Great disasters are great stories, great moments in time, great tests of technology, humanity, society, government, and luck. Fifty years ago it was probably true to say that our understanding of great disasters was thin, not well developed because of the relative infrequency of the events, and not very useful, not knowledge that we could use to reduce the risks from such events.
This is no longer true. The last several decades has seen climate science add more climatic data because of decades of careful instrumental data collection happening, but also, earlier decades have been added to understanding the long term trends. We can now track, in detail, global surface temperatures well back into the 19th century, and we have a very good idea of change over time, and variability in, global temperatures on a century level scale for centuries. There is a slightly less finely observed record covering hundreds of thousands of years and an increasingly refined vague idea of global surface temperature for the entire history of the planet.
This is true as well with earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and tsunamis. Most of the larger versions of these events leave a mark. Sometimes that mark is an historical record that needs to be found, verified, critiqued for veracity, and eventually added to the mix. Sometimes the mark is geological, like when the coastline of the Pacific Northwest drops a few meters all at once, creating fossilized coastal wetlands that can be dated. Those events are associated with a particular kind of earthquake that happens on average every several hundred years, and now we have a multi-thousand year record of those events, allowing an estimate of major earthquake hazard in the region.
And so on.
The theory has also developed, and yes, there is a theory, or really several theories, related to disasters. For example, we distinguish between hazard (chance of a particular disaster happening at a certain level in a certain area) vs. risk (the probability of a particular bad thing happening to you as a results). If you live and work in Los Angeles, your earthquake hazard is high. You will experience earthquakes. But your risk of, say, getting killed in an earthquake is actually remarkably low considering how many there are. Why? Partly because really big ones are rare and fairly localized, and partly because you live in a house and work in a building and drive on roads that meet specifications set out to reduce risk in the case of an earthquake. Also, you “know” (supposedly) what to do if an earthquake happens. If, on the other hand, you live in an old building in San Francisco, you may still be at risk if the zoning laws have not caught up with the science. If you live near sea level in the Pacific Northwest, your earthquake hazard is really low, but if one of those giant earthquakes happens, you have bigly risk. Doomed, even.
Since my own research and academic interests have involved climate change, sea level rise, exploding volcanoes, mass death due to disease, and all that (catastrophes are the punctuation makrs of the long term archaeological and evolutionary record), I’ve always found books on disasters of interest. And now, I have a new one for you.
Man catastrophe books are written by science-interested or historically inclined writers, who are not scientists. The regurgitate the historical record of various disasters, giving you accounts of this or that volcano exploding, or this or that tsunami wiping out a coastal city, and so on. But the better books are written by scientist who are very directly, or nearly directly, engaged in the work of understanding, documenting, and addressing catastrophe.
Timothy H. Dixon is a professor in the School of Geosciences and Director of the Natural Hazards Network at the University of South Florida in Tampa. In his research, he uses satellite geodesy and remote sensing data to study earthquakes and volcanoes, coastal subsidence and flooding, ground water extraction, and glacier motion. He has worked as a commercial pilot and scientific diver, conducted research at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, and was a professor at the University of Miami, where he co-founded the Center for Southeastern Tropical Advanced Remote Sensing (CSTARS). Dixon was a Distinguished Lecturer for the American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG) in 2006–2007. He is also a fellow of the American Geophysical Union (AGU), the Geological Society of America (GSA), and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). He received a GSA Best Paper Award in 2006 and received GSA’s Woollard Award in 2010 for excellence in Geophysics.
This book covers risk theory, the basics of natural disasters, uncertainty, and vulnerability of humans. Dixon looks specifically at Fukushima and the more general problem of untoward geological events and nuclear power plants, and other aspects of tsunamis (including the Northwest Coast problem I mention above). He talks about energy and global warming; I found his discussion of what we generally call “clean energy” a bit outdates. He makes the point, correctly, that for various reasons the increase in price of fossil fuels that would ultimately drive, through market forces, the development of non-fossil fuel sources of electricity and motion is not going to happen for a very long time on its own. Environmentalists who assume there will be huge increase in fossil fuel costs any time now are almost certainly mistaken. However, Dixon significantly understates the rate at which solar, for example, is becoming economically viable. It is now cheaper to start up a solar electricity plant than it is to start any other kind of plant, and the per unit cost of solar is very low and rapidly declining.
