Lessons learned from catastrophe

I would never claim to be an expert in the physical sciences, but one thing I do know is that Earth is not a dormant, lazy planet. It's churning with massive internal energy every second of every day, and sometimes those forces are unleashed with devastating effects.

I got plenty of firsthand geological experience growing up near the San Andreas fault, where it wasn't unusual for the ground to start shaking suddenly and unexpectedly. Occasionally I've seen TV news anchors finish stories about California quakes by quipping, "I guess by now they're used to it out there."

In my case, that's not true. I have never grown accustomed to seeing furniture dance across the floor while the windows rattled.

In fifth grade, my classmates and I got a lesson in "shock and awe" from news photographs of Anchorage, Alaska, after the big 1964 tremor. The wreckage looked like scenes from a Godzilla movie. We also learned about the tsunami effect because a big wave smashed into many coastal communities and did serious damage to Crescent City, just south of the Oregon border.

At about the same time, I became aware that natural hazards also lurked in the sky. My youthful reading habits were drifting into the realm of catastrophism, and I plowed through a wide range of titles, including "Off on a Comet," by Jules Verne, "Earth Abides," by George Stewart, and Immanuel Velikovsky's hugely controversial "Worlds in Collision."

Fate Magazine and the writings of Frank Edwards provided me with chilling accounts of historic disasters such as Mt. Vesuvius burying Pompeii and Herculaneum under tons of searing volcanic ash in AD 79, the Krakatoa explosion of 1883, and the mysterious blast that blew down entire forests in the Tunguska region of Siberia in 1908.

Throughout the ages, scientists and philosophers have used various metaphors to describe the forces whirling around us. Newton and others liked to think of the universe as a clock, with Earth and our solar system as parts in the gigantic, eternal mechanism.

In the aftermath of the incredible Asian tsunami, a grittier image of nature's power was offered by Brian Atwater, an employee of the US Geological Survey. Quoted in USA Today, he was lamenting the tragic lack of a tsunami warning system in the Indian Ocean and said, "Sumatra has an ample history of great earthquakes.... Everyone knew Sumatra was a loaded gun." A loaded gun does a lot more damage when it goes off in the middle of a crowd, and there are now lots of crowded areas on our planet.

Unfortunately, Earth doesn't pause or change its habits to accommodate our activities. Destructive events were happening long before we invented calendars and started keeping records. Their power is so massive that it makes civilization seem small and fragile, even in the 21st century. But one lesson we learn from these catastrophes is that humanity survives, and moves forward, by putting our differences aside and working together.

If we ever forget that lesson, we are truly inviting disaster.

Jeffrey Shaffer is an author and essayist who writes about media, American culture, and personal history.

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