Saturday, 12 March 2011

72 days that broke hearts

THIS year nature is trying to tell us we are only here on sufferance.

We have had floods, cyclones, more floods, a massive earthquake and now an even bigger earthquake.

And we are not even halfway through March.

The death tolls from this year of natural disaster will probably never be known - at least 550 people died in mudslides in Rio de Janeiro in January, more than two dozen are dead and missing in Queensland, two more died in our floods in Victoria.

Next there were more than 160 killed in Christchurch. And now Japan, where authorities estimate at least 1000 people died.

If there is a god up there, he doesn't seem very pleased with us this year.

The footage from Toowoomba's inland tsunami might have seemed graphic when we saw it in January but after Friday's display of natural power, it would be hard not to argue that we got off lightly.

The same goes for the destruction wreaked on Christchurch last month.

It's as though nature was saying to us, "you think a 6.3-magnitude earthquake is bad? Have a look at what 8.9 on the Richter scale looks like!"

While we stare appalled at the damage nature has done in Japan, it is sobering to reflect that as high as the death toll is likely to be, it would have been much, much higher anywhere else.

Japan is a rich country with a long history of earthquake preparation.

Most of its major population centres were rebuilt after 1945 to withstand earthquakes. It also has the world's most sophisticated tsunami warning system.

To get an idea what might have happened in a poorer country without Japan's strict earthquake building codes, one only has to look at what happened last time a major earthquake struck Tokyo in 1923. The 7.9 quake was almost 10 times less powerful than the one that struck on Friday but it was estimated to have killed between 100,000 and 150,000 people - mostly from the fires that engulfed the densely crowded slums.

Any way you look at it, 2011 has been an extraordinary year for natural disasters and it's only 72 days old.

The records are mind boggling - the worst cyclone to hit Australia in a century, the worst earthquake to hit Japan, and the deadliest natural disaster to hit Brazil in four decades.

When you add the floods in Sri Lanka, which killed 27 and left 900,000 people homeless, the 40 dead and 1.3 million displaced in the Philippines as well as the two dead and 3000 displaced in Thailand, you could be mistaken for thinking we are living in biblical times.

All we need now is a plague of locusts. Come to think of it, we've got that too in Victoria.

Given such a large number of extreme events, it would be natural to ask if they are connected.

In the case of earthquakes, if there is a connection between them, science has yet to discover it. About 100 earthquakes the size of the one that hit Christchurch occur each year around the world.

Most happen in places where they do no damage.

Quakes the size of the one that struck on Friday are much rarer - one happens about once a year.

Incidentally, if you think a major earthquake can't happen here, think again.

While the Newcastle earthquake that killed 13 people in 1988 is the best remembered and deadliest recorded in Australia - at 5.6 on the Richter scale - it was not even close to the biggest.

In 1988, Tennant Creek was hit by three earthquakes in a day - the biggest of which was measured at 6.7.

But the biggest earthquake recorded on land in Australia was the 7.3 whopper that struck Meeberrie in Western Australia in 1941.

While there may be no link between earthquakes, experts say the floods that have plagued the world this year are all connected to the La Nina weather system.

La Nina is the periodic weather event in which strong South American trade winds drive warm waters, moisture and rain across the Pacific towards Australia for at least 12 months. It is associated with above average rainfall here and elsewhere and increased cyclone activity.

Experts say the current La Nina is the second-strongest in the 130 years of meteorological records.

Whether it is the result of man-made global warming is a matter of dispute.

The idea that we are responsible for causing natural disasters is in some ways comforting because we tend to think that if we created something, then we should by rights be able to fix it.

In the past, when people thought about their responsibility for natural disasters, it was in moral terms.

Thus, when a massive earthquake struck Lisbon on All Saints Day in 1755, destroying almost the whole city and most of its churches, it was taken by many as proof the people needed chastening.

Perhaps that is not so different to those who were quick to attribute this year's floods to global warming.

The alternative view of natural disasters - that they are random acts of violence committed by a pitiless natural world - is a much more unsettling idea.

But even if we accept that, from time to time, nature will show its teeth, we still like to believe that we live in a benign physical world.

A string of natural disasters challenges that comforting belief.

What if there is no end to the destruction?

Tsunamis, just like the bushfires here two years ago, show us that we can be blown away like dust from the pages of a book.

And it's still only March.
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