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Cumbre Vieja, Yellowstone, and Human Nature
Jon Lebkowsky, 15 Jan 05

Cumbre Vieja, the western half of La Palma, will eventually slide into the ocean causing a mega-tsunami that will strike the east coasts of United States, Canada, Cuba and Brazil within 8-10 hours. U.K. journalist Gwynne Dyer writes that this potential disaster is more likely than another in Southeast Asia (though both have low probability to occur at any given time). He suggests that there should be an Atlantic warining system and a clear plan for the potential disaster. Interesting point: how do you prepare for a disaster that is inevitable at some point but has low probability to occur today, given human nature? We have the same problem with global climate change and other potential natural catastrophes. Consider the potential eruption of the supervolcano at Yellowstone National Park. A Yellowstone eruption is supposedly 40,000 years overdue, and when it occurs, it will destroy whole areas of the U.S. and devastate the planet. How do we plan for a disaster of that magnitude, especially when, as Dyer says, "we are talking about human nature here, and against a low-probability catastrophe, people will only pay for low-cost insurance."

(See also this post from August for more information.)

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Thanks Jon,
I just moved 60 miles north of Yellowstone. If the -24f weather wasn't bad enough now I have to worry about my impending doom. If you here a creaking noise that would be me, rocking back and forth quietly in the corner.

Posted by: Cameron Sinclair on 16 Jan 05

Tsunamis: we should develop global early-warning system, have contingency plans ready for reaction & recovery

Supervolcanoes: scary stuff. But nothing we can do before hand, except perhaps work out some models as to what the destruction would look like, keep them confidential (the models, not the possibility of supervolcanoes in general), and plan for how to make sure such an explosion doesn't cause massive nuclear explosions at nearby facilities, as well as plan for how the rest of the country can keep functioning. The confidentiality of the models — of the level and extent of destruction — is crucial to keeping the economy going.

Then again, there are just too many people moving out to the semi/arid west, so maybe scaring some away with the prospect of Yellowstone ripping a few states apart would be a good thing.

Posted by: Stephen A. Fuqua on 17 Jan 05

One of the things I wonder is whether we might not avoid such disasters altogether? We are just beginning to experiment with ways to move asteroids off their course for instance, by impact, or perhaps (as suggested by Freeman Dyson) by parking an ion drive and just gently pushing.

With La Palma, couldn't we take the mountain apart? Not by blasting, but rock by rock. As evidenced by the Egyptians, the Incas, the Great Wall of China and Angkor Wat, humanity is quite capable of moving mountains - why not this one? If we are so certain that it will happen, it seems that time and dedication might avoid the disaster altogether.

Sure, Yellowstone's a little tougher, but again, can't we relieve the pressure, divert the magma, or....? Given the apparent certainty of the disaster, and the probable timescale of 10^5 years, it seems that human ingenuity might readily find ways to actually prevent a significant number of these disasters.

This is not to say that we shouldn't think about how to deal effectively with global disasters when they do happen, but if my house looks like it's going to fall down, I either fix it or move - I don't just make an escape plan.



Posted by: neil on 18 Jan 05

It's interesting to note that, although we have the technology to simply remove Las Palmas (we've done similar things before, when someone found gold or silver under a mountain), it would be tremendously controversial.

In fact, I don't think you'd ever get anyone to allow it -- just think about the eco-disaster press you'd get.

Posted by: mithra on 18 Jan 05

I wonder if the US government is aware of this and at all concerned about it. The current US administration, which seems little concerned with eco-disasters, and much concerned with security, has already proposed a tsunami warning system for the Atlantic. Surely La Palma could be percieved as a potential terrorist weapon (could be set in motion by human means?)--one that threatens the entire east coast of the US, not to mention the rest of the Americas.

Posted by: Sam on 19 Jan 05

Just a thought, I wonder if anyone has thought about going to this huge block of rock and making a start on demolishing it manually in smaller chunks that wont cause as much damage.

Posted by: Darren Forster on 19 Jan 05



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