Friday, April 16, 2010

Is Mother Nature annoyed with us?

So far this year we've had major earthquakes in Haiti, Chile, Sumatra, Baha California, Spain, the Solomon Islands, and China. That's not a complete list of 6.0 and above earthquakes since January 1.. It isn't even a complete list of the 6.0 and above earthquakes in those places since January 1.

Now, it's worth noting that scientists say this really isn't an unusual level of seismic activity. Six earthquakes of 7.0 or above within the first four months of the year is well within the normal range of variation, apparently. Yet timing, locations, and death toll have been startling and tragic. And the only thing we can do about earthquakes is enforce earthquake-safe building codes in earthquake-prone areas. It's the adoption and enforcement of a sensible earthquake-conscious building code in Chile that helped to make the larger Chile quake less deadly than the Haiti quake.

This week, we have the Iceland volcano. Okay, it's been erupting for a month--but this week, something changed and it started erupting in a different spot, right through icecap, and it's now putting a cloud of volcanic ash into major flight paths all over northern Europe. Scientists can't say how long it will continue to erupt, or how long the eruption will disrupt air travel. Again, this is something we can't control; we can only cope. In this case, that means cancelling air travel for a highly populated area for an unknown period of time. (I should note that what I heard on the news in the last hour suggested that maybe conditions are improving and air travel might start to recover.)

Meanwhile, the ice caps are melting. This March was the warmest March on record. This followed what was, despite the experience of some parts of the US, the fifth-warmest winter on record, worldwide. And that very warming was responsible for some of the American sense of a harsher winter than normal--the melting ice caps means more moisture in the atmosphere, which means storms will produce heavier precipitation, which if those storms happen in areas that are, warmer or not, still below freezing, can result in record-breaking snowfall.

Beyond the obvious yet controversial point that we need to take action to reduce our contributions to global warming if we want to avoid the disastrous effects of some areas becoming much less habitable than they are now while others potentially become more attractive, I have no clear sense of where we go with this. Earth has always been a geologically restless planet; the difference now is that we have both greater means to respond, and greater vulnerability because we depend on high technology and close global interconnections. We need to respect that, and we need to deal with it--intelligently and pragmatically, not ideologically, and not mistake facts we don't like for nefarious political intentions.

We need to start paying attention to what the planet is telling us.