The Sky Is Falling

Apocalypse How

Big-budget films tell us earthquakes are bad, volcanic eruptions can be catastrophic, and meteorite strikes—barring the presence of Bruce Willis—may kill us all. Seeking expert advice on how scared we should be.

Credit: Laura Frankstone

Haraldur Sigurdsson is the Indiana Jones of natural disasters, and what he’s telling me scares me to death.

Sigurdsson, an emeritus professor of oceanography at the University of Rhode Island, has discovered a lost Indonesian village buried by the 1815 Tambora volcanic eruption, studied evidence of huge eruptions in polar ice, in jungles, and in the deep sea using submarines, reconstructed the Vesuvius eruption in Italy, and in Haiti found evidence of the meteorite strike that killed off the dinosaurs. And now he’s saying that this could all happen again.

“The threat posed by volcanoes worldwide is greatly underestimated,” he tells me. Today, he says, we ignore the fact that very large eruptions occur from time to time. It gets worse when he adds, “This size of eruption may occur on average somewhere on Earth every 200 to 500 years. It will occur again.” And then it gets much worse: “This is by no means the largest, however.” He says we can expect eruptions 10 to 20 times as powerful as the Tambora eruption, which killed 117,000 people. That eruption led to the Year Without a Summer, in 1816, otherwise known as Eighteen-Hundred-and-Froze-to-Death. Since the new eruption Sigurdsson is predicting could be 20 times worse than that, winter really is coming.

Sigurdsson was one of five natural disaster experts I spoke with this winter in an effort to come to terms with the gravest threats to human existence.


Now, it won’t be too much of a surprise when I tell you that the only personal consequence of natural disaster I’ve faced so far has been a flight cancellation in April 2010 as a result of the Eyjafjallajökull volcanic ash cloud. As it is for most people, my closest interaction with mega-disasters comes from Hollywood movies. Hyperbolic films like The Day After Tomorrow, Deep Impact, and Armageddon have come to define the disaster-movie genre, and as a result, my fear is also hyperbolic.

Lars von Trier’s movie Melancholia, released last year, features a rogue planet that has a chance of striking Earth. The movie is about how characters deal with their fear of the Earth’s destruction, rather than about the race to stop it from happening; the shift of focus reduces the fictional threat to ticking-time-bomb inanity. And yet this movie provoked in me a more emotional response than any other disaster flick I’ve seen; beyond the movie’s claustrophobic mood, it made me feel depressed.

When I think about real natural disasters, I remember the worst ones: the Indian Ocean tsunami that killed 230,000 people in 2004; the Haiti earthquake that killed 316,000 people in 2010; and the Japan earthquake and tsunami that almost caused a nuclear meltdown last spring, killing almost 16,000 people in the country perhaps best prepared for natural disasters. But I’m usually just glued to the news for the first few hours and then I prefer to switch off completely for the next few days. I’ve never wanted to learn more about the precise pain that disasters cause to the communities they affect.

The message from movies like Melancholia and Armageddon is clear: We should fear worst-case scenarios. But just how over-the-top are these movies? I like to assume that everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds (read: “Movies are fiction, and we’ll be fine”), but I’m terrified. Can we even begin to do anything to prepare for a worst-case natural disaster?


“Worst case for a severe pandemic would certainly be in the millions [of deaths] in the U.S. alone,” says John Barry. He has advised the last two U.S. presidents on the flu virus and wrote The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History. “I doubt anyone in the world is prepared,” he says, explaining that poor countries devote almost nothing to pandemic preparation, “and they may well be right to focus on immediate needs.”

When the so-called Spanish flu struck in 1918, it resulted in 500 million infections and 50 million to 100 million deaths, in a world with a population of about 1.8 billion people. That’s equivalent to around 385 million deaths—only a little less than the current population of South America—if extrapolated out to today’s population. “Because of the mildness of the 2009 pandemic, I would say most people underestimate the threat,” says Barry.

“Maybe we’ll get really lucky and not get hit by a severe pandemic until after we have a universal vaccine. Or maybe we’ll be unlucky and a severe pandemic started yesterday.”

The release of the movie Contagion in 2011, starring a lethal and highly contagious virus that kills 26 million people, prompted the Centers for Disease Control to explain to the public that scientists have a solid plan for developing a vaccine should something similar really be detected. Contagion’s estimate of 26 million worldwide deaths is in line with Barry’s estimates; the movie may seem exaggerated in its plot, but it’s accurate on mortality rates at the very least.

