Sunday, September 8, 2013

Dangerous Places to Live

Even during its most tranquil periods, Mount Merapi, on the island of Java, smolders. Smoke ominously floats from its mouth, 10,000 feet in the sky. "Fire Mountain," as its name translates to English, has erupted about 60 times in the past five centuries, most recently in 2006. Before that, a 1994 eruption sent forth a lethal cloud of scalding hot gas, which burned 60 people to death. In 1930, more than 1000 people died when Merapi spewed lava over 8 square miles around its base, the high death toll being the result of too many people living too close.

In spite of this volatile history, approximately 200,000 villagers reside within 4 miles of the volcano. But Merapi is just one example of Javans tempting fate in the proximity of active volcanoes ... it's estimated that 120 million of the island's residents live at the foot of 22 active volcanoes.
In the span of just one month in 2008, the coastal city of Gonaïves, one of Haiti's five largest cities, found itself on the receiving end of four devastating tropical cyclones. When the last storm passed, Gonaïves had practically been washed out to sea. Much of the city was buried under mud, or submerged in filthy water that stood 12 feet deep in some places. The death toll ran close to 500.

But the storms of August to September 2008 weren't the most deadly in Gonaïves' recent history. In 2004, the city of 104,000 took a severe beating from Hurricane Jeanne. Three thousand Haitians died when the Category 3 storm hit and leveled large swaths of the city. Gonaïves rests on a flood plain prone to washing out when inland rivers swell. Furthermore, Haitians rely on wood to make charcoal, their primary source of fuel, and this has led to massive deforestation of the hillsides surrounding the city. As a result, when the rains come, the hills around Gonaïves melt away and mudslides nearly bury the city.
Lake Kivu, located along the border between the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda, is one of Africa's Great Lakes. Deep below the surface of this lake's 2700 square miles, there are 2.3 trillion cubic feet of methane gas, along with 60 cubic miles of carbon dioxide trapped beneath the lake under the pressure of the water and earth. If released from the depths, these gases could spread a cloud of death over the 2 million Africans who make their home in the Lake Kivu basin.

The precedent for this concern stems from a pair of events that occurred in the 1980s at two other African lakes with similar chemical compositions. In 1984, 37 people died around Cameroon's Lake Monoun in a limnic eruption. Three years later, at Lake Nyos, also in Cameroon, 80 cubic meters of CO2 were released from the water. Subsequently, 1700 people died from exposure to the toxic gas. A report from the United Nations' Environmental Program went so far as to call the three bodies "Africa's Killer Lakes," and said Lake Kivu was cause for "serious concern."
The Maldives are such a dangerous place that Muhammed Nasheed, upon taking office in 2008, made it one his first items of business as the Maldives' first democratically elected president to announce a plan to create a fund for financing the relocation of the entire population.

The Maldives is a confederation of 1190 islands and atolls in the Indian Ocean. Its highest point of elevation is little more than 6 feet, and, sometime in the not-too-distant future, it is likely to be swallowed whole by rising sea levels. A 2005 assessment by the United States Geological Survey, conducted after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, called the Maldives one of the Earth's youngest land masses, adding that they're not long for life above water.
The Cayman Islands, a British territory situated 150 miles south of Cuba, The Caymans hold the title of "Hurricane Capital of the World". Grand Cayman, the largest of the three Cayman isles, is hit or brushed by at least one hurricane every 2.16 years, more than any other locale in the Atlantic basin. Since 1871, 64 storms have battered the low-lying limestone formation, often with catastrophic results.

In 2004, Hurricane Ivan, a Category 5 storm with wind speeds approaching 150 miles per hour, dumped a foot of rain on Grand Cayman. A 10-foot storm surge followed, submerging a quarter of the island. An estimated 70 percent of the island's buildings were destroyed, and its 40,000 inhabitants were left without power or clean water for days.
More than 1 million people reside along the Interstate 44 corridor that runs between Oklahoma City and Tulsa, the Sooner State's two most populous metropolitan areas. Each spring, as the cool, dry air from the Rocky Mountains glides across the lower plains, and the warm, wet air of the Gulf Coast comes north to meet it, the residents of this precarious stretch, locally called Tornado Alley, settle in for twister season.

Since 1890, more than 120 tornados have struck Oklahoma City and the surrounding area, which currently has a population of approximately 700,000. On May 3, 1999, an outbreak of 70 tornados stretched across Oklahoma, Kansas and Texas. Several of the most destructive storms swept through Oklahoma City, destroying 1700 homes and damaging another 6500. Even with modern prediction capabilities and early-warning systems, 40 people died when an F-5 twister tore through Oklahoma City. In addition to the loss of life, this display of natural devastation caused more than $1 billion in damage. Since 1950, the longest the area has gone without a tornado is five years—from 1992 to 1998.