Dixon is a bit of a free marketeer, which I am not, but a realistic one; He makes valid and important points about science communication, time lags and long term thinking, and he makes the case that more research can produce important technological advances.
The terrorists have defeated the railroads, and by extension, the people. Well, not totally defeated, but they won a small but important battle.
We have a problem with the wholesale removal of petroleum from the Bakken oil fields, and the shipping of that relatively dangerous liquid mainly to the east coast on trains, with hundreds of tanker cars rolling down a small selection of tracks every day. I see them all the time as they go through my neighborhood. These trains derail now and then, and sometimes those derailments are pretty messy, life threatening, and even fatal.
There has been some effort in Minnesota to get the train companies to upgrade their disaster plans, which is important because about 300,000 Minnesotans live in the larger (one half mile) disaster zone that flanks these track. A smaller number, but not insignificant, live int he blast zone, the place where if a couple of train cars actually exploded you would be within the blast area. For the last couple of years, my son was at a daycare right in that blast zone. I quickly add that the chance of being blasted by an oil train is very small, because the tracks are in total thousands of miles long, derailments are rare(ish), and the affected areas can be measured in city blocks. So a blast from a Bakken oil train may be thought of as roughly like a large air liner crash, or may be two or three times larger than that, in terms of damage on the ground.
But yes, the trains derail at a seemingly large rate.
Now, here is where the terrorists come in. And by terrorists I specifically mean Osama bin (no relation) Laden, or his ghost, and that gang of crazies that took down the world trade center in New York. When that happened, we became afraid of terrorism, and everyone who could use that fear for personal gain has since exploited it. I’m pretty sure that the rise of the police state in America has been because of, facilitated by, and hastened due to this event. For years the American people let the security forces and related government agencies do pretty much whatever they wanted. The Patriot Act, you may or may not know, is a version of a law that conservatives have been pushing in the US for decades, a draconian law that gives great power to investigative and police agencies. That law never got very far in Congress until 9/11. Then, thanks to Osama bin Laden, it seemed like everyone wanted it. Only now, years later, are we seriously considering rolling it back (and to some extent acting on that consideration).
So now, the railroads have been forced to come up with a disaster plan related to the oil shipments. And they did. But for the most part they won’t let anyone see it. Why? Because, according to one railroad official, “… to put it out in the public domain is like giving terrorists a road map on how to do something bad.”
What does he mean exactly? As far as I can tell, the disaster plan pinpoints specific scenarios that would be especially bad. These scenarios, if they fell into the hands of terrorists, would allow said terrorists to terrorize more effectively.
I’m sure this is true. But I’m also sure this is not a reason to keep the plans secret. There are three reasons, in my view, that the plans should be totally available for public review.
1) If you want to know what the worst case scenarios for a rail tanker disaster are, don’t read this report. It is easier to get out a map, maybe use some GIS software if you have it, and correlate localities where the train tracks cross over bridges, cross major water sources, and go through dense population areas. A high bridge through an urban area over an important river, for instance. This is not hard. Indeed, I call on all social studies teachers with an attitude (and most of the good ones have an attitude) to make this a regular project in one of your classes. Have the students try to think like terrorists and identify the best way to terrorize using oil trains. The reason to do this is to point out how dumb the railroads are being.
2) Secret plans are plans that can be exploited or misused by those who make them. We will see security measures taken that, for example, limit public access to information unrelated to oil trains, with the terroristic threat used as an excuse. I’m sure this has already happened. It will continue to happen. It is how the police state works.
3) The plans can be better. How do I know this? Because all plans can be better. That’s how plans work. How can you make the plans better? Scrutiny. How do you get scrutiny? Don’t make the plans secret.
MPR news has a pretty good writeup on this situation here. MPR is fairly annoyed at the secrecy, as they should be, but frankly I’d like to seem this and other news agencies, as well as the state legislators involved, and everyone else, more fired up. We should all be working harder against the police state.
I want to end with this: I like trains, and you should too. Trains are among the most efficient ways to move stuff across the landscape. Those of us concerned with things like climate change should be all for trains. Ultimately, I think we can increase the use of trains to move goods and people, and at the same time take the trains off fossil carbon. They are already mostly electric, using liquid fuel to run generators. That liquid fuel could be made, largely, from renewable biodiesel and a bit of grown biodiesel, and more of the trains can probably go all electric. But this secrecy thing is not OK.