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Tuesday, 30 October 2012

A Question Of Perspectives

As the Tropical Storm, Sandy, moves up the Eastern Seaboard of the US we are being bombarded by images of the storm lashed coast and the flooding in Manhattan. Thirteen people have died so far, one the Captain of the replica HMS Bounty, who appears to have stayed with the wreck of his ship. A little research, which apparently the news headline writers haven't done, suggests that Sandy may well be doing a great deal of damage to property and infrastructure, but is not the 'killer' that some previous storms have been. One, which hit in 1938 killed well over a thousand people in the same area being hit by Sandy. Another, in 1949, achieved wind speeds that make Sandy's more like a strong gale, and others for which there are records stretching back into the 18th Century seem to have achieved a higher death toll and more flooding.

What has changed since 1949 is that we now have satellite images to allow us to see the extent of the storm. The true extent of the 1949 Category 5 hurricane can only bee seen if one pieces together a whole battery of aerial photographs. It is also worth mentioning that Sandy was only a Category 1 Hurricane (wind speeds under 90 mph) and though it has picked up strength and may, in colliding with a cold front over land, produce some really devastating effects, it will also, as hurricanes do when they move onshore, begin to break up and lose strength. Another major change since 1949 and 1938 is the expansion of the infrastructures and the extent of cities and towns. Population density has exploded, so has our dependence on power infrastructures and, of course, in this age of 'instant' commerce, any closure of the Stock Exchange is likely to cause massive financial losses. Records from the 19th Century and the early 20th suggest that Lower Manhattan and other parts of the Big Apple conurbation have seen these massive tide surges before - but developers hadn't built in the flood prone areas then. Nor was the sea shore so densely built up or populated.

As I write this, Sandy is being referred to as a "super storm" and a "tropical storm" and no longer as a "hurricane." That is, I suggest, rather an irrelevance if you're one of those whose life is affected by it. I've experienced at first hand several typhoons, at least three cyclones and one "super typhoon." I've also experienced having my home flooded and, as an emergency service worker, I've had to deal with flooding in the homes of others. In recent years I have experienced the flooding of my then home town, which knocked out the power to my home and worse, the supply of fresh water. One fire station I served at was also flooded out in one of these. I have every sympathy with those affected. Storms like this are hugely disruptive and cause massive disruption and distress. But, we do have to keep them in perspective. They are natural events, they do not signal the "end of the world" and the damage they do can be, and will be, repaired.

If they teach us anything, it is this, that we are foolish if we continue to build cities, houses, vulnerable infrastructures, in areas that will flood when such a storm strikes. The second, and perhaps equally important thing it teaches is that we are not in control of the weather and never will be. We are helpless in the face of natures wrath and it is foolish to think otherwise. What we do need to do is be better prepared and learn the lessons of the past to make better use of resources, better use of land and take more notice of natural patterns. Reality is not a computer simulation and it is not 'fair.' Yes, we have moved out of the jungles and savannas our ancesters wandered, but beyond being able to make small 'local' alterations to that environment, we really haven't managed to gain the sort of control of nature SciFi writers of the 1950s and 60s postulated.

We need to get things into better perspective and stop forming opinions based on sensational headlines. We live in an 'information' age, but we seem unable to make good use of it. That seems to me, to be the greatest failure of our generation, and it is a major reason for our lack of perspective on so many things.

UPDATE:

The Blog 'Real Science' has a photo from 1900 which shows what the storm surge and a hurricane did to Galveston - killing 8,000 people. Now that, is a hurricane.

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