It is not fun to experience a natural disaster. It is scary and overwhelming, intense & terrible. Yet the world we love would not exist without the countless disasters that have created our home planet. Can you imagine a world without mountains and valleys? If there are no mountains, then rivers do not exist either. The world would be a vast ocean, any land would be washed away by the power of ocean waves. Without uplift caused by earthquakes we would have a water world. The terrestrial landscapes we love would not exist, because mountains form when earthquakes uplift them or volcanoes build them. Beaches exist because land was uplifted above the ocean. And only because land is uplifted by earthquakes, is it possible for life as we know it to exist. Disasters are disastrous for us, but they are also beneficial to the ecosystems that we are part of and rely upon. The world we love would not exist without the disasters that built it.
Our world is full of natural hazards, natural processes that pose a potential threat to human life & property. Without the presence of human life and property an Earth event that causes sudden change would not technically be a disaster. A disaster is a purely human experience, though we recognize that plants and animals are often adversely affected as well. But those plants and animals would not exist without the events that created the landscapes that the ecosystems have adapted within. Earthquakes create mountains, floods allow groundwater to be replenished, hurricanes recycle nutrients, wildfires remove excess underbrush and allow some seeds to germinate, volcanoes produce rock that become new landscapes, and landslides expose rock that breaks down into fertile soils. The world we love is created by events that cause change, but are only disasters when the event occurs over a limited time span within a defined area and cause the death of 10 or more people, affects at least 100 people, and/or leads to the declaration of a State of Emergency or initiates a request for International Assistance. In worst case scenarios a disaster develops into a catastrophe that requires significant expenditure of money & a long recovery. Catastrophes can only occur if the event affects a lot of people, having occurred over a large area or within a densely populated region. Disasters and catastrophes only occur when humans are adversely affected by rapid natural processes, and increasingly dense populations make disasters and catastrophes more likely.
In 79CE/AD Mount Vesuvius erupted in Italy. The cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum were buried by hot volcanic rock. The same volcanic rocks that made up the volcano before this eruption created the soils that allowed the valleys at the foot of volcano to be fertile, supporting a civilization that enjoyed grains, wine, olives, and honey. The volcanic disaster that took place over a few days may have buried cities, but it also preserved them, allowing modern day Archeologists to investigate how people in this region lived almost 2000 years ago. The Italians built upon the buried remains of these Roman cities and today the city of Naples and surrounding towns sprawl out on the flanks of the still active volcano. Vesuvius will produce another natural disaster, and it is very likely that not everyone will be able to escape the devastation because of the incredibly dense population and limited escape routes. In the meantime the rocks produced by previous eruptions allows the current agricultural bounty to support the cities on the foot of the volcano.
In 1989CE the Loma Prieta earthquake shook the greater San Francisco Bay Area of California causing considerable damage near to and far from the epicenter on Loma Prieta peak. Loma Prieta peak would not be a peak if thousands of earthquakes had not occurred over millions of years, slowly uplifting the rock to mountainous heights. It is only a peak because it is a fault within the San Andreas Fault system, a tectonic boundary that stretches along the Californian Coast. The presence of a fault means a natural hazard is always looming. The beloved mountains and valleys, vineyards and redwoods of the greater San Francisco Bay Area region of California would not exist without the faults that underly the region. A network of hundreds of faults created the landscape and allowed volcanos to erupt as the faults formed millions of years ago. The volcanic rocks eroded and formed the rich soil that supports California wine country in the midst of earthquake country. Devastation begets beauty.
In 2017CE Hurricane Irma struck the Florida Coast, damaging 40% of the region’s coastal mangrove forests. A ~9 foot storm surge inundated the region and winds tore the mangroves from the swampy soil of Everglades National Park. The rotting remains of the mangroves still affect the local ecosystem by contributing to algae blooms that disrupt sensitive aquatic habitats. This region has survived many storms and would not exist without persistent flooding that forms the swamps, and the nutrients that are exposed when storms stir the water and mud. The plants of the Everglades photosynthesize and capture carbon, burying it in the boggy soils where eventually it will be deep enough to be squeezed into coal over millions of years. The Everglades would not exist without immense amounts of water, and the aquatic ecosystem’s role in removing carbon dioxide from the air and capturing it in the soil plays a role in global temperature fluctuations, just as the Amazon rainforest does on a larger scale. All swampy forests protect coastlines from erosion, sequester carbon, replenish groundwater, and provide habitats for plants and animals that cannot live anywhere else.
When you appreciate the world around you, consider the role that disasters played in its creation. Every time you see a mountain, know that earthquakes and/or volcanic eruptions built it. When you see a river know that without the earthquakes that uplifted the mountains there would be no slopes for the water to flow down into the valleys. When you see a fertile field know that the soil was formed by the breakdown of rocks from volcanos, glaciers, wind and rivers, and the remains of the plants and animals of generations past. When you see a swamp know that flooding allows it to exist. Living through a natural disaster sucks, but the world we love wouldn’t exist without the disasters the ancestors of every species on Earth has survived. Every life form on Earth inherits a legacy of survival, and humans are in a unique position to support the survival of the Earth ecosystem as a whole, or to feel victimized by events that have been occurring for millions of years. We can create additional disasters through misuse of energy and resources, or we can prevent them through landscape, atmosphere, water, and ecosystem management. Natural disasters are Earth processes that are both creative and destructive, and as Earthlings humans and our civilizations are subject to the Earth processes that have created and continue to shape planet Earth.