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    Beautiful Disaster

    Photo: Ted S. Warren, AP

    Mudslide near Arlington, Washington.  Rest in peace.

    The earth shall move by wind and rain
    By whim, by force of time
    Savage nature eats away
    At all that's civilised

    -Walter Lloyd Waterson, Elemental Forces


    Leapord Seal Sunset

    Here's an awesome video (that's somewhat soothing to watch) of a Leopard Seal swimming through icy seas in Antarctica at sunset.  Watch the penguins running when they see the seal coming at the 4:50 mark.  The original can be found on the National Geographic website.

    In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
    A stately pleasure-dome decree:
    Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
    Through caverns measureless to man
    Down to a sunless sea…

    Excerpt from Xanadu, by Samuel Taylor Coleridge


    Ode to the Elephant Seal

    In the waves the truth doth lie
    Like God the ocean speaks

    All souls rise and drown in time
    So too shall worlds in cosmic seas

                                                                                    -Walter Lloyd Waterson, Preface to The Lives of Sea Creatures

     They were watching, out there past men’s knowing, where stars are drowning and whales ferry their vast souls through the black and seamless sea.

                                                                                     -Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian

           Elephant seals are magnificent and majestic seabeasts that cruise vast stretches of the worlds oceans.   They spend the majority of their lives in the water, and breed and molt on shore.  Colonies of the northern elephant seals gather annually in established breeding areas along the Pacific coast of North America, and California rookeries can be found in Ano Nuveo, Point Reyes, and Cambria.  Here’s some footage of a lone elephant seal swimming and chuffing in the waves off Chimney Rock in Point Reyes:

           Elephant seals are social, vocal creatures capable of extraordinary feats; achieving numerous superlative titles in the animal kingdom.  Northern elephant seal bulls grow to tremendous proportions: battle-class alpha males can exceed 5,000 pounds and reach a length of sixteen feet.  Southern elephant seals, which live in the southern hemisphere, can exceed twenty feet in length and weigh over 8,800 pounds.  They’re capable of holding their breath for over an hour and a half, and they dive (possibly while simultaneously sleeping) thousands of feet in search for prey.   Northern elephant seals have recently been tracked at depths of 5,788 feet, over a mile deep.  They migrate further than any other mammal in the world, traveling 13,000 miles annually.  Males swim along the continental shelf from California to feed in Alaska, while females make two foraging trips a year throughout the northeast Pacific.  They spend between two to eight continuous months at sea, and always return to the same feeding areas and rookeries at the same time year after year.  When they arrive at their breeding grounds in winter, male elephant seals battle for dominance over harems of females.  Here are two boardwalk street fighters throwing down on the Point Reyes waterfront:


           In the late 1800s, humans slaughtered hundreds of thousands of northern elephant seals for the oil contained in their blubber.  By 1892, a sole colony of fifty to one hundred elephant seals remained on Guadalupe Island off the coast of Baja California, and these were protected by the Mexican government.  Throughout the 1900s, a resurgent elephant seal population skyrocketed, and the current population abounds at approximately 160,000 members.  Due to the fact that the existing population arose from a limited gene pool, northern elephant seals share very similar genetics, which makes them more susceptible to contracting diseases should a virus spread throughout their species.  Here’s some footage of elephant seals families lounging on the beach below the cliffs of Chimney Rock:

           In the beginning of the clip, you can hear the guttural cries of little elephant seal pups.  Like many newborn mammals, they’re virtually defenseless and rely on their mothers for protection and sustenance.  An elephant seal mother will nurse her young (sometimes adopting lost seal pups) for about a month, during which time a pup will gain around nine pounds a day from consuming the rich milk (55% fat) of the mother.  They young pups will grow and then severe their bonds with their mother. (I wonder if some animals, like elephant seals or birds look at their young and identify distinguishable and distinct personality traits that are unique to each of them, so that a mother bird can watch the erratic behavior of her son and say, “There he goes, he’s just a crazy bird...”*)  If they’re males, northern elephant seals will live to be about thirteen, and the lifespan of females is around twenty.  Their lives will be filled with adventure and mystery as they explore the dark and gloaming depths of the oceans in search for food to stay alive; their survival as adults linked to the seas which they depend on as much as they depended on their mothers who nursed them into being.  They will drift beneath stars and full moons, through whale song seas and bioluminescent tides, and bask upon the sundown shores of this world.  They will live profound and beautiful lives, each perceiving their own existence as one who is at the center of the universe,** yet perhaps possessing a deeper understanding, however fleeting, that they are part of greater order which is owned by no one. 



