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Major threatened disasters compared


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Disasters compared
  Asteroid strike
  Flu pandemic
  Climate change
  Major earthquake
  Coronal mass ejection
  Major hurricane or flood
  Nuclear war
  Terrorist attack including nuclear
  Major tsunami
Jared Diamond – environmental disasters
The numbers on graphs
Index
 
This page is very speculative, it cannot be anything else. The numbers of deaths that I give are very broad ranges. If you don't agree with my figures, let me know.

Created 2005/11/03, modified 2016/12/27
Feedback welcome, email daveclarkecb@yahoo.com

I am treating possible millions of deaths in a very unemotional way here. I apologise for that, the death or serious injury of even a single person can be devastating; but an unemotional approach needs to be used to show the facts. Our politicians are using emotion – the fear of terrorist attack – to blind First World people to the true scale of the dangers that face us. They would rather look like they are doing something effective against terrorism while hiding the fact that they are doing next to nothing to avert the much larger environmental disasters that face us.

 

Anthropogenic climate change

Anthropogenic means 'caused by Man'.
An important aspect of any disaster is the degree to which it is recoverable. This is one reason why I believe that anthropogenic climate change (ACC) is the greatest of all currently foreseeable and likely major disasters; much of the damage will not be recoverable except by natural processes over millions of years.

Unlike other disasters which would happen in hours, days, months or at most a few years, the worst effects of ACC will probably take a century or more to devolop. No doubt this is one of the reasons that ACC doesn't get the attention it deserves.

If these estimates are anywhere near correct, why do the USA and Australian governments spend billions of dollars and tens of thousands of lives in their 'War on Terrorism' while doing very little to reduce their levels of greenhouse gas production? The USA and Australia both produce far more than 'their share' of greenhouse gas emissions.

Disasters compared

Disaster
Number of human deaths
Other effects
Avoidability/Recoverability
Hurricane/flood

Likelihood; Inevitable; becoming more severe in future due to climate change
Up to hundreds of thousands depending on where it happens and its severity Wind damage to houses and other buildings, mud slides, flooding, erosion, loss of fertile top soil. Avoidability; Unavoidable, but First World societies can enforce building codes in hurricane prone areas so that structures will be able to withstand most hurricanes. Floods can be reduced by reforestation of catchments and damage can be reduced by not building in flood plains (a choice that may not be available to Third World societies).

Recoverability; Mostly recoverable with time (a decade or so), except for the losses of soil and erosion damage etc.
Disaster
Number of human deaths
Other effects
Avoidability/Recoverability
Major tsunami

Likelihood; History indicates that it will happen every few decades
Thousands to several hundreds of thousand Major damage to low-lying areas from the waves and from salt introduced to soils Avoidability; Unavoidable, but many human lives could be saved by an effective early warning system.

Recoverability; Fully recoverable with time (a decade or so)
Disaster
Number of human deaths
Other effects
Avoidability/Recoverability
Major earthquake

Likelihood; History indicates that it will happen every few years, with exceptionally bad earthquakes at longer intervals
Hundreds to tens of thousands Major damage to infrastructure: buildings, roads. Little disruption to non-human species. Avoidability; Unavoidable

Recoverability; Fully recoverable in time
Disaster
Number of human deaths
Other effects
Avoidability/Recoverability
Coronal mass ejection from the Sun

Likelihood; Inevitable at some time. Exceptionally violent ones happen every century or so. The last such was in September 1859.
Many millions

This type of exceptional 'storm' on the Sun could destroy most of the transformers in the world's electricity grids; they would not be able to be repared, they'd have to be replaced, and with no electricity, there'd be huge problems in building replacement transformers.
With no electricity there'd be no water pumping, no treatment of sewage; computers, refrigorators, freezers and factories would stop, many oil pumps would stop – without oil much of Western civilisation would grind to a halt. Little disruption to non-human species. Avoidability; Unavoidable. Replacement transformers could be stock-piled in readiness – but this is not happening.

