Hazards notes from all over.

Last summer’s U.S. headlines were on the tornadoes; this year those here are focused instead on heat and drought. But the real world’s presentation of extremes and disasters is a bit more balanced.  Each prompts a thought. Let’s start with the most current.

Electrical current, that is.

Today the headlines from India suggest that as many as 600 million people – half the country’s population – have been hit by a power outage. Both the northern and eastern electricity grids failed. The return to normal promises to take more time than the recriminations, which are already in full swing.

Here’s the background. Power shortages have been endemic in India for a long time. They’ve been cited frequently by analysts over the past few years as (just one) example of how under-investment in infrastructure constrains India’s potential for growth. The real-world lesson? Zero-margin in any society in any respect is a prescription for vulnerability. That’s because all dynamic systems are characterized by fluctuations, and the smaller the system’s margin against failure, the more likely that margin is to be exceeded. The very purpose of electrical grids is to reduce margin, to ensure that a lot of expensive capital equipment – those hydroelectric turbines and coal-fired generators and all the rest – aren’t sitting around idle between peaks in demand. So it should not surprise when the system’s capacity is exceeded…and when the geographical extent of those failures is immense.

Recent floods in Beijing impacted many towns and villages in the area, but also some new, and pricey, high-rise construction. The death toll is approaching 80 and continues to rise. Again the recriminations have been flying. Builders and policymakers have been accused of putting glitz ahead of safety by building the high-rises atop faulty sewage and storm-drain infrastructure. They were also blamed for initially underplaying the death toll. Events and the popular reaction recalled those surrounding  the high-speed train accident a year ago. But Beijing’s vulnerability is historic. According to The Economist, “Over the past 1,000 years the city has suffered more than 100 serious floods, with those in 1626 and 1890 especially disastrous. Both came towards the end of imperial dynasties, when corruption and mismanagement led to the neglect of public works. The current drainage system dates from the 1950s and is based on a Soviet design, which relies on pipes rather than sewers. Many of Beijing’s waterways were filled in, leaving just this creaky relic of Sino-Soviet amity to save its streets from flooding.”

China Digital Times, a website, was quoted: “In my brief existence, a once-in-a-century solar eclipse has happened twice, a once-in-500-year flood has happened ten times, and a once-in-a-millennium earthquake has happened twice. The only thing that hasn’t happened is a once-every-five-year general election.”

One lesson here? Transparency, good communication – and, for that matter, good governance – are essential, not just during but prior to such tragic events.

A tornado hit Colorado’s Mount Evans above the tree-line Saturday. The Denver Post article includes a picture and the interesting and relatively benign (we need a break!) details, including some background from David Barjenbruch, an NWS meteorologist, about tornadoes in the mountains.

The message here? Rare is not the same as never. Given enough time, the unlikely becomes the inevitable. Tornadoes are not confined to the lower Midwest and southern states. And that 100-year storm so prominent in discussion of flood hazards? Over ten thousand years, expect to see a hundred or so. And they’ll average one hundred over such periods, but when they come, don’t be surprised if they come in bunches. Same for earthquakes. Same for (FILL-IN-YOUR-FAVORITE-HAZARD-HERE).

[An aside: The same holds for detonation of a nuclear device. An unpleasant thought, but a reality. That cold war threat, when our thousands of missiles were arrayed against similar numbers in the former Soviet Union? Unless we continually bring down the numbers of such weapons and the probability that each will be used, what is unlikely over any given day… I “guarantee” it won’t happen today, July 31, 2012…will come to define some future day in world history. (It’ll be added to the ranks of September 11, and December 7th…) That possibility and many others keep our military and our Homeland Security forces awake at night. We should continually thank them for their work.]

And finally, back to India, where we started. This year’s monsoon rains have apparently failed, following two years of erratic and delayed monsoons. According to The Economist, half of all Indians farm. Irrigation is the exception, not the rule; two-thirds of Indian fields depend upon rain alone for water. The focus of the article? Twofold. First, coping strategies are compounded by the difficulties in forecasting monsoons on the time scales of a few months or so. Some 4 out of ten years, the monsoon rains are erratic, but weather forecasters don’t see it coming. Second, some hint that greenhouse gas emissions and climate change may be playing a role. To farmers and a country already at the margin, this is ominous.

Bottom line from these lessons from around the world? What’s happening in China and India, and in the mountains of Colorado today, could just as easily hit European or African cities, or population centers in the Americas tomorrow. All of us should share a common focus: Build community resilience, giving equal attention to the needed margin in our critical infrastructure and to good governance and social equity.

And… we should sustain our investments  in Earth observations, science, and services. We can’t afford to fly blind into a problematic and murky future.

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