    *In the Web of Life lecture from the Out of Your Mind Lecture Series, Alan Watts brings up a funny notion about sea shells critiquing other sea shells, and ties this into a larger, more serious concept related to the way we humans tend to separate ourselves from the world around us.  He says:

    I’m not saying that it’s a bad thing – something to be condemned – to take your own individual life seriously in dead earnest, and to have all the problems that go with that.  Do understand that being that way, that being a real mixed-up human being is a manifestation of nature that is something just like the patterns on the waves out here, or like a sea shell.  You know we pick up shells – I always keep one around as sort of an example for many things – and say, “My goodness, isn’t that gorgeous? There’s not an aesthetic fault in it anywhere, it’s absolutely perfect.”  Now I wonder, I wonder if these fish look at each other’s shells and say, “Don’t you think she’s kind of fat?  Oh my, those markings aren’t really very well spaced.  Pssshhh.”  Cause’ that’s what we do, see we don’t realize that all of us in our various goings on and behaviors and so on are just as marvelous – more marvelous, much more complicated, much more interesting – all these gorgeous faces that I’m looking at, you know every one of them – some of them supposedly pretty, some are supposedly not so pretty, but they’re all absolutely gorgeous.  And everybody’s eyes is a piece of jewelry beyond compare. Beautiful.  But we have specialized in a certain kind of awareness that makes us neglectful of that.  You see we specialize in more or less briefly concentrated, pin-point attention.  We look at this and we look at that, and we select from all the things we might possible be aware of, only certain things.  And as a result of that, we leave out of our everyday consciousness, generally speaking, two dimensions of experience;  one: amazing beauty of experience that we never see at all, and on the other hand, a very deep thing:  the sense of our basic identity, unity with, oneness with the total process of being.  See, because we are staring, as it were, at certain features of the landscape, we don’t see the background.  And because we get fascinated with – you know I could go into details of this shell, as I said, and put myself in the mind of a conch or whatever it is that lives in this thing and say, “Hmm, that’s not so not hot that one,” Like that you see?  And so, I wouldn’t see the whole thing!  But when I look at it like this, when anybody looks at it like that we say, “Oh my God isn’t that gorgeous?”


    **In philosophizing about the idea of reincarnation, Alan Watts makes some interesting (although possibly impossible to prove) points about the way that sentient objects perceive see things around them.  This is from a lecture called Every Incarnation is this One, from the Out of Your Mind lecture series:

    And the Buddhists thought that one over, and they said, “Crazy…we found a way of samsara – the wheel of birth and death.”  And somebody one day said, “But, isn’t that rather selfish?  You get yourself out, what about all the other people? Don’t you have any feeling of compassion?”  “Oh yes,” they said, “Of course.  We forgot that didn’t we?  Let’s come back again, and uh, help all these people out.” Then they got very sophisticated about it and they said, “Look, if nirvana is release from birth and death, then they’re opposed, and so nirvana and birth and death go together and they will have to imply one another.  So you’re really only released if you see that, if you see that nirvana and birth and death are the same thing.” 

    Now I’m gonna pull a fast one on you.  So every time an incarnation occurs, it feels like this one.  See, it might be quite different – we might we reincarnated in another universe as beings in of altogether different shape, see?  Not at all like human beings, but because we were used to it we would feel that that was the human shape.  We would say, “Well that’s natural, obviously, obviously, that’s the way things are.”  So naturally, if you appeared in the form of a spider, you would look around at other spiders and say, “Well yes, of course, this is, this is a natural place to be in, this is the human shape.”  Something that is not us looks at us and thinks we look perfectly terrible.  I mean imagine how you look to a fish: clumsy, cumbersome, stupid looking thing.  Whereas a fish is so elegant and graceful and can slide through the water so beautifully.  The human beings can’t even swim properly. 

    So don’t you see, that in every world that comes into being, or could come into being, it seems just like it seems now, and every species that you could belong to would seem like this one.  It would have its up end of what is highly intelligent, and its low end of what is not so intelligent.  You would be aware of superior forces and inferior forces; otherwise you wouldn’t have the idea of mastering a situation unless there were situations you couldn’t master.  Now we are not aware of species of beings above us unless you cultivate those forms of psychic awareness when you think you’re in touch with angels or something of that sort.  But the things that appear to be above us are great natural processes, only we think they’re rather stupid, only very tough, too strong for us: earthquakes, the elements, also some little ones, see the virus is a very troublesome being.   And this is where a human being really finds himself at his wits end in dealing with molecular biology.  So, you know, if the monsters don’t get your, the ministers will – the insects, you see. 

