Natural Disasters 2013 Review

According to figures released by the German Reinsurer Munich Re, twice as many people died in natural disasters in 2013 than in the prior year, but property damage and insurance losses were significantly less.

Munich Re reports 880 natural disaster events in 2013, costing $125 billion in total losses, compared to $173 billion in 2012, and insured losses of $31 billion, about half the insured costs in the year before. However more than 20,000 people died in natural disasters in 2013, twice the number of deaths reported for 2012. Here are some of the most costly natural disasters of 2013, in either lives or property losses.

Earthquakes: Magnitude 7.0 to 7.7 quakes struck China in April, Pakistan in September, and the island of Bohol in the Philippines in October, killing 1,300 and destroying tens of thousands of homes. Damage amounts were not available.

Tornadoes: On May 20, an EF-5 tornado with a wind speed of 210 mph (340 km/h) ripped through the town of Moore, Oklahoma. The tornado, 1.3 miles (2km) wide, stayed on the ground for 40 minutes on a 17-mile (27km) path of destruction. 1150 homes were wiped out, 91 people died, including 7 children in a local school. Total damage was more than $2 billion.

Floods: Flooding in India, Central Europe, Canada, Mexico, and Colorado resulted in a combined death toll of 7,000 and damages exceeding $30 billion. European flooding was called the worst since the middle ages. Most of the deaths occurred in flash floods and landslides in the mountains of northern India and Nepal.

Meteor strike: A 13,000 ton meteor traveling at 60 times the speed of sound streaked into earth’s atmosphere on Feb. 15 and exploded in a fireball over the Caucuses region of Russia. The shock wave damaged 7,200 buildings and injured 1,500 people. The injuries were mainly from flying glass from blown-out windows. Fortunately, there were no reported deaths.

Wildfires: Brush fires in Australia and California scorched hundreds of thousands of acres. In October, Australian firefighters fought 66 brush fires along a line that stretched for 1,000 miles (1,650km). In California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains, the Rim Fire that started in August was not put out till mid October, after burning 257,000 acres of heavily forested watershed.

Typhoons: Super Typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines island of Leyte on November 8 with wind speed of 195 mph (320km/h), the strongest ever recorded for a tropical cyclone making landfall. A 20-ft (6m) tidal surge wiped out the city of Tacloban. More than 6,000 people lost their lives in the storm. Total cost has been estimated at up to $15 billion.

While the Pacific typhoon season was quite active, with 31 tropical storms, of which 13 were typhoons and 5 were super typhoons, the Atlantic hurricane season was much quieter than expected, with no major storms. The first few weeks of 2014 have also been relatively quiet, with the exception of the Mt. Sinabung volcano eruptions in Indonesia, during which 14 people have died and 20,000 have been evacuated.  Inevitably, there will be more natural disasters in the months ahead. We will have to wait and see what the rest of 2014 will bring.





When Volcanoes Endanger Aircraft

In a report issued by U.S. Geological Survey, there were 94 confirmed ash-cloud encounters by aircraft between 1953 and 2009. 79 of those produced various degrees of engine or airframe damage. 26 encounters involved significant to very severe damage, and 9 caused engine shutdown during flight.

Two of the most well known incidents involved passenger jets flown by KLM and British Airways. On June 24, 1982, British Airways Flight 9 flying at 37,000 ft. (11,000m) from London to Auckland, New Zealand, with 248 passengers and a crew of 15, entered an ash cloud rising from the erupting Mt. Galunggung volcano in Indonesia. All 4 engines flamed out due to the silica in the volcanic ash melting inside the engines and coating everything with glass. The plane had dropped 23,500 ft. (4,200m) before the crew was able to restart 3 of the engines and make an emergency landing in Jakarta.

On December 15, 1989, KLM Flight 867 from Amsterdam to Tokyo flew through a thick ash cloud from Alaska’s Mt. Redoubt volcano as the 747 started its descent into Anchorage. All 4 engines failed, and the plane lost 14,000 ft. (4,400m) in altitude before the crew could restart the engines and make a safe landing. The ingested ash caused $80 million in damage to the aircraft, including replacement of all 4 engines. The expertise of the air crews in both cases averted what could have been disastrous crashes.