A universal flu vaccine that works against all influenza viruses is in development and could be only a few decades away from completion. Barry says this will only happen with money—it’s critical that a vaccine is developed in time to beat the next great influenza pandemic. “It’s like a hurricane,” he says, “Maybe we’ll get really lucky and not get hit by a severe pandemic until after we have a universal vaccine. Or maybe we’ll be unlucky and a severe pandemic started yesterday, and we just don’t know it yet.”


A blurry video shot by tourists atop beachfront hotels, a snippet of footage replayed for days, is how I remember the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami. Similarly, the Japanese tsunami and earthquake in 2011 came to be defined by a helicopter shot of the relentless wave drowning farmland as far as six miles from the coast.

“The media tends to focus on the tsunami, while in some areas the earthquake that caused it is the bigger threat. Politicians don’t care about either,” says Chris Goldfinger, Oregon State University professor of marine geology. His worst-case tsunami scenario is a magnitude-9 quake hitting a region not expecting it, one that triggers a tsunami that hits a third-world country at high tide in the middle of the night. The developed world isn’t in much of a better position. “While Japan is technologically very well prepared, they are unprepared for an M9 earthquake,” he estimates.

Education may prove to be the best preparation. “The solution I think is 10 percent technology for the science of understanding the threat, 10 percent for warning systems, and 80 percent education,” Goldfinger explains. After the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, children who survived explained that their grandparents had taught them to run for high ground should they ever see the tide rapidly go out—a sure sign that a tsunami is coming.

Despite the lack of preparedness, we shouldn’t stay awake at night fearing an earthquake-tsunami disaster, according to Goldfinger. “It’s just a reality to plan for, like many other things… What makes me react is when decision-makers bury their heads in the sand and ignore it. When that happens, people will get hurt and there’s just no excuse for that.”


The worst-case scenario for an asteroid strike is seven billion deaths, as we all return to being star-stuff. The chance that would happen, and the preparation required to fend off any near-earth object, is less obvious. In the movies, fixing the problem was left to Bruce Willis’s character in Armageddon and Robert Duvall’s character in Deep Impact, who separately go up in spaceships and sacrifice their lives to destroy the respective asteroid and comet.

Kevin Yates is the British prime minister’s man watching the skies. He suggests that in the wake of the sensationalism of Armageddon and Deep Impact, politicians and journalists are now doing a better job of understanding the threat. Should an object hundreds of meters across strike Earth, it could wipe out a continent, but Yates—manager of the UK’s Near Earth Object Information Centre and a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society—tells me this kind of thing only happens every hundred thousand years or so. Something more damaging is only likely to happen every 700,000 years or so, he tells me. “Most large asteroids have now been detected, but around 10 percent are still to be found.”

Humanity has endured five mass extinction events in the last few million years. While we await the next one, Yates suggests we build a database to keep track of asteroids and tell us if there is a real threat in the next 100 years. Not only would this help us help us understand the risk; it could also help us learn more from these asteroids about the origins of the universe.

Preparation isn’t prevention, but Yates seems to have an optimistic outlook overall. “There is a lot of good work being done at the moment to raise awareness at an international level,” he argues. He’s not worried about an impact in our lifetimes, but makes the case for continuing to puzzle through the possibilities and responses. “The consequences of such an impact for the human race are extremely bad, so I’m glad we are starting to address the issue,” he says.


A storm doesn’t bring to mind the potential of a devastating hurricane in quite the same way that a minor tremor reminds us of the threat of a powerful earthquake. And we’ve got a long way to go if we want to educate people about that threat, explains Mary Comerio, professor of architecture at University of California-Berkeley and an expert on disaster recovery. She remembers a morning earthquake drill on campus that was followed by the real thing hours later. “Many students claimed they did not know they were supposed to ‘duck, cover, and hold.’” The danger seemed so abstract that many students failed to listen to the safety procedures they were lectured on only a few hours earlier.

The authorities and the media have a good overall understanding of the threat of earthquakes, Comerio says; the problem is how difficult it is “to maintain good preparedness and response as well as research programs, which require long-term commitments, in the current political climate.” She fears that political whims and budget cuts threaten even the existence of our current disaster-response programs.

Preparation and education are our best tools to reduce deaths. After all, a worst-case scenario is not necessarily the strongest quake, but a strong quake that hits people who are unprepared. The more we understand the threat, the less vulnerable we are.

Comerio suggests that a repeat of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake would be the worst-case scenario for the city. She cites a study that considered the effects of a repeat today of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake (and subsequent fire), which killed around 3,000 people and leveled much of the city. The study’s conclusion? Such a quake would lead to 3,500 deaths. Now, 3,500 deaths is a lot, but it’s fewer than I would have expected from such a strong earthquake.