    But at any rate, whatever level you’re on, it always appears to be the same one.  Now we...therefore, naturally, don’t we, we feel we’re in the middle.  We feel, for example, with the telescope, that there is a world greater than us that is infinitely greater; we feel with the microscope there’s a world below us that’s infinitely smaller, and we seem to stand in the middle.  Of course you seem to stand in the middle, every creature stands in the middle because if you stand on a boat in the middle of the ocean and you turn around through an angle of three hundred and sixty degrees, you will see the same distance in every direction.  That’s because you see, and your sensitivity to sight or the intensity to light is the same in every direction, so you’re in the middle.  You’re always in the middle.  Where else would you be?  In other words, anything that perceives anywhere is always in the middle.  Anything that grows anywhere is always in the middle.  It’s betwixt and between.  And the middle always has, therefore, extremes.  It has extremes in space – as far west and as far east as you can think, as far on and as far back.  And there’s always a beginning and there’s always an end, just as there’s a left and right, or a top and a bottom. 


    Life on Earth and the Kortum Trail – Part I*

    I sent Divided Core’s finest (and only) journalist out to the coast to file a report on the Kortum Trail area.  As usual, he missed the deadline, but this is what he wrote.

          Miraculously, the Earth is bursting with life.  Earth orbits within the circumstellar habitatable zone, or Goldilocks zone – falling not too close to, nor too far from the Sun, which is an enormous fireball that can theoretically accommodate 1.3 million Earth-sized planets within its blazing, spherical walls.  The Sun is like a massive cauldron of hydrogen and helium gas burning in a concentrated inferno 93 million miles away from Earth.  The Sun is a star, and it’s responsible for creating the gravitational field which holds the Earth and other planets in orbit.  Like the extensive network of life supported by its radiating solar energy, the Sun will one day die.  In his book Cosmos, Carl Sagan examines the death of the Earth and Sun; the caption reads:

    Several billion years from now, there will be a last perfect day (top left).  Then over a period of millions of years, the Sun will swell, the Earth will heat, many lifeforms will be extinguished, and the shoreline will retreat (top right).  The oceans will rapidly evaporate (bottom left) and then the atmosphere will escape to space.  As the Sun evolves toward a red giant (bottom right) the Earth will become dry, barren and airless.  Eventually the Sun will fill most of the sky, and may engulf the Earth. Paintings by Adolf Schaller.

            Shifts in the sun’s gravitational disposition may be responsible for tugging comets out of the Ort Cloud – which is one-quarter of the distance between our sun and the next closest star in the Milky Way Galaxy.**  One or multiple comets may have brought water to planet Earth after it began to form 4.5 billion years ago.  This is a speculation that makes sense because if the Earth formed in a chaotic, superheated, astronomical conflagration, then everything on the intensely hot rock would be burning or smoldering, and water from a crashing comet could have cooled everything down. 

            The point is that it took a lot of time, energy, and specific permutations for life to appear on Earth.  And it’s one thing for microorganisms, flora, and fauna to exist, but for life to evolve into conscious creatures which can appreciate the world around them is a spectacular occurrence.  Equally mind-blowing is that humans – seemingly still in search of a homeostasis with nature and each other, and exhibiting the highest form of intelligence – are possibly too smart for their own good, and can take a gift so supernal and sacred such as a living planet, and systemically destroy it.  (Insofar as harming life on Earth, certainly some people are more responsible than others, and those who are responsible may comprise a minitory whose inclinations are inconsistent with the rest of humanity.  My six-year old niece, for instance, shouldn’t bear much of the blame, nor should any child, for they seem to be the most tolerant and loving of any demographic; it’s the adults who cause the trouble.)  Not only have people formed industries and institutions which exploit or wipe-out vast natural habitats for the sake of creating favorable living conditions and amenities solely for our species, but we have constructed social and political paradigms which facilitate such spite and distrust for our fellow man that we continually kill each other while threatening the use of nuclear weapons to obliterate entire cross-sections of the planet.  So what do we do?  We go to the beach.