The aviation industry learned from those incidents and started grounding all flights when volcanic ash was present. That’s why most European and North Atlantic flights were cancelled between April 15 and April 20, 2010, when Iceland’s Mt. Eyjafjallajökull erupted, ejecting 250 million cubic meters (330 million cubic yards) of volcanic ash into the atmosphere. The ash cloud drifted west, covering the sky over the North Atlantic and most of Europe. Many thousands of passengers were stranded in European airports for up to 5 days.

Ash clouds are hard to distinguish from moisture clouds either visually or by radar. That’s why aircraft continue to wander into them, and why the United Nations has set up a network of Volcanic Ash Advisory Centers (VAAC). There are 9 centers located around the world, each covering a geographic region. When an eruption produces an ash cloud, the VAAC in that area uses a computer model to predict the path of the cloud at different flight levels and issues an international alert. VAACs are located in Alaska, Argentina, Australia, England, Canada, Japan, France, and Washington, DC. Fewer incidents have been reported since the centers have been in full operation.

On average, 15 major explosive volcanic eruptions powerful enough to eject tons of ash into the stratosphere occur each year. A sudden Mt. St. Helens or Mt. Pinatubo type of super explosion can eject massive amounts of ash into the stratosphere in minutes, creating unexpected hazardous conditions. Air crews must stay ready to act immediately on VAAC ash alerts, and take the necessary evasive action to keep their flights safe and uneventful.  



The Next Tsunami — Where?

According to USGS, two North American fault line systems are at a critical stage. In a December 29, 2013, news release, USGS states that enough strain may be currently stored in an earthquake zone near the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe to cause a magnitude 8 or larger earthquake and subsequent tsunami. The release goes on to say that USGS and French researchers studying the plate boundary where 20 of the 26 Caribbean islands are located, estimate that enough unreleased strain may have accumulated to create a magnitude 8.0 to 8.4 earthquake. A 7.5-8.5 quake in the same area in 1843 killed thousands in Guadeloupe. A similar quake in the future could cause many hundreds of fatalities and hundreds of billions US dollars in damages. An accompanying tsunami could inflict an even higher toll.

The other fault zone considered to be due for a major failure lies off the northwestern US coastline. The Cascadia Subduction Zone runs 1,100km (700 mi) from Vancouver Island in British Columbia to Cape Mendocino in northern California. Recent studies indicate that a 60km (40 mi) segment of the fault off the coast of Washington is locked. In geological terms, locked means a point where the converging plates have been pressing together without releasing energy, perhaps for hundreds of years. The strain constantly builds until the fault’s frictional strength is exceeded and it finally ruptures.

The last major earthquake and tsunami on the Cascadia struck in 1700. That 9.0 quake triggered a tsunami that flattened trees many miles inland in Washington state, and rolled across the Pacific to inflict damage on Japanese coastal villages. The northwest was sparsely inhabited at that time, so there were no known casualties. A similar earthquake and tsunami today could be catastrophic. A study commissioned by the Oregon legislature concluded that in Oregon alone a Cascadia 9.0 earthquake and tsunami could kill 10,000 and cost $30 billion in damages.

Megathrust earthquakes and tsunamis have occurred on the Cascadia every 300 to 600 years. It has been a little over 300 years since the last one. The Oregonian newspaper recently reported that some geologists are predicting a 10% to 14% probability that the Cascadia will produce a magnitude 9.0 or greater earthquake within the next 50 years. An article in Science Daily  suggests that the risk could be as high as 37% for a magnitude 8.0 or greater in the same period.

