Disaster-prevention should include contingency plans for surviving large-scale natural disasters, including tsunamis, mega-quakes, volcanic eruptions, and asteroids hitting the Earth.
Once we strip doomsday fears from the emerging spate of disaster-threat discoveries, a deep environmental challenge emerges: Nature's cycle includes periodic disruptions that could toss humanity backwards.
The good news is that for the first time in history we might be gaining the tools to adapt to massive natural changes. Our technological renaissance is giving us the power to stare Armageddon in the face and win.
Catastrophe stories are so pervasive that screenwriters have nicknamed them "disaster porn." News of the end of the world is broadcast daily. The threats of asteroids, volcanoes, earthquakes, and climate change are saturating the media to such an extent that calamity fatigue is setting in.
Now let's consider a vision of the future never presented by the doomsayers: Armageddon survived. In this scenario, humanity barely pauses to catch its breath after the shock of a large-scale natural disaster. Instead, we move on unhindered to reoccupy devastated areas, replace crops, and avert famine.
We are developing the means to make this recovery scenario possible. We may be entering a great race between our emergence as super-species and an unpredictable ecohazard that throws us back centuries. To survive in the future we might have to mold ourselves and parts of our ecology into new forms.
From an environmentalist perspective, the idea of ecological alteration poses a horrific dilemma. While many ecologists try to stuff the technological genie back in the bottle, as with biotechnology, for example, new evidence suggests that this outlook may have to be reevaluated to protect our species.
Most environmental colleagues I discuss this with either discount the odds of big natural changes as too remote or dismiss them as a ruse to take attention away from what they see as the more-dangerous cauldron of man-made trouble. Yet a nagging question remains: What if the small band of scientists and historians who theorize about the greater frequency of severe natural changes are right?
Detection technology is redefining the gray zone between occasional bad weather on the one hand and the once-in-a-billion-year supernova threat on the other. Somewhere in that band are phenomena powerful enough to disable civilization without annihilating it. Although we cannot yet definitively describe, detect, or defend against severe natural phenomena, it is becoming clear that ecologists need to take them seriously.
Besides planet-killing asteroids and human-induced catastrophes, other natural events may be serious threats in the future. These include large volcanic eruptions, chain reaction earthquakes, unexplained flooding, major solar or polar shifting, and recurrent meteor showers. Each is survivable but may trigger loss of infrastructure, disruption of agriculture, or contamination from industrial debris.
News from the Past
Links are emerging between the technological renaissance we now enjoy and the power we may soon have to defy Armageddon. Space telescopes, DNA analysis, enhanced dating methods, sedimentary analysis, and application of engineering to archaeology are improving our ability to understand past and future planetary threats. Scientists are beginning to interpret old evidence in a new light.
For example, reexamination of sediment samples by geomorphologists (such as the Smithsonian Institution's Mary Bourke) suggests that temporary flooding of coastal and inland regions was not confined to the last ice age, but may have occurred within the past 5,000 years. When Hurricane Floyd inundated New Jersey in September 1999, Bourke told The Wall Street Journal that her research shows "these events can be bigger and more frequent than we have ever known in the earth's current climate. …