            If you’re lucky, you will go to a beach that lies along a clean and dynamic coast, impeded by only a few roads and sparse buildings, on a bright and sunny day when the water is clear and the sound of rolling waves wash your troubles away.  One can examine the coast on a macrocosmic scale and observe the relationships between the forests, hills, coastal prairies, cliffs, rocky shores, sandy beaches, and ocean.  Here’s a selection of pictures of the Kortum Trail area and coast, as well as two of the moon, which could be considered another dominant macrocosmic feature depending on your level of magnification.*** There are a few images of large rocks that are thought to have marks rubbed into them by the mammoths that roamed the Goat Rock area 40,000 years ago (mammoth fossils have been found at Bodega Head).  The other large arched rock is a sea stack formation, which indicates that it was once on the seafloor in some distant epoch of time tens of millions of years ago.

            Along the coast there’s plenty to see on the microcosmic scale, but you may have to do a little crawling around.  A close-up view is often necessary in order to appreciate things like lichen, moss, mushrooms, succulents, shells, and a variety of dazzling lifeforms flourishing in the tide pools.  (When scrutinizing natural objects close you may realize how much you’ve overlooked.  It’s somewhat like drawing an object in that you never truly realize how little or much you know about the way something looks until you try to draw it.)  In the following slideshow you can see everything I just mentioned and more, including a chiton in the upper-right hand corner of the tide pool shot.  I’m not sure what the stack of white particles is, but I think it may be a pellet of fish bones. 

             Some of the plants and animals that you see along the coast, and especially in the water, look as though they came from outer space.  This makes sense because we’re on Earth, which is a planet floating in space.  Simple multicellular organisms such as moss, fungi, and algae originate from a genesis tracing back billions of years.  Following on their heels were more complex organisms like sea anemones, sea stars, seals, and pelicans, which seem to have persevered in establishing a specific niche and role in the world.  Like people, the individual animals will live and die, and they have a stake in perpetuating the existence of their own species through procreation.  Like us, they have derived from the generations of their ancestors that came before them, and will strive to produce a generation of their species to follow in their footsteps.  Yet a dichotomy between us and them exists in that they can only do so much to prevent the destruction of their habitats and adapt to changes in their environment.  They’re mostly small, innocent creatures that haven’t done a damn thing to us; they haven’t wronged us in any way, and yet we are carrying-out the wholesale destruction of the lands and seas upon which they depend on to survive.  If the sea stars and harbor seals could talk, I suspect they would say something like, “Please, for the love of God, treat us with a little respect, because we’re all in this together, and there may be things that we are doing for you that you don’t even know of yet.  And if we disappear, then we’re done for, and that won’t bode well for either of us.”  Furthermore, I suspect some of the more desperate ones would issue a mandate to those humans who would listen, and it would go something like this: “Hello.  I’m different than you and your kind.  I’m just a seal, and I can’t do the things you can do.  I can’t speak out or act to stop what’s happening to us and the seas, so please help us.  Please do what you can to change things up there so that we can get by and survive down here.  I’m sorry I can’t help, but we’re just animals, for crying out loud.”


    Asterisk Notes

    *I sometimes fall into a habit of not exploring my own backyard because I know it’s always there.  But this is not the right way to go about things – it is taking something for granted.  Yet that something may change in the way in which it presents itself to you, and you yourself will not always be around to experience it.  With that mentally, I went back to the coast off the Kortum Trail the other day.  I went back with a sea kayak and my diving gear, determined to get camera footage of the coast from and under the water in order to complete the second part of this piece.  But I didn’t go in, because the sea looked like this.  So stay tuned for Part II.

    **You won’t be able to find a photograph of the Milky Way Galaxy in full because we’re in it, and a camera hasn’t gone that far out in space yet.  The Milky Way galaxy is said to contain over 100 billion stars, and it's name has something to do with breast milk.  There are an estimated 100 billon galaxies in the universe, some containing hundreds of billions of stars.  Among astronomers, a commonly cited fact is that there are more stars in the universe than all the grains of sand on all the beaches of the world.  Our sun is of average size; click here for a neat video which shows how our Sun compares to others.