Still, it’s impossible to say where or when the next big one will strike. Even though the Caribbean and Cascadia faults appear ready to go, the 4 ocean trench fault zones that have produced the biggest earthquakes and tsunamis of the recent past should not be ruled out. The Japan Trench off the northeastern coast of Honshu produced the 9.0 quake in 2011 that killed 20,000. The 2004 Indian Ocean 9.1 earthquake and tsunami that killed more than 200,000 started in the 2,600km (1,600 mi)-long Sunda Trench. The Great Alaska Earthquake, a magnitude 9.2 that struck on Good Friday in 1964, originated in the Aleutian Trench. The Atacama Trench off the coast of South America generated the largest earthquake on record, a magnitude 9.5 that struck off the coast of Chile in 1960, killing 5,000 and sending a tsunami speeding thousands of miles across the Pacific Ocean. These 4 ocean trench fault zones mark the convergence of highly active tectonic plates. All are part of the Pacific Ring of Fire.

Will Yellowstone Erupt?

The magma chamber that powers Old Faithful and the other geysers. hot springs, fumaroles, and mud pots of Yosemite National Park is considered by scientists to be the largest in the world. And a new study by researchers at the University of Utah finds that the chamber underlying Yellowstone is far larger than originally thought in terms of both size and amount of molten rock it contains.

According to the study, the Yellowstone Volcano magma chamber is 2.5 times larger than earlier estimates. By using a network of seismometers situated around the park, the research team found that the magma cavern is 90km (55 mi) long, 30km (20 mi) wide, and up to 15km (10mi) deep, containing up to 600 cubic km (144 cubic mi) of hot gas and molten rock.

Geologic research indicates Yellowstone Volcano erupts every 700,000 years. In the last three events – 2.1 million, 1.3 million, and 640,000 years ago — the magma chamber emptied out in a single violent volcanic blast. Millions of tons of rocks, sulfur dioxide, and ash rocketed into the atmosphere, blocking sunlight around the world . The empty chamber collapsed, forming a geographic depression or caldera, and the land for thousands of miles around was blanketed with a thick coat of ash.

The park floor has been rising as the magma chamber continues to swell. Between 2004 and 2009, Yellowstone’s ground uplifted 20cm (8 in), but since 2010 the uplift has continued at a slower pace. The park experiences between 1,000 and 3,000 earthquakes a year as the magma moves into the chamber. Most are less than Magnitude 3.0 and are seldom felt by park visitors. Scientists believe the next supereruption will occur sometime in the next 40,000 years. When and if it blows, it will cause disastrous damage and loss of life in a wide area around the volcano.

Yellowstone sits atop a volcanic hotspot, a pocket deep in the earth that sends a plume of molten rock and hot gas rising into a magma chamber just below earth’s crust. Both the hotspot and the magma chamber are stationary, but the North American Plate, the section of crust upon which Yellowstone is situated, constantly moves southwesterly at 2.5cm (approx. 1 in) a year. Over the past 16.5 million years, as the North American Plate has slowly moved over the hotspot, 15 to 20 massive eruptions have left immense craters dotting the landscape from the Nevada-Oregon border through Idaho’s Snake River Plain. Plate movement eventually positioned the hotspot and magma chamber under Yellowstone. Over the next 16 million years, plate movement will progressively move the hotspot under Montana, North Dakota, and Canada. As the North American Plate moves Yellowstone away from the hotspot over the expanse of geologic time, the park’s geysers will gradually die.

But for now the park’s thermal features remain alive and well and will stay that way over the next few million years. Although the possibility of a blowout remains, USGS and National Park Service scientists with the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory state that they “see no evidence that another such cataclysmic eruption will occur in the foreseeable future.”

Tsunami & Earthquake Networks

Someplace on earth the ground is shaking. According to USGS estimates, there are an average of 1,300,000 earthquakes on our planet every year, or one every 24 seconds. 98% of those quakes are under magnitude 4.0 and many occur in remote locations, so most of us are unaware of the constant seismic activity, even when it happens close by.

However between 1,500 and 2,000 annual quakes are in the magnitude 5.0 to 9.0 range. Those are the quakes that can do damage on land, and possibly trigger a tsunami if one strong enough hits on the seafloor where tectonic plates converge.

Where do USGS and other reporting centers get their real time information? Two worldwide seismic hazard networks report earthquakes as they happen, and provide early warning when a tsunami starts rolling toward land.