Recoverability; Fully recoverable in a suffiency of time
Disaster
Number of human deaths
Other effects
Avoidability/Recoverability
Terrorists attacks using suicide bombing

Likelihood; It is happening
Normally less than a hundred, but up to several thousands is possible (as happened with the Twin Towers). Few. People might try to avoid the more crowded areas. Avoidability; If the causes inciting extremists to commit terrorist acts can be removed then terrorist bombings might be reduced. See Why do people hate the USA.

Recoverability; Fully recoverable
Expert opinion is that so called 'dirty bombs' (conventional bombs laced with radioactive material) would cause very few deaths.
Disaster
Number of human deaths
Other effects
Avoidability/Recoverability
Terrorists obtain and use several nuclear weapons

Likelihood; Who knows? possible
Several tens of thousands up to several millions. Will mainly depend on human behaviour – will people in other cities panic and move out to the country en-mass? Will this cause economic collapse, cultural collapse? Avoidability; If the causes inciting extremists to commit terrorist acts can be removed then it might well be avoided. If nations with nuclear weapons were to greatly reduce their armouries the ability of terrorists to obtain bombs would be similarly reduced.

Recoverability; The city or cities attacked will retain radioactive contamination for some years; otherwise recovery will depend very much on the general reaction to the attack.
Disaster
Number of human deaths
Other effects
Avoidability/Recoverability
Strike by asteroid on major city; assuming the asteroid to be in the (small) 100m to 1km diameter class

Likelihood; Inevitable over a long enough period, enormously unlikely in the next few years
Tens of thousands to several millions Total devastation in the immediate area
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Avoidability; It is avoidable by early detection and modifying the orbit of the asteroid.

Recoverability; The particularly city would be entirely destroyed and the vicinity extensively damaged, but recovery would eventually be near complete.
Disaster
Number of human deaths
Other effects
Avoidability/Recoverability
Nuclear war; between two major nuclear powers, eg. USA and China

Likelihood; Unlikely
Tens of millions or even hundreds of millions Blast damage would mainly be confined to areas of human occupation. Fallout and radiation would effect higher animals in much the same way as it effects humans. There is a possibility of 'nuclear winter' which could result in the extinction of many species. Avoidability; Entirely avoidable; nuclear weapons have been available for sixty years and the only time they were used was by one nuclear power against a non-nuclear power. Would any government be stupid enough to use nuclear weapons against a nation that could retaliate?

Recoverability; Probably recoverable. There is a possibility of 'nuclear winter' which could result in the extinction of many species.
Disaster
Number of human deaths
Other effects
Avoidability/Recoverability
Flu pandemic; bird flu or some other variation mutates and becomes human-transmissible, virulent and highly contagious

Likelihood; Quite likely, it happens periodically; we have been lucky that it has not happened in the last three quarters of a century.
If the Hong Kong bird flu or some other virus mutates to becomes human-to-human transmissible and virulent there may be tens of millions to hundreds of millions of human deaths. There may well be no direct effects on other species and minimal effect on infrastructure. Panic exoduses from cities might lead to environmental disruptions, overcrowding, and starvation elsewhere. Avoidability; There is probably nothing that can be done to avoid it. However, its severity could be greatly reduced by various human activities such as speedy development of vaccines.

Recoverability; Totally recoverable because it will be confined only to humans.
Disaster
Number of human deaths
Other effects
Avoidability/Recoverability
Climate change

Likelihood; Some is now unavoidable, but the worst effects may be avoided by concerted efforts on a world-wide scale.

Ocean acidification is a major related problem.
Tens of millions up to several billion.

Many low-lying river deltas such as the Mekong, Ganges/Brahma Putra and the Nile will be inundated by the rising sea levels; these areas are the most densly populated places in the world. Many fertile and highly populated areas of the First World will also go under. Global water supplies will change, rainfalls will decrease greatly in some areas and increase in other areas. Increases in the frequency of major storms will produce record floods.