    ***In the lecture series Out of Your Mind, Alan Watts talks about level of magnification in a lecture called Awareness of the Self.  Here some of what he says:

            “…He sees, shall we say, that everything goes together.  And that is, in a way, by what we mean by relativity because relativity means relatedness – just as fronts go with backs and tops with bottoms, insides with outsides, solids with spaces – so everything that there is goes together.  It makes no difference whether it lasts a long time or whether it last a short time.  A galaxy goes together with all the universe just as much as a mosquito, which has a very short life.  From the standpoint of the self time is completely relative.  You can have, if you scale it down, as much time between two of those very rapid drum beats as you can in eons and eons and eons, it’s all a question of point of view, or, to use a scientific expression, level of magnification.  Change your magnification and you see molecules, and we know by other methods of observation that it can get smaller and smaller and smaller, and that the spaces between these minute units are so vast that they’re comparable to the distances between the sun and planets in scale.  So also with time, so in this sense, there could be vast, vast universes, full of empires, and battleships, and palaces, and brothels, and restaurants, and orchestras in the tip of your fingernail.  And on the other hand, we could be all going on in the tip of somebody else’s fingernail.
            It’s very important to understand not only the relativity of size and of time, but also of what there is.  Now as you know, the human senses respond only to a very small band of the known spectrum of vibrations.  We know through instruments of quite a vast spectrum, but we as I say with our senses see only a little of it.  If our senses were in some way altered, we would see a rather different looking world.  We can do this of course; we can put on special lenses to enable us to see heat, and then we see all the heat radiation coming out of people, and we say “Well, I’ve never noticed that about you before.”  But so in the same way, you see, there are infinitely many possibilities of vibrations, and of organs sensitive to those vibrations, so that there could be worlds within worlds within worlds, spaces within spaces, just like the many, many wavelengths of radio and television going on forever and ever in all directions.  The possibilities are infinite.”


    Examining Natural Disasters 

           The death toll from Typhoon Haiyan, which struck the Philippines on November 7th, currently stands at 5,500 people.  Haiyan was the fourth strongest tropical cyclone ever recorded and is the deadliest in Philippine history (the second-deadliest was Tropical Storm Thelma, which killed around 5,080 people in 1991).  To compare, here are some mortality figures from other large-scale natural disasters that have taken place in recent history.   

    Typhoon Bopha, Philippines, December 2012 – 1,146 dead
    Hurricane Sandy, U.S Eastern Seaboard, October 2012 – 286 dead
    Earthquake and Tsunami in East Japan, March 2011 – 15,800 dead
    Earthquake in Haiti, January 2010 – 159,000 dead
    Hurricane Katrina, Gulf Coast, August 2008 – 1,833 dead
    Earthquake in Kashmir, Pakistan and India, October 2005 – 100,000 dead
    Indian Ocean Earthquake and Tsunami, December 2004 – 250,000 dead

           In addition to the number of victims, there are certainly many other factors to consider when assessing the impact that natural disasters have on humanity.  The magnitude of a disaster can be measured in absolute terms, such as the aforementioned mortality rate, as well as the physical extent of the area affected, the volume of infrastructure destroyed, and the financial cost of reconstruction. 

           The magnitude of a natural disaster can also be measured in terms of causalities – the secondary problems that tend to arise as a result of a disaster.  Causality events and phenomena can vary in intensity, and occasionally these secondary, spinoff problems can be more destructive than the absolute damage inflicted by the primary disaster. An example of disaster causality is displaced persons. (When environmental migrants are unable to return home or resettle elsewhere, they’re considered displaced; if they move to another country, they’re considered refugees.  According to the International Rescue Committee, on Earth there are 42 million refugees and internally displaced people, primarily uprooted by war.)  Over four million people are internally displaced in the Philippines as a result of Typhoon Haiyan.  Displacement can be a lingering issue, as demonstrated by the 27,000 households currently displaced in the United States as a result of last year’s Superstorm Sandy.  

           The spread of disease is another causality that can become a crisis in the aftermath of a natural disaster.  Rick Gladstone explains how the outbreak of disease is a serious health threat to those in typhoon-ravaged areas of the Philippines:

           Illnesses including cholera, hepatitis, malaria, dengue fever, typhoid fever, bacterial dysentery and others that thrive in tropical, fetid environments, where sewage and water supplies intermingle, could form what doctors fear is the disaster’s second wave. They predicted that leptospirosis, a parasitic disease endemic to the Philippines, could surge. And some said they would not be surprised to see a return of polio. The Philippines is part of an area of the western Pacific declared polio-free by the World Health Organization nearly 14 years ago.

           Diseases that are inadvertently carried and spread by emergency workers responding to a disaster demonstrate that multiple degrees of separation can exist between the primary disaster and the problems which follow on the heels of it.  In October, 2010, the worst epidemic of cholera in recent history struck Haiti and led to the deaths of an estimated 8,300 people.  The cholera bacterium is not indigenous to Haiti, and in this case the origins of the epidemic were traced back to a United Nations base housing Nepalese peacekeepers who were there to aid the victims of the earthquake which took place nine months prior.    

