Living In The Century Of Disasters

Writing in Slate, Joel Achenbach says this will be the century of disasters — both natural and technological. In this segment, Achenbach describes what he calls "black swan" events (rare but unpredictable), and how our engineered society might make disasters seem more common.

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IRA FLATOW, host: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow, hoping you'll bear with me as I hack my way through my last days of laryngitis. So please bear with those squeaks, I have nothing to do with them.

From tsunamis to nuclear meltdowns, to floods and wildfires, you know, sometimes it seems like we're moving from one disaster to the next. Is this true? Are there more disasters now? Or are we just more aware of them?

My next guest says maybe it's a bit of both. In an article for Slate magazine, Joel Achenbach writes that the 21st century will be known as the century of natural disasters and technological crises and unholy combinations of the two. But he's here to tell us why we shouldn't worry and at the same time how to prepare.

Joel Achenbach is a reporter and science writer for the Washington Post. His latest book is "A Hole at the Bottom of the Sea: The Race to Kill the BP Oil Gusher." He joins us from our NPR studios in Washington. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

JOEL ACHENBACH: Ira, thanks so much for having me. It's an honor to be on this great show you have. So thank you.

FLATOW: Well, thank you, it's an honor to have you on to talk about it because I know you've written many, many books, seven books, and you've written a lot about disasters, oil spills. You've been a reporter for the Post for 21 years. Does it seem to you like it does to us, that we're seeing more disasters now than ever?

ACHENBACH: Lately it seems like that's all I cover are disasters. You know, it's the Mississippi River flood or the Japan tragedy, the Fukushima meltdown after that. I'm really glad that solar flare this week didn't hit us directly.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ACHENBACH: Because, you know, here in Washington, it's about 98 degrees. It's been this way all week, and I would not have wanted a solar flare disaster to knock out the transformers on the grid. I know you have guests going to talk about that, but that is one of the sort of potential calamities that could have happen out there when you have...

I mean, essentially what we have here is a planet with seven billion people living in many cases in large cities that are in seismically hazardous places or are vulnerable to tsunamis. There's a lot of people and a lot of stuff vulnerable to these ancient forces, plus we have all of our systems, our grids, our nuclear power plants. Or last year, we saw what happened with the deepwater drilling. That's what my book was about is the BP disaster.

So the technology creates these systems that are vulnerable to catastrophic failure.

FLATOW: So we have systems and technology in place that we never had 25 or 30 years ago, and we have more people living near those things than we did have before.

ACHENBACH: If you go back to 1800, the year 1800, there was one city in the world that had a million people, and that was Beijing. The most recent count I've come across is that there are 381 cities with at least a million people. Of those cities, a lot of them are in seismically very hazardous places like Caracas, Venezuela, or Mexico City or Katmandu.

And if you're living in a city, and you are poor, you're not going to worry about events that don't happen but once every 200 years or so. But it's - this is the future. This is going to happen because a lot of these people live in homes that are not well-built.

If you look what happened in Haiti last year, I mean, yes, an earthquake caused the disaster, but what really killed people were buildings, the lack of rebar, the fact that they were living in unreinforced structures. And so a lot of people around the world are in those kind of conditions and are sort of sitting ducks because of the seismic hazard.

There was a study by I think it was Roger Bilham at the University of Colorado that said that 403 million people on the planet today live in places with significant seismic hazard.

FLATOW: You say these things are black swan events. What do you mean by that?

ACHENBACH: Well, that's a term that was popularized a few years ago by Nassim Taleb in a book he wrote called "The Black Swan," in which he talked about these events sort of out of the blue that are game-changers. And people have said that 9/11 was a black swan or that the housing collapse and the financial crisis of 2008 was a black swan.

Inevitably, these events actually have precursors. I mean, they are predictable at some level. I mean, 9/11 didn't really come out of the blue. It just seemed that way. And so the - if you're in government or in a policy position, you have to figure out: How do we prepare for events that are low probability but high consequence?

So for example, last year, the Deepwater Horizon blowout, it was a black swan event. No one saw that coming. When it happened, I can testify as a newspaper reporter, we didn't understand what we were looking at. We didn't realize that this was a blowout and that this fire on the rig that killed 11 people was going to begin this three- or four- or five-month disaster that we were going to be covering every day on the front page.

We just didn't know what we were looking at because it was so unfamiliar to us. And I think that's one thing that, if you're, you know, in a policy position, if you're the head of FEMA or the president of the United States, you need to be aware that you don't get to pick your next disaster. You don't get to decide, you know, what is going to be the big issue in July, you know, looking at it from the perspective of early June, because you just don't know.

And so the answer is how do you become resilient, adaptable, flexible and able to respond quickly and with some grace when things go bad?