According to a study done by Dr. Susan Bartels and her research team at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative in Boston, in the past decade more than 780,000 people around the world have been killed by earthquakes and tsunamis. The study states that not only do so many people die due to earthquakes but that for every person who dies as a result of an earthquake, three other people are injured, unlike other types of natural disasters, where fewer injuries per death are recorded. Therefore, earthquakes are by far the most dangerous of the natural disasters.

The last truly catastrophic earthquake was the 1556 Shaanxi earthquake, which is estimated to have killed 820,000 people in central China. It’s the only disaster on record as having killed more people than the 780,000 who died from quakes in the past decade. So what we should fear is not a worst-case scenario, but a repeat of the last decade, in which more than a million people died as a result of more routine natural disasters big and small. Worst-case scenarios don’t happen often enough to be seen as a greater threat than the myriad “normal” disasters we regularly experience.


Haraldur Sigurdsson revels in the human dimension of volcanoes, using detective-like skills to understand them and reconstruct them as if they were scenes of a crime, according to an article in Archaeology, from 2000. At 73, with 47 years in academia and 160 articles in scientific journals under his belt, it’s perhaps more accurate to say that Indiana Jones is the Haraldur Sigurdsson of fictional archaeology. “I love my work and I am very lucky to have a chance to study the Earth. There is nothing I would rather do,” Sigurdsson says.

Sigurdsson’s natural disaster worst-case scenario, the Tambora volcano times 20, sounds bad, but he says our monitoring of what’s going on there is worse. “There is one seismometer on Tambora, and most of the time it is inoperative. We need a global volcano-monitoring system… The most dangerous volcanoes are the ones we do not know about.” He argues it’s more than possible to do this, using satellites to detect bulges in the earth, and a recent study describes other methods that could predict super-volcanoes decades before they happen.

We clearly need experts to be more involved in policy decisions, considering their almost universal and very rational frustration.

Like Sigurdsson, the experts I spoke with recommend reasonable and manageable fixes worth investing in today. To recap the expert recommendations: Tsunami and earthquake education sometimes works, or could if done properly; volcano-monitoring systems aren’t always working, asteroid-warning systems need more work, and a universal flu vaccine? Well, we’re working on it.

We clearly need experts to be more involved in policy decisions, considering their almost universal and very rational frustration. And natural disasters of all sizes, not just the worst-case scenarios, would benefit from some expert policy planning.

After all, we are not helpless, and when you’re talking about natural disasters, you’re using a sliding scale that has blame at the other end. “There’s no such thing as a natural disaster,” theorizes geographer Neil Smith, a professor of anthropology and geography at the City University of New York, in his contribution to a scholarly book on Hurricane Katrina. “While an earthquake may not have been caused by humans, it becomes a disaster due to our actions, and inaction. It becomes a disaster when governments fail to protect people by reducing vulnerability,” he writes. It’s not such a leap to suggest that natural disasters are as much a human creation as fictional disaster movies are.

For a moment, set aside the loss of life and the fact that the developing world accounts for 90 percent of all disaster deaths. The economic damage is still terrible. According to Munich Re, an international reinsurance company, 2011 was the costliest year ever in terms of economic losses from natural disasters. The Japanese earthquake and tsunami combined to be the world’s first trillion-dollar disaster. According to the World Bank, economic losses from disasters in terms of GDP are 20 times smaller in developed countries than they are in developing ones, where economic growth is undermined and investment wasted. It’s no wonder that the World Bank puts 10 cents of every dollar it spends into risk-protection programs.

I return to my discussion with Sigurdsson to gauge his optimism. He’s far from depressed by his work or by our future. “I hope that I can help in some way, by increasing our understanding of the way the Earth works, so that we can work with it—and stay out of the way when it becomes dangerous.” He points out that “with increasing population density, there are more people getting in harm’s way when the Earth takes a sneeze.”

When the Earth sneezes the next time, society might catch more than a cold: It could reasonably be a flu strain as powerful as the one in Contagion. It could represent the end of life as we know it, as envisioned by Melancholia. The years-long winter envisioned by George R.R. Martin in A Game of Thrones isn’t so far off the mark should a strong enough volcano erupt—and the eruption of an unexpected super-volcano like in Volcano is closer to the truth than many of us are willing to accept.

Despite the scorn heaped on them by experts, hyperbolic movies seem like a damn good way for us to express our deepest fears. They might also just scare us into developing a plan, so we can be doing something other than counting the dead when the next disaster inevitably strikes.


TMN Editor Mike Deri Smith is no gourmet, he just has an abnormally large stomach. He lives in London. More by Mike Deri Smith