2020 So Far: Fires, Floods, And Quakes : Short Wave Already this year, natural disasters have wreaked havoc in Australia, Indonesia, and Puerto Rico. We look at some science behind the wildfires, floods, and earthquakes in those places with NPR reporters Rebecca Hersher and Jason Beaubien.

You can find more of Jason's reporting on Australia here and follow him on Twitter @jasonbnpr. Follow NPR's Adrian Florido on Twitter @adrianflorido and find his reporting from Puerto Rico here. Rebecca Hersher is @rhersher and here's her story about wildfire embers in Australia.

Follow host Maddie Sofia on Twitter @maddie_sofia. Email the show at shortwave@npr.org.
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2020 So Far: Fires, Floods, And Quakes

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2020 So Far: Fires, Floods, And Quakes

2020 So Far: Fires, Floods, And Quakes

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You're listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR. Maddie Sofia here with not one, but two of my favorite NPR reporters - don't tell everybody else I said that - Rebecca Hersher, who covers climate and environment on the NPR science desk. Hey, Becky.


SOFIA: And Jason Beaubien, who covers global health and development on the NPR science desk. Hey, Jason.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Hey. It's good to be here finally.

SOFIA: I know.

BEAUBIEN: Finally, I get invited onto the show.

SOFIA: Honestly, it's about time, Jason.

BEAUBIEN: Yeah. I thought so.

SOFIA: So you two are here because we are barely a few weeks into 2020, and it has already been a tumultuous one for Mama Earth out there.



SOFIA: Jason, you just got back from Australia.


SOFIA: What struck you about your time there?

BEAUBIEN: Just sort of the scope of this crisis, the fact that it is all over the country, that it's dominating just the people you talk to in the cafe, it's dominating the air, it's dominating the politics, and, you know, you just look at the amount of land that has been burned. It's just millions and millions of acres, and basically, there really is no end in sight. You've got naval ships rescuing people off of beaches because they're completely trapped - and this is in a big, you know, an industrialized Western country. This is happening as a result of this disaster.

SOFIA: And, Becky, you've been taking a look in your reporting recently at what happened in Indonesia.

HERSHER: Yeah. So it's been flooding there. The flooding started on New Year's Day, these really big rainstorms. It's monsoon season, but the amount of rain that was falling was abnormally large in a very short period of time, and it hit the capital region. So Jakarta is an Asian megacity, and when you have that many people - so Jakarta has, like, about 10 million in the city itself but more like 30 million when you go out to the whole metro region - and you have all this rain falling in this really short period of time, you have tens of millions of people who are exposed to really dangerous flooding because all that rain was falling on a city that already is prone to flooding and already is actually sinking into the sea.

SOFIA: Yeah. Yeah. And closer to home, on January 7 at about 4:30 in the morning, a 6.4 magnitude earthquake struck near a coastal stretch of southern Puerto Rico. And 6.4 is a big earthquake. Power plants were damaged, thousands of people are homeless. The Army started building tent cities to kind of house displaced people. And people there are actually sleeping outside because they're afraid to go back into their homes. So today on the show, we're going to talk about each of these three events, one at a time, and explore some of the science behind them. This is SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.


SOFIA: OK, Jason, you just got back from Australia, and you did some reporting on the way the forest and the landscape has been managed there. Tell me a little bit about that.

BEAUBIEN: Yeah, both talking to just firefighters - everywhere I'd go, I'd end up talking to some firefighters. And it was just fascinating how this incredibly long drought that they've been dealing with and this record heat wave - 2019 was the hottest, driest year on record in Australia - is fueling those fires. Some of them were explaining how having almost no moisture in the air allows fires to move up through the canopy of the forest just much faster than it would otherwise.

And then I met this one guy - his name is Noel Butler, and he used to run this camp for kids - Aboriginal kids - to come out into the bush, as they call it there. And he would teach them about Aboriginal ways of - all kinds of different Aboriginal ways. But he talked about how fire has been a part of this continent for thousands of years.

And he says that Aboriginals used to - what he called cool burns. And they would try to basically pick out exactly where they wanted burned, and they wouldn't allow it to get very big. You wanted to balance the different types of trees that were there. Don't let the eucalyptus completely take over an area. And it was this completely different vision from the back burns and the controlled burns that are done now in which firefighters go in and they just burn an entire area. There's been a lot of debate, currently, about the way the fire is managed, but he very much felt the current way clearly isn't working.

SOFIA: So, Becky, you did a story recently about another angle on the fires in Australia, which is, you know, what to do about embers from those fires that can really travel, sometimes long distances, through the air and spread the fire that way.

HERSHER: Exactly. So one of the things that's become very clear is that the main way that buildings catch fire is not from flames reaching them, it's from embers - these, like, tiny pieces of junk that get lofted super high into the air. And the bigger the fire, the higher it goes, and the higher it goes, the farther it can travel.

SOFIA: I see.

HERSHER: So you have homes catching fire really far away from any flame. I mean, you were there. Did that make sense to you, given what you were seeing?

BEAUBIEN: Absolutely. And this was something that they were talking about there, that you have fire lines, right? You got the fire moving through an area. You can see that fire line. But then they would have fires that started way ahead of the fire line because these embers were jumping further ahead - which makes, as a fire crew, a very difficult task because you're not just trying to fight this line of fire that's in front of you. Things could pop up way behind you, and then you're trapped in between these two fires.

SOFIA: So when people talk about fires jumping, that's kind of the way that they do it.

HERSHER: Yeah. And if you think about evacuation, imagine how hard it is to know when to tell people to evacuate if fires can jump miles.

