Natural events v. natural disasters

Nature is in constant motion. That has made a pleasantly habitable planet -- except when nature collides with the inhabitants.

Ingolfur Juliusson/Reuters/File
Northern Lights above the ash plume of Iceland’s Eyjafjall ajökull volcano, April 23, 2010.

Before there were natural disasters, there were natural events.

Earth’s great plates shifted, forming continents and oceans. Its crust erupted, spewing gas. Storms raged, forests burned, droughts parched. Nobody noticed.

As they say in Geology 101, human time is nothing compared with geological time. Civilization only really began at the end of the last Ice Age, about 10,000 years ago. The great monuments of humanity – the pyramids of Giza, the Great Wall of China – have been around only for the last few seconds of a geological clock that began ticking 4,500,000,000 years ago.

Natural events became natural disasters when human time intersected with geological time. During quiet periods, the handiwork of disasters is enjoyable, even necessary. Fresh air, abundant seas, inspiring mountain ranges have few detractors.

“We wouldn’t have air and water without volcanoes,” says Stephen Nelson, a specialist on volcanoes and head of the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Tulane University. “We wouldn’t have mountains without earthquakes.”

The more geologically active the area, the more impressive it often is. From California to Kashmir, the landscape is magnificent, with dramatic upthrusts and fertile values. The soil is rich with minerals. Rivers run through it.

Japan sits in a uniquely active earthquake zone, which makes the Japanese islands an attractive place to live. You can tell how much the people of Japan love their islands by looking at their art. One of the most popular themes is called “sansui.” These are paintings of steep mountains and waterfalls, sometimes with tiny human figures walking in the foreground.

But traditional Japanese art isn’t all about serene landscapes. One of 19th-century painter Hokusai Katsushika’s most memorable images, for instance, is of a huge wave cresting over tiny boats. Tsunami is a Japanese word. Both mountains and waves are reminders of nature’s ability to assert itself at any time.

Nature indifferently did just that in Japan on March 11. There has been great suffering in Japan and concern throughout the world about what happened along the northeastern coast of Japan’s main island, Honshu. The images and stories describing the instant interruption of everyday when the great wave rushed in are heartbreaking. The people of Japan are going through a time of deep testing.

You may live in a currently quiet corner of the world compared with the Pacific “Ring of Fire.” What is quiet today will someday be in motion.

Stephen Nelson, the volcano specialist, knows that. He has traveled throughout the world examining natural events and natural disasters over the past 31 years from his base in New Orleans, a city he loves for its vitality – its music, politics, community life. In 2005, nature turned its attention to New Orleans. The Nelson family evacuated.

They returned to a natural disaster named Katrina. One of the most vivid impressions he had was how at night the tall buildings of downtown were dark and abandoned. Nature had simply turned off the lights.

John Yemma is editor of The Christian Science Monitor.

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