FLATOW: On the other hand, we're seeing hurricanes of unprecedented strength. We're seeing floods of - you know, that are huge and that they haven't seen in the history of the Mississippi. We're seeing tornadoes that are a mile wide. I mean, it's hard to say that, you know, that we have not entered an era of bigger, greater, giant disasters.

ACHENBACH: Well, climate change is arguably a huge disaster in and of itself. It hasn't played out, you know, to the extent that it will. I mean, it is a fact we're in a warming planet, and all the models would predict that as climate change - as the planet warms, you're going to have more moisture in the atmosphere, you're going to have larger flooding events, more intense droughts.

I don't know that you could say that the flood in the Mississippi this year is because of climate change. You know, I know that it annoys people, but I stick to the formulation that you can't attribute a single event to climate change. But it is reasonable to say that we're loading the dice, that we are setting ourselves up for trouble and that, over time, you know, rapid climate change, if it happens quickly and severely, could outpace our ability to adapt to it.

And we don't really know how it will play out entirely. You know, it creates a lot of uncertainty, and so I think that, you know, at the very least, the people who run this country and who make decisions around the world need to, you know, face the facts about climate change, that this is real.

It's not a hoax. It's not something - you know, it didn't stop in 1998. Global warming didn't stop in 1998, and carbon dioxide is, you know, is steadily going up in the atmosphere, and there's going to be consequences of that.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number. Okay, now that we have alarmed everybody...

ACHENBACH: Exactly. I know, have a nice day.

FLATOW: Well, but - and you say don't worry. I mean, we've talked about all the reasons why we should worry.

ACHENBACH: Well, what I would say first of all is, you know, I worry am I going to be able to pay for college tuition. I worry are my tomatoes going to actually bear fruit this summer in my backyard. I don't walk around worrying that the sky is going to fall.

I do think that people ought to be aware that the grid could go out for a week or two or longer. In fact, getting back to the solar flares, I mean, one of the concerns is you could lose the grid for many months. You could have - if a flare were to take out the transformers. And there's been some research on that recently.

You know, I think people need to understand that not every day is going to go as planned, and they don't get - the technology doesn't always work. I mean, one thing that jumped out at me from doing my book was that here you had this - the offshore oil drilling industry, lots of very brilliant engineering goes into drilling holes in mile-deep water. It's amazing that they can do it.

I mean, these rigs are ships that are dynamically positioned and able to reach these reservoirs that are not only blow a mile of water, but then they're another two and a half miles down below in the formation.

And this technology is stunning to behold, but it's not necessarily quite as robust as the engineers would hope. We saw that when the blowout preventer was unable to seal the well, and what we have is an engineered planet now. We have increasingly put ourselves in the grips of these complex systems that can fail in complex ways.

You look what happened in Fukushima. There you've got these six nuclear reactors. All six had problems not just because there was a big earthquake and then a tsunami. The problem was they lost electricity. Never mind how it happened. They lost electricity, and those systems were not designed to cool the nuclear fuel rods and so on if they lost electricity.

So I would say that people need to be aware that complex systems don't always work as planned. And so if I can just ramble here for another second, let's talk about climate change in geo-engineering. Are you sure you want to do that? Are you sure you want to invest a lot of technology in trying to cool the planet artificially? Will that system work as planned?

FLATOW: So be careful before you get what you're asking for is what you're saying.

ACHENBACH: Yeah, be careful what you ask for. I guess - I don't mean to just scare people. I mean, I just think that one thing that people need to do is listen to SCIENCE FRIDAY, okay, read a book occasionally about science and technology, figure out how the systems around you work, you know, where does electricity come from, what is electricity. You know, where does your water come from?

Have some sense, you know, that we live embedded in this engineered civilization.

FLATOW: And be ready for disaster when it strikes.

ACHENBACH: Well, you know, buy some batteries not only for yourself but for your neighbor who's not going to remember to buy batteries who's going to come asking to borrow some.

FLATOW: I've seen that "Twilight Zone" episode. Well, thank you, Joel, for taking time to be with us.

ACHENBACH: I hope people enjoyed it.

FLATOW: Well, I think you've got to be scared. It's a good motivating factor.

ACHENBACH: Not scared, just focused, just aware.

FLATOW: Okay, we'll take that thought with us, Joel. Thanks for taking time to be with us today.

ACHENBACH: All right, thanks, Ira.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Joel Achenbach is a reporter and science writer for the Washington Post. His latest book is "A Hole at the Bottom of the Sea: The Race to Kill the BP Oil Gusher." We're going to take a break. When we come back, we're going to talk about new infrastructure and talk about that grid, that grid that Joel mentioned. What happened with the solar flare? Did it affect the grid? It actually did, and the grid survived. We'll talk about when we get back. Stay with us. We'll be right back after this break.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR.

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