News Analysis: THE FUTURE OF THE EARTH: Is This the End of the World? ; Earthquakes. Hurricanes. Floods. What Is Happening to Our Planet?
Moreton, Report Cole, The Independent on Sunday (London, England)
Is this the end of the world? The earth shakes in Asia and a generation of children is lost. The wind flails America and a city is destroyed. A giant wave rises in the Indian Ocean and whole islands are drowned along with swathes of coastland.
The sea is turning to acid, the air is choking us, the polar ice caps are melting. Famine, pestilence and plague used to be dread words from the Bible; now they are reasons for compassion fatigue. Bird flu threatens to sweep across the globe, killing millions of people.
No wonder some people believe we are living in the End Times. Fear the Beast, say the Christian fundamentalists. Down with the Great Satan, say the hardline Islamists. Stockpile your food and run for the hills, say cultists who predict the end will come at 2.30pm on Tuesday. Or a week on Friday. Or next year. Definitely.
Even those of us who are less convinced that the end is absolutely nigh do watch the news, read the papers or flee the latest natural disaster and wonder what on earth is happening to our planet. Is this the beginning of the end?
If it is, then the apocalypse will be shown live on a giant television screen in Devon. The destruction will be mapped out in lines and symbols and pretty colours by a supercomputer at the Meteorological Office that takes data from all over the globe and the atmosphere.
This airy, futuristic glass complex on the outskirts of Exeter is where Tony Blair met 200 leading scientists from many countries in February, and they warned him that global calamity was closer than ever because of climate change.
This is also where the changing weather of the world is watched. One screen shows the rain falling on the desperate people still lost among the ruins of Kashmir. The clouds are darkening over the mountains as a scientist watches triangles move across his screen. He types out a message for the Foreign Office, for relief workers, for British families flying out in search of their loved ones and for anyone else who will listen. Tents are what the people need, he says, shelter from the storm that he sees coming: 'An organised band of heavy rain,' in the language of the Met.
Watching this, waiting to see the man who knows what the weather will be doing in 50 years time, I am thinking about a conversation on the telephone with Professor John McCloskey, head of the school of environmental sciences at the University of Ulster at Coleraine. What he had to say was surprising: 'There is no basis in fact for the perception that earthquakes are becoming more frequent.'
Surely they're killing more people than ever though? 'The answer is not at all clear,' he says. 'The Tangshan earthquake in 1974 killed half a million people. Back in the 1500s there was another earthquake in China that may have caused more deaths than any other in history.'
But Professor McCloskey thinks two things definitely are happening. The first is that rich countries are putting up buildings that can better withstand earthquakes. 'The Californian earthquake of 1906 killed 100,000 people,' he said. 'One of a similar size today in the same area would only kill 100 people.'
The opposite is true in overcrowded, underdeveloped countries. There the technology is unavailable to the poor, who are forced to live in the most vulnerable areas, often in buildings that are inappropriate. 'The same earthquake in somewhere like Indonesia might easily kill 100,000,' says Professor McCloskey. The children of Kashmir were killed by concrete school buildings put up cheaply by their government, in ignorance or defiance of the wisdom of generations. So there are not more earthquakes, just millions more people living in the wrong places.
But what about the weather? That really does feel like it's going crazy. 'We know with certainty that the amount of carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases has risen very considerably and is still rising,' says Dr Geoff Jenkins of the Met Office. …