Recent events keep reminding us that disasters, natural and manmade, constantly happen on our planet, and, where possible, our scientists are working on ways to better control outcomes.
32.4 million people were forced to abandon their homes in 2012 by disasters such as floods, storms, and earthquakes. The International Displacement Monitoring Centre reports that floods in India and Nigeria accounted for 41% of this total, but the United States also contributed a large percentage of displaced persons, mainly due to Superstorm Sandy that struck the U.S. East Coast in October.
Late spring is tornado season for Midwestern and southeastern U.S. On May 15, 2013, humid air flowing in from the Gulf of Mexico combined with a layer of cooler air from the Mountain West and 100° temperatures to spawn 16 tornadoes that ripped through communities southwest of Dallas, Texas. 6 people died, 100 were injured, and more than 100 homes were badly damaged, some hit so hard that all that was left was the concrete slab they were built on. One tornado was judged an E4, with wind speed clocked at 200 mph (320 km/h). On May 19, new tornadoes and hailstorms struck in Oklahoma and Kansas, killing 2 people, and causing widespread property damage. More storms are expected.
Asteroid QE2 will miss Earth by 3.6 million miles (5.8 million kilometers) when it sails by on May 31, 2013, but serves as a reminder that Near Earth Objects (NEOs) zip by us all the time. Occasionally one slips through and hits home, as did the small meteor that exploded over Russia on Feb. 15, 2013. The concussion blew out windows and injured hundreds If another NEO does hit earth, let’s hope it’s smaller than QE2, which is 1.7 miles (2.7km) in length, or 9 times the size of the ocean liner Queen Elizabeth 2. Such a collision could be catastrophic. The QE2 designation has no relation to the cruise ship. It came up independently in NASA’s NEO numbering system.
According to a May, 2013, JPL news release, NASA will launch a robotic probe in 2016 to study one of the most hazardous of the known NEOs. NASA is also developing a project to capture and relocate an asteroid for human exploration. The mission will draw on the innovation of the brightest scientists and engineers.
Scientists from Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena and Chapman University in Orange, California, have partnered in a project using satellites to measure vegetation moisture and soil moisture in the Southern California mountains and foothills. Such measurements are now made by manually taking brush and soil samples for lab analysis. But using India’s Oceansat-2 satellite to measure soil moisture, and NASA’s Aqua Satellite to measure vegetation moisture content, the project team is able to advise local and regional fire agencies of the degree of fire risk much sooner and over a much wider area than is possible with manual measuring. 2013 has seen sparse rainfall and high temperatures in Southern California and much of the U.S. southwest, making the start of the wildfire season 2 to 3 months earlier than in the past.
A recent survey shows that 98% of the world’s scientific studies on the subject agree that burning fossil fuels is greatly accelerating the pace of global warming and the climate changes that bring more violent storms, longer droughts, more flooding, more wildfires, faster ice sheet and glacial melting, and more water and air pollution. The faster that governments, corporations, and individuals can act to speed up the transition from oil- and coal-generated power to non-polluting wind, solar, thermal, and vegetation-based power, the sooner climate change can be moderated and the better off we’ll be.