Last updated: November 25, 2012 11:38 am
Earthquakes, hurricanes and tornadoes - Oh my: Coming to terms with natural disasters
NORTH VANCOUVER (CUP) — With the recent earthquakes on the West Coast and superstorms in the east, the world is starting to look like the set of an apocalyptic Steven Spielberg movie. While climate change may be one of the major culprits behind the increase of hurricanes and tropical storms, it has no effect on earthquakes and volcanoes, or disasters made by the earth rather than the atmosphere.
Even though hurricanes are unrelated to earthquakes, and Vancouver’s potential for natural disasters is totally different than New York’s, witnessing disaster in another urban centre can be alarming nonetheless. If such a big, powerful city that personifies modern urbanity can be the site of such ruin, how might the rest of the world look when the plates are shifting under our feet? Taken together with the recent coastal earthquakes, these catastrophes have people wondering what the cause is, if they’ll become more frequent, and how they might change what our urban futures look like.
Storms on steroids
The warming of the planet does have effects on the weather and climate, and as Simon Donner, a climate scientist and UBC professor, explains, humans have a direct effect on global warming.
“The difference between climate and the weather is basically statistics. Weather is like the noise and climate is like the signal. If we add up enough weather events and look at how they occur over time, we might notice that the climate is chang- ing because more weather events of a certain trend are occurring — and so if we study that for long enough, we might have statistics that change.”
Donner says that the connection between climate change and hurricanes will never be direct; therefore global warming can never be fully blamed for the increase in hurricanes.
“We’re never going to be able to say that ‘This storm was caused by climate change.’ But we can say that these storms are expected to be more common in a warmer future,” Donner explains. “We can also zoom in on what a storm does, and say ‘Wow, those impacts are probably worse because of climate change.’ With the example of Hurricane Sandy, if the same hurricane had struck New York and New Jersey at the exact same point in the tidal cycle — same high tide, same time of the month, same time of the year —100 years ago, the storm would have been smaller.”
Another factor in the rise of hurricanes is the fact that today’s technologically evolved society is noticing storms more than in previous times.
“‘Whoa it seems like there are a lot of storms,’ is influenced by what we hear about. We might hear about more storms now because there is more media now than there was in the past,” says Donner. “One of the challenges in trying to say, ‘Are hurricanes becoming more common?’ is that 80 years ago, if a hurricane formed and never struck land, no one would know … these days there are satellites monitoring all of this stuff, so we know.”
Changing climate change
Climate does have an effect on the intensity of hurricanes, and humans have a direct effect on climate change and the progression of global warming. These “superstorms” are causing people to look at global warming in a more serious manner. In a National Geographic article, scientist Christopher Landsea said that our growing population alone is reason for concern.
“When you double some vulnerable populations every 20 to 30 years, that’s what’s going to cause disasters. We’ve got a huge problem, even if hurricanes don’t change at all,” Landsea told National Geographic. But there are steps individual people can take to lower their impact on the environment. Donner says that there are three main ways for a person to take action against climate change: Professionally, politically, and personally.
“I think the most important thing to recognize [is] that this is a problem, that for the most part, [this] generation... did not start. It started a long time ago. But … this generation is largely going to be tasked with solving it,” he says.
“Another [thing] that could reduce emissions would be looking at what you eat. A bigger thing than where it comes from, is what you actually eat … how much energy went into producing it,” he continues. “One of the biggest things you could do is to eat less meat every week because it takes a lot more energy to grow crops to feed one animal than it does to grow crops to feed people. You’re pulling one step out. I’m not advocating for vegetarianism, I’m just saying that if you want to reduce greenhouse gas emission from your daily life, driving less or driving more efficiently and eating differently are probably the biggest things you could do.”
One of the bigger points Donner makes is that young people don’t have to become climate scientists or activists to have a positive effect on the climate. Protecting the climate can be brought, in some kind of aspect, to every profession available.
“If you think of any profession that you go into… you can focus your work in that profession on addressing climate change. The fact is that they’ll all need to contribute,” he says. “If you think about it, that is what the world is certainly going to need. Not to create a profession of climate activists or sustainability professionals, but sort of bring it into whatever they do.“
Monitoring earthquakes proves to be much more difficult than monitoring storm systems and hurricanes. Because of how the guts of the earth move and shift to cause the earthquakes, science has yet to find a way to successfully predict the phenomenon.
“Climate change, hurricanes… earthquakes, and volcanoes are energized by different sources. So the climate [and] things like hurricanes, all that has to do ultimately with energy that comes from the sun,” explains Michael Bostock, a professor and earthquake seismologist at UBC. “Earthquakes and volcanoes are generated through energy that come from deep in the earth that basically is the residual heat from Earth’s early formation.”
Climate change has nothing to do with the movement of the earth or the shifting of the plate tectonics that cause the earthquakes. And because the shifting happens under the earth’s surface, it makes it difficult for scientists to know what’s happening, and to warn people about potential earthquakes.
“At the present time, the best we can do is forecast. There is a difference between prediction and forecasting. Forecasting is sort of a longer-term thing and we can use our knowledge of seismicity in the past to say something about how likely the occurrence of earthquakes is going to be into the future.