Thousands of species will become extinct because of habitat loss. Major changes in global weather patterns and possibly ocean currents will occur. Runaway greenhouse effects may occur because of positive feedback effects in such things as release of greenhouse gases from melting permafrost and methane hydrides on the ocean floor.

Also see below...
Avoidability; Some climate change is unavoidable, it has already started. The worst effects could be avoided if there was the necessary international political will.

Recoverability; The losses of species and destruction of environments would be unrecoverable. Changes in weather patterns and ocean currents may not be reversible, and even if they could be reversed the damage would already have been done.
More on the climate change disaster
Displacements of large populations by rising sea level and drought will lead to wars over territory. History shows us that when peoples have to move from their own land they will take land from neighbours who are weaker. Starvation will be widespread. Habitat destruction and deforestation due to overcrowding will lead to even more starvation in later years. The ocean current called the Gulf Stream makes northern Europe habitable; it is quite probable that ocean currents including the Gulf Stream will change if climates change substantially.

Ocean acidification is happening due to the carbon dioxide that human activity has added to the atmosphere dissolving in sea water to form carbonic acid. This is already adversely affecting the ability of small sea creatures such as foraminifera and corrals to produce their calcic skeletons.

I have written at greater length on climate change from an international perspective and also from an Australian perspective elsewhere on this site.

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Environmental disasters warned about by Jared Diamond in his book Collapse

My greatest concern is climate change. However, Jared Diamond rightly warned that there are a number of looming disasters, including climate change, that cannot be treated individually. He believes that if any eleven of the problems listed below are not fixed then the remaining one will cause at least a major disruption of our world.
  1. Destruction of habitats;
  2. Destruction of wild foods, especially fish stocks;
  3. Loss of biodiversity;
  4. Loss of soils and soil fertility;
  5. Approaching the end of easily obtainable fossil fuels;
  6. Over commitment of fresh water resources;
  7. Humanity is approaching the 'photosynthetic ceiling'. Soon there will be little photosynthetic capacity on earth that is not dedicated to man's direct use;
  8. Release of a huge range of chemicals into natural environments;
  9. Alien species: weeds, pests and pathogens that humanity has spread around the world;
  10. Gases that damage the ozone layer or produce climate change;
  11. Growing numbers of humans for the earth to support;
  12. Growing impact of each human as Third World people aspire to First World life styles.
I would suggest that there are other problems that should be added to Diamond's list. And then there is the compounding of problems; each of Diamond's first three problems will be made worse due to his tenth – climate change.
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The numbers on graphs

 
Linear scale graph
Linear scale
For a number of possible disasters the graph on the right shows the number of expected deaths on a conventional, linear scaled, graph. The numbers of deaths of all those listed disasters before the ten million for a nuclear war do not show up because they are too small!

Of course all the figures are speculative. That cannot be helped. They are reasonable guesses.

In these graphs I have used the figure of 3000 deaths from the World Trade Centre attack of Sept. 11th 2001 as the number for a terrorist attack as it is the greatest number killed by any (non state-sponsored) terrorist attack. Scientific American, 'Preparing for a Pandemic', Nov. 2005 gave the number of likely deaths from a flu pandemic as "tens to hundreds of millions'; I have used one hundred million on the graphs. I have used the figure of one billion as the likely deaths from climate change figuring on massive forced migrations and confrantations between nations and societies.

 
Linear scale graph
Logarithmic scale
A logarithmic scale graph – where each horizontal line represents ten times the number of the line below it – shows all the numbers.

It should be stressed that while these graphs compare disasters in terms of human deaths another important aspect is recoverability following a disaster. The recoverability from an environmental disaster like climate change will be much poorer than from something like a flu pandemic (which is confined to humans) or terrorist attack; thousands of species and great natural structures like coral reefs will be lost.






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On this page...

Asteroid strike
Coronal mass ejection
Flu pandemic
Climate change
Disasters compared
Earthquake
Hurricane or flood
Jared Diamond – environmental disasters
Nuclear war
Terrorist attack
The numbers on graphs
Top
Tsunami
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