Global Seismographic Network (GSN) is a permanent digital network of 150 land-based and ocean-bottom seismometers positioned in earthquake prone locations around the world, and connected by a telecommunications network. GSN is a partnership among USGS, the National Science Foundation, and Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology (IRIS), a consortium of 100 worldwide labs and universities. Although US based, GSN is fully coordinated with the international community. GSN stations are operated by USGS and UC San Diego. The network determines location and magnitude of earthquakes anywhere in the world as they happen. The data is used for emergency response, hazard mitigation, research, and tsunami early warning for seafloor locations.

Deep Ocean Assessment and Reporting of Tsunamis (DART) is the main component of an international tsunami warning system. The DART system is based on instant detection and relay of ocean floor pressure changes. DART stations consist of an ocean bottom sensor that picks up changes in pressure as the tsunami wave passes and sends the data to a nearby communications buoy, which transmits it to a satellite, which in turn relays it within seconds to tsunami warning centers around the world.

The US has deployed 39 DART stations in the Pacific, Atlantic, and Caribbean. Australia and Peru have also installed DART systems, and since the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that killed over 200,000 people, the nations bordering the Indian Ocean have cooperated in the installation of 6 Indian Ocean DART stations, along with 17 seismic satellite stations. The DART data, along with GSN and satellite data, flow into two major tsunami warning centers: the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Ewa Beach, Hawaii, and the West Coast and Alaska Tsunami Warning Center in Palmer, Alaska. It is the job of the tsunami warning centers to issue alerts and warnings to population centers in the path of a developing tsunami.

Although the GSN and DART systems have proved effective, NASA is testing a GPS system that can spot the epicenter location and earthquake magnitude 10 times faster, giving those in peril extra seconds and minutes to evacuate before the tsunami strikes land. NASA is still testing the system.    



Storm Surge — the Big Killer

When a hurricane strikes land, the storm surge can be more deadly than the storm’s violent wind. Tropical cyclones – called hurricanes in the Atlantic, typhoons in the Pacific, and cyclones in Australia and India – have killed over 1 million people in the past hundred years. The majority of those deaths are attributed to the surge component of the storm.

Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippine Islands city of Tacloban on November 11, 2013, with a wind speed of 195 mph (315 km/h), the strongest landfall speed ever recorded. Over 5,000 died and the city was leveled. The savage wind took its toll, but it was the 20 ft. (6.6m) wall of ocean water surging more than a mile (1.6 km) inland that took most of the lives.

When Superstorm Sandy came ashore in New Jersey and New York in late October, 2012, the wind speed was only 115 mph (185 km/h), but the storm was so massive it pushed a 14 ft. (4.4m) storm surge far inland, killing more than 100 and wiping out or badly damaging thousands of homes. Reconstruction costs have reached $70 billion.

In August, 2005, Hurricane Katrina, a Category 3 with a wind speed of120 mph (192 km/h) struck New Orleans and Gulf Coast cities in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. Although the wind did some damage, the storm surge with waves as high as 28 ft. (7.5m) wiped out shoreline communities, and breached New Orleans’ levees, flooding the city, and causing most of the 1,800 deaths.

Some of the most destructive storm surges have occurred in Bangladesh and India. The northern end of the Bay of Bengal is funnel shaped, and storm surges become tidal bores that sweep many miles inland. The Bhola cyclone in 1970 produced a storm surge of 35 ft. (11m), taking 500,000 lives in Bangladesh. The largest storm surges ever recorded took place in India in 1839 when a 40 ft. (12.2m) surge killed 300,000; and in Bathurst Bay, Queensland, Australia, where a 42 ft (12.8m) surge killed 400 in 1899. It was reported at the time that dolphins and fish were found atop the cliffs surrounding the bay.

A storm surge is created by the storm’s high wind piling the ocean’s surface higher than ordinary sea level. Low pressure at the center of the weather system has a lifting effect and aids in the buildup of the sea and the energy of the surge.

People living near the shoreline in tropical storm-prone areas should be prepared not only to protect property against the high wind, but also be aware of storm surge danger, and prepared to evacuate before the storm makes landfall.