           An industrial disaster that occurs as a result of a natural disaster or an extreme weather event can exacerbate the impact of the initial event.   This is especially true when it comes to the impact intense meteorological or seismic activity can have on nuclear power plants.  Following the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami, electrical generator and cooling systems failed at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.  The failure of the power systems led to a meltdown of the nuclear fuel rods contained within three reactors.  Engineers are attempting to stabilize the crippled reactors as part of Fukushima’s decommissioning process, which will involve 12,000 workers (apparently including members of the Yakuza gang, or, as RT puts it, the Atomic Mafia) and is expected to last through 2015.  A delicate step is presently being undertaken: using cranes and robotic arms to transfer 1,331 spent nuclear fuel rods from unstable reactor pools to new, ground-level tanks that will be less vulnerable to seismic and oceanic events than the damaged tanks.  Dr. Paul Gunter, director of Beyond Nuclear’s Reactor Oversight Project describes this unprecedented endeavor as “a risky round of highly radioactive pickup sticks.”   According to the CBC, “the amount of radioactive cesium-137 in the pool holding the fuel rod assemblies is said to be the equivalent of roughly 14,000 Hiroshima-sized atomic bombs.”  If a mishap were to occur during or after the fuel rod transfer process, then a secondary disaster of unleashed radiation may potentially result in a higher loss of life than those killed in the precursory earthquake and tsunami.  Although triggered by natural events, the Fukushima meltdown would more accurately be classified as a manmade disaster because humans built the nuclear power plant and put it on the beach.

           There is no way to assure the stability of any nuclear power plant, especially in relation to extreme weather and seismic events. Though a meltdown did not occur, the threat of one loomed in Nebraska in June, 2011, when the Fort Calhoun nuclear power plant flooded in heavy rains which shut down the plant’s transformers, forcing operators and engineers to run backup generators until floodwaters subsided and primary electricity was restored.  In a different scenario, an earthquake which measured 5.8 on the Richter scale occurred on the east coast of the United States in August, 2011.  Originating in Virginia, the earthquake rattled Washington D.C and New York City, along with other cosmopolitan hubs and rural areas in between.  This rare event raised questions about the structural integrity of the Long Island-based Indian Point nuclear power plant, which is located thirty-five miles away from Manhattan. Indian Point was built to withstand a 6.0 magnitude earthquake, and if the plant were to experience a full-scale meltdown, millions of residents would be at risk of intense radiation exposure.  In March, 2011, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission identified nuclear reactor three at Indian Point as the highest risk nuclear reactor to catastrophically fail in the event of a regional earthquake.  The Fukushima, Fort Calhoun, and Indian Point cases demonstrate the susceptibility of nuclear power plants destabilizing as a result of earthquakes, floods, and tsunamis.

           Extreme weather events like intense tornadoes, droughts, and floods are increasingly attributed to manmade climate change and other forms of human-induced environmental stress.  In his excellent September, 2012 National Geographic piece on extreme weather, Peter Miller writes:

           Extreme events like the Nashville flood – described by officials as a once-in-a-millennium occurrence -- are happening more frequently than they used to…  What’s going on?  Are these extreme events signals of a dangerous, human-made shift in Earth’s climate? Or are we just going through a natural stretch of bad luck?  The short answer is: probably both.  The primary forces driving recent disasters have been natural climate cycles… [Miller goes on to explain how El Nino, La Nina, and global warming contribute to extreme weather].  “You’re getting more rain from a given storm now than you would have 30 or 40 years ago,” says Gerald Meehl, a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado.  Global warming, he says, has changed the odds for extreme weather.  “Picture a baseball player on steroids,” Meehl goes on.  “This baseball player steps up to the plate and hits a home run.  It’s impossible to say if he hit that home run because of steroids, or whether he would have hit it anyway.  The drugs just made it more likely.

           Yes, the drugs certainly do make it more likely.  Writing for Live Scientist, Ker Than does a great job of summing up some other important figures and factors to consider when assessing the impact disasters have had on humanity over time:

           According to the EM-DAT, the total natural disasters reported each year has been steadily increasing in recent decades, from 78 in 1970 to 348 in 2004.  Guha-Sapir said that a portion of that increase is artificial, due in part to better media reports and advances in communications. Another reason is that beginning in the 1980s, agencies like CRED and the US Agency for International Development (USAID) began actively looking for natural disasters.  "Like in medicine, if you go out into a village and look for cases you find much more than if you just sit back and let people come to you when they're sick," Guha-Sapir said. However, about two-thirds of the increase is real and the result of rises in so-called hydro-meteorological disasters, Guha-Sapir said. These disasters include droughts, tsunamis, hurricanes, typhoons and floods and have been increasing over the past 25 years. In 1980, there were only about 100 such disasters reported per year but that number has risen to over 300 a year since 2000.  In contrast, natural geologic disasters, such as volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, landslides and avalanches have remained steady in recent decades.

