TCS Daily

Global Warming vs. Tsunamis? Tsunamis Win

By Roy Spencer - January 5, 2005 12:00 AM

After the horrific loss of life in the Indian Ocean region from the record earthquake and resulting tsunami last week, I was struck by the immensity of what had happened. While scientists continue to argue over whether we can even measure mankind's influence on weather or climate in the face of naturally occurring hurricanes, tornadoes, heat waves, cold waves, blizzards, and floods, Mother Nature shows us that she still rules the day.

There is no question that the Earth knows that humans live here -- six billion people are going to have some effect on the environment, no matter how much we recycle or cut back on energy use. But while some chronic worriers continued to wring their hands over a possible rise of sea level of an inch or so every ten years due to global warming, an earthquake at the bottom of the ocean produced a wave of destruction as much as 30 feet high in a matter of minutes.

Of additional concern was the fact that this event was bigger than anything in recorded history for the region. This reminds us that nature isn't constrained by what humans happen to remember over the last few hundred years. A once-in-a-thousand-years event -- or even once in ten thousand years -- is not out of the question. Some places, at some time, are going to experience natural disasters bigger than anything in recorded history for that region. (Sorry, that just the way statistics works.)

So after the extent of the tsunami disaster became known, my biggest reaction was, now maybe global warming activists will be silenced for a time by the absurd disparity between what had just happened, and what they are predicting to happen from global warming. After all, if someone living within 30 feet of sea level has to contend with the possibility of a giant wave suddenly destroying his house and drowning his family, how much will he worry about an inch of sea level rise every ten years due to global warming?

But to my astonishment, some environmentalists reacted to the tsunami by claiming that this is the kind of disaster we will have to face with global warming, even hinting that the tsunami was caused by humans! (I will assume that the readership here does not need to be persuaded that mankind has no influence over magnitude 9.0 earthquakes at the bottom of the ocean.)

So I've been trying to understand how some environmentalists could reach such a conclusion, and I think I might have figured it out. You see, those who are most worried about our effect on nature also tend to believe that nature is very fragile. Thus, the tectonic strain at the bottom of the ocean that caused the great quake might have remained unreleased if only mankind had not meddled and pushed the Earth "over the edge". I'm being serious here, by the way. This point of view actually has a measure of support from science. It's the "butterfly effect" of chaos theory: the flap of a butterfly's wing in Japan could mean the difference between a massive blizzard in the U.S. occurring or not. But it's infinitely more likely that an extra trillion kilowatt-hours of sunlight over the eastern U.S. from a temporary decrease in cloudiness would be the real culprit.

So given that natural disasters are going to occur, even without any help from humans, what can we do to cope with them? Well, countries that have adopted free-market principles have built the knowledge base, wealth, infrastructure, and warning systems to greatly reduce damage due to earthquakes, hurricanes, etc. People who choose to live (or are in effect forced to live through government policies) close to sea level will continue to be at risk, unless they follow the lead of the more developed countries and try to reduce that risk. Many nations are now helping by putting a temporary cash-bandage on the hurt, but in the long run governments of countries at risk of natural disasters need to invest resources to deal with the whims of Mother Nature -- while she is taking a breather before her next big surprise.


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