Saturday, August 18, 2007

Is Mother Nature on the rampage?

By Carol Gee

(NASA Images: Peru earthquake map;
AIRS Weather Snapshot: Hurricane Dean August 16, 2007)

Natural disasters that have already occurred or are in the making are making headlines around the globe today. Peru was hit by a devastating earthquake, hurricanes named Flossie and Dean popped up in both the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, and there is major flooding in South Asia, China and North Korea. In every case we see the contrast between advanced space age technology vs. people's powerlessness in the face of their own environmental shortsightedness or poverty, combined with nature's ability to change the course of human events.

Peru quake leaves victims in areas without water - The National Aeronautics and Space Administration map shows the remote areas in Peru hit by the quake, but it cannot show the seismic event's devastation to a country with large impoverished areas void of modern infrastructure. Yahoo! News has full coverage of the Peru quake. The New York Times headlined, "Toll Climbs in Peru; Areas Lack Water and Power."

Today is the end of World Water Week, ironically. With our Texas city to the south, Houston, still soggy from recent tropical storm generated floods, there is definitely too much water to handle. Weather events around the world this week seem perfectly timed to make the points of concerned scientists meeting this week in Sweden. In this case it is not nature alone that impacts the weather. Global climate change has been caused in part by human action. The Raw Story headlined, "World Water Wee to focus on climate change, biofuels." To quote from the story about the big meeting,

. . . with 2,500 international experts expected to attend.

The theme of the annual event's 17th edition will be "Progress and Prospects on Water: Striving for Sustainability in a Changing World."

Organiser Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI) noted that water was playing a key role in global warming.

Waters in the Gulf of Mexico may soon be disturbed by Hurricane Dean. Already the potentially dangerous hurricane has disturbed the course of NASA's current mission in space, about to come to a close. Today's NASA astronaut space walk is being shortened as a result of the threat posed by Hurricane Dean, according to Tariq Malik at To quote,

Two astronauts will step outside the International Space Station (ISS) Saturday on what will likely be a shortened spacewalk as NASA casts a wary eye toward Hurricane Dean.

. . . Endeavour's STS-118 crew is scheduled to return to Earth Wednesday, but the looming threat of Hurricane Dean to NASA's shuttle and ISS Mission Control centers at JSC prompted the agency to work towards a possible Tuesday landing. The space agency is hoping to preserve the option of landing Endeavour early in case the hurricane forces the evacuation of Mission Control, which would then require NASA to transfer shuttle operations to a backup site at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida.

A different series of seismic events have caused casualties and left miners trapped. This time in the northern hemisphere, the tremors probably came as a result of humans mining for coal under a now-shaky Utah mountain. According to the New York Times, "Utah Mine Rescuers Halt Search After 3 Deaths."

Mother Nature ironically joined the two stories into a potential coal mine tragedy at a flooded mine in China. Dubai's carried the headline,"Floods trap coal miners in China" (8/18/07). Quoting from the story,

More than 170 coal miners have been trapped underground in eastern China after heavy rains brought floods to the area.

The official Xinhua news agency said 584 miners were rescued after Friday's accident at Xintai in Shandong province, but attempts to reach the remaining 172 were being hampered by heavy rain.

. . . Poor safety standards make Chinese coal mines among the most dangerous in the world. About 1,800 coal miners died in accidents during the first half of 2007.

Very vulnerable people lost their lives in Peru and also in North Korea. The latter story is also about too much water. North Koreans are vulnerable to actual famine and starvation. Floods there have devastated the country's already limited food supplies. The flood waters may also derail what could have been a rare and very valuable summit meeting between North and South Korean leaders. has the story headline, "Floods postpone August Korea summit," from which I quote,

North Korea has asked that a planned summit with South Korea be delayed, citing recent floods that have devastated the country.

. . . South Korea has offered an emergency aid package of more than $7m to the North after days of flooding wrought havoc across large parts of the country, sparking fears that existing food shortages might worsen. The North says the floods have left at least 80 people dead, many more missing, and about 300,000 others homeless.

. . . An estimated 23 million people or 10 per cent of North Korea's population were killed in a famine in the second half of the 1990s, partly blamed on flood damage to farmland.

Natural disasters can produce breathtaking losses of human life and heart breaking instances of widespread human misery. A related story about the Korean floods from Russia's RIA Novosti today published other statistics,

In a sign of the magnitude of the disaster, the normally secretive North Korean regime has been uncharacteristically forthcoming in describing the extent of the damage.

The Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported that rains in some areas along the Taedong River were the heaviest in the country's history, and said that about 11 percent of its rice and corn fields had been destroyed at the height of the growing season.

KCNA said that about 200,000-300,000 people were now homeless, although international aid officials believe the number is probably far higher.

Statistics are often very hard to come by in natural disasters. In one such example the story is about widespread floods now occurring in India and neighboring nations. From a BBC story comes this South Asia flood statistic: "The number [estimate] of those killed varies widely from 500 to 3,000."

Disaster death toll statistics never put a human face with the numbers. In order to relate to just a few of the actual thousands of people caught up in the current disasters on the ground, I conclude with a link to this great article from the BBC News titled, "Aid worker diary: Indian floods" (August 10-16, 2007). To quote just a bit,

Devastating monsoon rains have submerged thousands of villages in northern India, Bangladesh and Nepal.
In India, as flood waters recede, aid agencies, non-governmental organisations and governments are stepping up their efforts to help the thousands who have lost homes, livestock and livelihoods.

Ian Bray, from Oxfam, has kept a diary of his experiences:

. . . Villagers surround us desperate to tell us their story. It's pandemonium as everybody wants to speak. A chair is brought from somewhere for me to sit down. The vast majority of this village are Dalit - so-called Untouchables. All are landless and all are without a job now. The floods have taken away their chance of working on the land - not their land, someone else's land - and the flood has come at the worse possible time for them.


(Cross-posted at South by Southwest.)

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