           People are also tempting nature with rapid and unplanned urbanization in flood-prone regions, increasing the likelihood that their towns and villages will be affected by flash floods and coastal floods…. People aren't just putting themselves at risk for floods, but for natural disasters of all types, including earthquakes and storms like hurricanes and typhoons. "As you put more and more people in harms way, you make a disaster out of something that before was just a natural event," said Klaus Jacob, a senior research scientists at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

           A recent Public Radio International broadcast reported on a study carried-out by atmospheric scientist Kerry Emanuel, examining the role climate change played in influencing the dynamics and outcome of typhoon Haiyan, and also comparing the destructive capacity of Haiyan to Hurricane Katrina.  According to the PRI report, Emanuel his colleagues at MIT drew three main conclusions in their research:

           1) Climate change “played a role in one obvious respect, in that sea levels are elevated, and so the storm surge, which is a big killer…was higher than it would’ve been.  Beyond that, it’s difficult, and perhaps impossible, to attribute one particular event to any kind of climate signal, whether it’s global warming or el Nino or some other phenomenon.”

          2) As a result of higher surface temperatures, climate change has increased the wind speeds of contemporary storms compared to those of thirty years ago, and higher wind speeds translates into greater damage.  PRI states:

           Emanuel and his colleagues took a computer model they use to forecast the wind speeds in a storm like Haiyan and ran it with the thermodynamic conditions that were present 30 years ago, in the 1980s, before the warming of the last few decades. They compared it to the model using current conditions. “And when we do that,” Emanuel tells The World, “we find that the wind speeds are about ten percent larger now.”  That’s because warmer surface temperatures essentially provide more fuel for tropical storms.  Emanuel says the destructive potential of a windstorm goes up quickly with wind speed, “so that really corresponds to something like 30 to 40% more damage than the same exact event might've done had it occurred in the thermal environment of the 1980s.”

          3) Lastly, Emanuel states that if Haiyan had hypothetically hit the United States instead of the Philippines, “it would’ve been a perhaps a much worse disaster.”  This is because people of the Philippines are more accustom and better prepared for storms than the people of the United States.  In order to evaluate the likely impact of Haiyan had it hit the United States, Emanuel and his colleagues superimposed a satellite image of Haiyan over one of Katrina in the Gulf Coast, and Haiyan clearly appears to be the bigger storm.

           There are many variables to consider when comparing the impact of one natural disaster to a disaster that has taken place in a different time period or in a different location.  Kerry Emanuel is right to contrast levels of disaster-preparedness between the U.S and Philippines, but different environments and populations can exhibit entirely different sets of problems.  For example, the Philippine Health Department and the World Health Organization are preparing to vaccinate one million children adversely impacted by typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines.  The purpose of the mass-vaccination effort is to prevent the spread of measles and polio (Incidentally, there is an even greater polio vaccination effort underway in the Syria region, which aims to inoculate 20 million children).  Though the vaccinations are important to those susceptible of contracting polio and other viruses in the Philippines, such a post-disaster vaccination endeavor would not be necessary in the United States because most residents have already been immunized.

            Another consideration is the size of the population in the affected area, as well as the proportion of the affected population in relation to the greater population in time. (For example, in 2008, roughly 2,000 people died in Hurricane Katrina in the United States, a country with a population of 300,000,000.  By contrast, the 2010 earthquake in Haiti was responsible for deaths of 160,000 people – that’s roughly 6% of the entire population in a country comprised of 10,000,000 people.  The eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD obliterated the towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum and killed over 16,000 people, and I’m not even going to bother to determine what percentage of the Gulf of Naples’ population in the first century this death toll figure works out to be.)  For instance, though higher wind speeds would have translated to more storm damage thirty years ago, thirty years ago there would not have been as many people around to endure such a storm, and there would likely have existed less infrastructure to be destroyed.  To take this conjecture further, if such a storm were to have taken place one hundred years ago many people may have lived-out their lives without hearing about it.  (Yet speculating on a how a hypothetical event may have played-out in the past seems like a fruitless endeavor because myriad variables – often indirect and unforeseen – affect the schematics of any situation.  It’s like saying that a cancer survivor who underwent chemotherapy to be cured would not have survived fifty years ago because the technology was unavailable; while this may be true, the conditions surrounding that person contracting cancer would have be totally different, and that figurative person doesn’t exist anyway.)