“But predicting things into the daily or weekly basis is going to be very difficult. And the main reason is that it’s very hard to. Unlike the atmosphere, which we can probe easily with satellites … which allows us to predict weather a week in advance, the earth is much harder to penetrate for obvious reasons … So the prospect for being able to predict earthquakes, at least in the short term, is not very good.”
Not being able to effectively predict earthquakes can be detrimental to a community, as seen recently with the 7.7 earthquake that shook Haida Gwaii, B.C. in October.
“There was no warning before the quake hit,” says Cherie Kalhofer, who lives in nearby Masset. “It was kind of wild – it felt like the room was swaying around, just like the plates below us in the ocean below us are said to do during an earthquake.”
Although there were warning sirens and officials were trying to notify as many citizens about the ongoing earthquake, Kalhofer and her husband didn’t hear the warnings because they live on the outskirts of town.
“My mom came over. She said that the police were driving around telling everybody to get out of town. She wondered why they weren't bothering with us,” she continues, “I said ‘I guess we don’t matter.’”
The earthquake first shook the island around 8 p.m. PST, but it wasn’t until three hours later that Kalhofer heard any official warning.
“I was watching the news and at 11:20 p.m. I noticed flashing lights outside. It was a police car who sounded its siren a couple of times. I stood at the window looking at the car wondering what it was expecting me to do. Then I thought ‘Well I guess we do matter,’” she explains. “Two minutes later the news said that our earthquake warning had been lowered to an alert.”
In the days after the earthquake in Haida Gwaii, many people questioned the province’s ability to warn people of the after dangers, such as tsunamis, and how prepared B.C. actually is in the event of a catastrophe. According to CBC News: “Emergency Information B.C. issued its first tsunami warning on Twitter at 8:55 p.m. — long after the news stations had already begun reporting on the earthquake, and local civic leaders had begun evacuations based on the U.S. alerts.”
Yet the province stands by its warning procedure. As premier Christy Clark said to CBC News: “If there are things to learn, then we’ll go back and look at them, but here’s the thing: no one was hurt, no one was injured. The system worked.”
While no one was injured, this earthquake raised concerns about what will happen if an earthquake were to hit a more populated urban centre, such as Vancouver.
Canada's own urban centre, Vancouver,has long been rumoured to be due for an earthquake, and Bostock explains that it’s not a question of if it will happen, but when.
“It is inevitable. We know that they have occurred in the past, roughly every 550 years. It’s not so regular that we can say we know when it’s going to happen again because sometimes it’s happened as frequently as every 300 years,” he explains. “Sometimes it’s been 800 years before these large earthquakes and the last one was actually 300 years ago. That tells you that we should be on our toes as far as being prepared for the consequences of an earthquake. It might not happen until our grandkids are older, but it might occur tomorrow.”
Earthquakes, generally speaking, are the side effects of the core of the planet cooling down.
“Earth as a planet is gradually cooling. That transfer of heat from the deep earth to the surface is what gives rise to volcanoes and earthquakes, and eventually, deep into the future, gradually the earth will cool to the point where all those [processes] cease,” says Bostock. “So Earth will eventually become a dead planet, but for the next few hundreds of millions, if not billions, of years there will continue to be earthquakes.”
One thing that both Bostock and Donner agree upon is that the geographical placement of Vancouver protects it from dangers such as hurricanes and tsunamis.
“You’re never going to have a tropical cyclone in Vancouver, it’s virtually impossible,” says Donner. “We’re too far north, and they don’t generate on our side of the Pacific. It just wouldn’t happen. So we’re not at threat of hurricane Sandy ever happening if you live here.”
Bostock says that Vancouver is protected from tsunamis because of Vancouver Island. “In Vancouver, because you’re sheltered via the Straight of Juan de Fuca, by the time a major tsunami makes its way into the inland waters of the Georgia Straight its amplitudes are going to be diminished fairly dramatically,” he explains. “Even if you get a 10-metre tsunami, like the kind we’ve been exposed to from the recent Japanese earthquake, even if it’s off the West Coast by the time it moves into the inland waterways, it’s not likely to be more than a metre or so.”
The City of Vancouver wants its residents to be ready for disasters, especially earthquakes, as they are the most prominent concern in this geographical region. To accomplish this, they offer free emergency preparedness seminars.
Jackie Kloosterboer is an emergency planning coordinator for the City of Vancouver, and she says that people need to be more aware of what to do in an emergency situation.
“We offer free sessions on emergency preparedness, and sometimes they’re very lowly attended,” she says. The sessions focus on “what you can do to be prepared at home, at work, and for your family. Teaching people what to do when an earthquake hits.”
Kloosterboer believes that more residents are under-prepared because they haven’t really experienced the trauma of a disaster — yet.
“I think people have become complacent. I think for a lot of us, you know, we have never felt a major earthquake here. We may have felt the odd small one, but we've never had a significant earthquake and we just don’t think about it like we should.
"People are busy. They’ve got other things going on.”
Fortunately, earthquakes and disasters in other areas act as a reminder for people in Vancouver. After the recent quake in Haida Gwaii, the demand for and attendance to the emergency preparedness seminars has increased.
“We notice that after every earthquake or after every event, that people do become aware of it, and our class numbers definitely go up,” comments Kloosterboer.
Natural disaster can be devastating to any community, as seen in such recent examples as Japan, New Oreleans and Thailand. If these, and the recent earthquake closer to home, can teach Canada anything, it’s that a little education and being prepared can go a long way.