SOFIA: Right. Right. OK. So let's shift to another big natural disaster that's happened a little closer to home, in Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory, where the people are U.S. citizens, which we often need to remind people. On January 7, Puerto Rico was hit by one of the strongest earthquakes in more than a century. And what a lot of people might not know is that Puerto Rico is actually very seismically active. The earth there moves a lot. PR sits right between two major tectonic plates.

DANIEL LAO DAVILA: Yeah. So we have the North American plate to the north and the Caribbean plate to the south, and Puerto Rico...

SOFIA: So that's Daniel Lao Davila. He's a structural geologist at Oklahoma State University.

LAO DAVILA: So the movement of the plates accumulates energy in the rocks, and when the rocks are not strong enough, they break. When they break, they create faults, which then release the energy, which are the earthquakes.

SOFIA: And Daniel told me that what's going on in PR right now is called a seismic sequence.

LAO DAVILA: So in a typical seismic sequence, what we expect is an increase in the number of earthquakes in a particular area, and the earthquakes can increase in magnitude up to a point where you have a larger earthquake with a larger magnitude.

SOFIA: That was that big 6.4 magnitude earthquake on January 7.

LAO DAVILA: And then after that earthquake, we'll have earthquakes with lower magnitude.

SOFIA: Like the 5.2 magnitude earthquake that happened on Wednesday. So the good news is, is that the USGS, an agency that monitors these quakes, says that it's very unlikely that there will be an earthquake larger than the big one, the 6.4. But there's, like, at least a 50% chance that there will continue to be 5.0 magnitude earthquakes or more.

HERSHER: It just sounds really rough. Like, if you experience a big earthquake - 6.4 is a big earthquake - and you're sleeping outside, and it's not just aftershocks, like, you are having, like, significant earthquakes over and over and over, like, how do you find any semblance of, like, peace or normalcy?

SOFIA: Yeah, I mean, it's creating a lot of anxiety there, for sure. But the good thing is is that scientists are hoping they can get more helpful information soon. So a few days ago, some scientists from the USGS and the Puerto Rico Seismic Network started rushing to install more seismometers, which are instruments that can help you measure how the earth is moving, and hopefully, that will help them better forecast those coming aftershocks.

And the other thing to kind of note is that there's a reporter down there named David Begnaud. And he's been reporting on quite a bit of misinformation that's kind of circulating on social media about what the causes are. There's been some people floating the rumor that it could be due to fracking. But the seismologists that are down there are like, no, it's not due to fracking, this feels unusual, but this is well within the normal level of earthquake activity in PR.

HERSHER: It's the earth.


HERSHER: It's not the people.

SOFIA: Not the people. OK, Becky, let's talk about a story you've been looking at this past week, and that is massive flooding in Indonesia, the worst in a decade.

HERSHER: Yeah. It's really bad. 60 people have died. Millions of people have been affected. Again, Jakarta is a very, very large city, so when bad things happen there, a lot of people are affected. So flooding started on New Year's Day. And there's nowhere for it to go because Jakarta - it's very low-lying. And it's actually sinking into the harbor. And that's because, as the city has exploded in terms of population, the amount of water being siphoned out from underneath the city for drinking has gone way, way up, and the city has collapsed into the harbor.

SOFIA: So they're literally - the drinking water that they're pulling is actually causing the city to sink down.

HERSHER: Exactly.

BEAUBIEN: Yeah. And the fact that Jakarta is just above Australia up here, so they're getting these record rainfalls off the northern tip of Australia, whereas, at the same time, Australia is in the midst of this record-breaking drought.

HERSHER: It's almost as if climate change can cause both drought and flooding.

SOFIA: It's almost like that, Becky. It's almost just like that. OK. So why is there such extreme rain coming through there?

HERSHER: So in general, hotter atmosphere is a thirstier atmosphere. It sucks up water - that's why you get drought - and then it dumps that water as rain. So monsoons are a normal part of the climate in this part of the world. But rain is coming in a smaller number of big storms.

So what we saw over New Year's is, like, a classic example of all this rain arriving all at once, which is so much more damaging than if it arrived over the course of weeks or even over the course of days, right? Fifteen inches in 24 hours - you can't deal with that.

SOFIA: That's wild. So, presumably, climate models show these problems getting worse as the sea keeps rising and as the earth keeps heating up, right? So what do we do?

HERSHER: Yeah. Actually, right now, some people in Jakarta are suing the government. They say that there were flood alarms that did not go off during this most recent event. And you can think of this as, like, a small scale but really, like, important, saving-human-lives action that you can take that says, like, we don't know what to do about our city falling into the sea and being subject to more flooding, but, like, you could at least tell us it's coming.

SOFIA: Yeah, exactly.

HERSHER: And then there are some relatively interesting questions around flood walls. So some people are actually better prepared or better protected right now in Jakarta than others. How do we, global humanity, protect people in Asian megacities that are very low-lying like this from not just rain but from rising seas?

BEAUBIEN: Yeah, and basically what you're talking about, Becky, is adaptation. And that's exactly what they're talking about at this point in Australia. They're not going to be able to bring the temperature down that has gone up. They're talking about desalinization plants. They're talking about better firefighting equipment, better planes to be able to fight these things. And so that's where they are right at the moment in trying to tackle this for the long term.

HERSHER: And it seems like resiliency is also the name of the game in Puerto Rico.

SOFIA: Absolutely.


SOFIA: We want to let our listeners know that you can follow more reporting on all of these stories at NPR.org. That's where you can find more of Jason's reporting from Australia, as well as some great reporting from NPR's Adrian Florido, who's in Puerto Rico. And there are links to all this stuff in the notes of this episode. Jason, Becky, thank you for talking through this with us today.

HERSHER: Thanks, Maddie.

BEAUBIEN: Yeah, thanks for having me.

SOFIA: I'm Maddie Sofia. Thanks for listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.


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