on it, and still-booming population that is transforming more and more of the earth’s ecology. We’ve built cities that rely on air conditioning, for example; and if a storm knocks out the power, people perish. And that heat very well may be of the record-setting variety, given the greenhouse gas pollution we’ve pumped into the atmosphere.

    You get the point. Human civilization is now so enmeshed with nature that we can no longer honestly blame its whims for bringing suffering and destruction to our doorstep. Nature is over now; we’re nature. The planet is an ornery asshole but so are we; with each catastrophe we see our shortcomings and hubris reflected in the rubble. But I’m not sure we’re stopping to take many notes.