           Why do most humans seem to care about those suffering from the effects of a natural disaster?  The pain endured by disaster victims is transmitted to a broader audience via the television and internet, thus photographs and video footage of struggling victims evoke sympathy in the hearts of many viewers.  This news provides viewers removed from the disaster zone with an opportunity to relate (especially if they have lived through a disaster themselves) and vicariously experience to pain of others.  Yet the effect that most disaster news has on viewers can sometimes be perverse and counterintuitive.  Mainstream news often crosses into the realm of entertainment, and the suffering of humans is portrayed in a manner that resembles a reality television show, with the effect on viewers being that they feel grateful for the relative stability of their own lives while pitying the victims on T.V – an effect achieved to some degree by viewers who tune-in to a tabloid talk show. Conversely, there may be a desensitizing effect on those viewers whom are relentlessly subjected to broadcasts of the plight of disaster victims.  A slight immunity to suffering may build-up in the viewer after being exposed to so much of it, while other viewers may develop an addiction to monitoring the misery of others in what could be qualified as disaster porn.  That said, there clearly are people who are galvanized to aid disaster victims and become genuinely concerned for them as a result of being exposed to information transmitted via modern telecommunication systems.  Be that as it may, the contextual and comparative basis for their concern deserves evaluation.  In short: where was the outcry before? 

           In part, the paucity of sympathy correlates to the absence of media attention and a general ignorance of those myriad people whom are suffering in the world.  Surely millions of people in the Philippines, the twelfth most populated country in the world – a country so poor that a Manila garbage dump collapse in 2000 killed 300 people who had hewed-out their homes in the landfill – needed aid before typhoon Haiyan struck.  The same can be said for the flood-stricken people of Somalia, where a cyclone killed 300 people and up to a million head of livestock three days after Haiyan struck the Philippines.  The same can also be said for Pakistan, Indonesia, and Haiti before and after they were hit by major disasters.   (In a glaring case of out of sight, out of mind, a week after the 2010 Haiti earthquake, cruise ships continued to dock sixty miles away from Port-au-Prince, where hundreds of thousands had just died and hundreds of thousands more were suffering.  Separately, Haiti is currently in the throes of a disaster capitalism experiment as the future impact of newly-constructed luxury hotels – funded in part by the private foundations of former U.S presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton -- has yet to be determine.)  Yet I suppose the same could be said for anyone living in conditions of severe poverty anywhere in the world.  (It is noteworthy that the American mainstream media largely ignores the brutal and violent ramifications of the nature of war, and the lives of the innocent killed are intentionally concealed.  This has something to do with the connection between the military-industrial-complex and the corporate media which both benefit from killing people, and is the topic of different article.)

            Before I continue with my final points, I acknowledge that all this is very easy for me to say from my highly-privileged position of having a healthy life in stable place to thrive, and the amenities with which to enjoy my free time.  I write as though I know what I’m talking about, but having never lived through a disaster or stepped foot in the shoes of a severely impoverished person whose daily struggle for life is in itself tantamount to the trials faced by a victim of a major disaster, I know not what I’m talking about. 

           Nonetheless, I wonder about this:  I wonder that if human activities are indeed contributing to the occurrence of extreme weather events like typhoon Haiyan, then how will the magnitude of resources and energy being exhausted in disaster relief efforts ---  from fossil fuels burned by vehicles scrambling across the globe to load packaged supplies onto cargo planes, to dispatching aircraft carriers and naval cruisers to the rescue of a former colony, to the pollution generated by the intensive barrage of media attention given to the Philippines – are factored into the equation as contributing factors for future extreme weather events.   Are we inadvertently causing more disasters in the process of attempting to aid the victims of one that has already occurred?  I wonder how much it matters, and know that for those people who are mired in post-disaster hellholes, such considerations are irrelevant and the imperative is surviving the present.  I wonder if natural disasters would still be disasters if no one was around to see them.  To end, I leave you with this photograph of the Indian Ocean tsunami approaching the shore.  The caption reads:  The doomed beachgoers wading in the suddenly shallow waters off the beach at Krabi in southern Thailand have just realized the magnitude of the first two waves rushing toward the coast; most have begun to rush shoreward, but none would survive.