Anyone who has been paying attention will note that large-scale nature-related disasters are increasing.
Every few weeks it seems, Earth unleashes devastating violence of some sort or other. An earthquake—a tornado—a tsunami—a massive storm—a flood—a drought—a rash of wildfires. It levels property, destroys homes, decimates crops, claims lives. And another constellation of survivors are left breathless in its wake, tasked with trying to piece their shattered lives back together.
It is a dreadful reminder of an awesome and important reality.
In our modern world, industrialization has done much to insulate a great many of us from the elements. We have paved over our land. We have abandoned our farms in favor of climate-controlled homes, offices and malls. Concrete, steel and glass shield us from routine rain, hail, sleet, snow, heat, chill. These former crop-killers, for most of us, are now mere inconveniences.
It’s only when nature gets really nasty—when rains turn to floods, when snows stop our planes, when droughts demand water restrictions, when a temblor topples infrastructure—that we even think to acknowledge the power it still holds over us. It dwarfs us. Impressive as our Tower of Babel society is, it remains awkwardly vulnerable to the sheer elemental power of the planet in its fury.
History shows, in fact, that whole societies have risen or fallen because of favorable or foul forces of nature.
And in recent times, violent outbursts of those forces have been speeding up in tempo.
Yes, ‘Nature’ Is Actually Getting Nastier
During the past century or so, global surface temperatures have increased slightly. At first mankind benefitted. That subtle warming trend, coupled with a 50-year meteorological lull from 1910 to 1960, helped produce greater worldwide agricultural yields at the start of the 20th century. By the mid-1950s, output had reached record levels. The 1960s saw the birth of the so-called Green Revolution, spurred on by new hybrid seed, expanded irrigation, and chemical fertilizers and pesticides that promised to alleviate world hunger.
But then something unexpected happened. World climates became more volatile. Floods followed droughts. With growing frequency, indiscriminate tornadoes ripped through cities and farmlands. Hailstorms thrashed crops, and hurricanes lashed coastlines.
This shift did more than merely becloud the promises of nonstop bumper crops underpinned by the agricultural miracles of the 1960s. It exacted steep costs in terms of economic losses, injuries and deaths. And statistics show that this troubling trend has continued to get worse, particularly since the end of the 1980s.
Within the United States, for example, the Federal Emergency Management Agency reports that in the 37 years between 1953 and 1989, an average of 23 major disasters were declared per year. In the 1990s, that average nearly doubled—to 42.
Then, the decade that followed, from 2000 to 2009—besides seeing that annual figure leap up yet again, to 56—brought some of the most destructive natural disasters in recorded history across the globe! Earthquakes alone killed more than 780,000 people and affected more than 2 billion others. Globally, the number of catastrophic events more than doubled since the 1980s, the Center for Research on Epidemiology of Disasters said in January 2010.
Insurance companies and meteorologists generally accept that the weather is becoming progressively more unstable. Human efforts to improve farming methods, forecast and even manipulate the weather have redoubled. Yet, in the end, these efforts are of no avail.
What is going on here? Is it all just an accident of nature?
Whatever the cause, the trend has only gotten worse in the early part of the current decade!
More Recently …
The year 2010 began in horrifying fashion with a catastrophic earthquake in Haiti on January 12 that killed hundreds of thousands of people and left over a million homeless. Deadly quakes also hit China, Indonesia, Chile and Turkey. A typical year sees 16 earthquakes of at least magnitude 7.0. But 2010—one of the most seismically violent in decades—saw 22.
In the United States, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (fema) declared more disasters in 2010 than ever—nearly 2½ times the annual average. The “peaceful” years of 23 major disaster declarations in the U.S. look to be over: 2010 saw 81 of them—a major disaster every 4½ days! “The term ‘100-year event’ really lost its meaning this year,” said Craig Fugate, head of fema.
A weather system that summer swept through Asia, claiming nearly 17,000 lives with a killer heat wave in Russia and epic flooding in Pakistan. The year ended with eastern Australia drowning under its worst flooding ever (the leading newspaper there called it a “biblical disaster”), millions fleeing floods and landslides in Colombia and Venezuela, record-breaking winter storms in Europe and North America that left many dead and homeless, and wildfires in Israel that were considered the worst natural disaster in that nation’s history. The world’s biggest reinsurer, Swiss Re, estimated that worldwide, disasters in 2010 cost three times more than the year before, totaling nearly a quarter trillion dollars!
“This was the year the Earth struck back,” wrote the Associated Press. More than a quarter million people perished in nature-related disasters—more lives than terrorism claimed in the previous 40 years combined.
Astoundingly, though, this grisly trend of record-breaking disasters only got worse in 2011! January saw four huge earthquakes, in Argentina, Japan, Pakistan and Chile. Floods in Brazil caused mudslides that left tens of thousands homeless and killed more than 700 people. In February, Queensland—still shell-shocked from flooding—got walloped by a massive cyclone.
Then on February 22, an exceptionally violent trembler leveled much of Christchurch, New Zealand. Scientists say this severe of a quake strikes an average of once every thousand years.Not even three weeks later, a 9.0 quake hit near Japan, creating a killer tsunami that killed tens of thousands of people and caused a nuclear disaster. The geopolitical effects of that tragedy may change Asia permanently.
In April, more than 600 tornadoes shredded the U.S., shattering the previous April record of 267. Three hundred and twelve of them came in a single 24-hour period, the worst of which was 20 times normal size: It tore a scar one mile wide and a record 300 miles long across Alabama and Georgia. Meanwhile, severe flooding deluged other parts of the country—even as Texas was suffering its worst drought since 1895, creating perfect conditions for thousands of wildfires. Thus, wheat crops withered in Texas while farms drowned in Missouri.
In August, Hurricane Irene left 4 million businesses and homes without power as it swept up the East Coast of the U.S. All totaled, 12 billion-dollar disasters pounded the United States in 2011—three more than the previous record set in 2008. These catastrophic events were responsible for killing 1,000 Americans and causing $52 billion in damages. As the Associated Press reported on December 7, 2011, “With an almost biblical onslaught of twisters, floods, snow, drought, heat and wildfire, the U.S. in 2011 has seen more weather catastrophes that caused at least $1 billion in damage than it did in all of the 1980s, even after the dollar figures from back then are adjusted for inflation” (emphasis added throughout). Breaking it down further, AP revealed this alarming trend: During the 1980s, the U.S. averaged just one billion-dollar disaster per year. In the 1990s, it jumped to 3.8 per year—then 4.6 during the first decade of the new millennium. For just the first two years of the following decade, the U.S. has averaged 7½ billion-dollar disasters per year.
2012 continued the same trend, with England beginning the year in drought, and floods hitting New South Wales and Victoria in Australia, and the North Island of New Zealand. Severe drought—the worst since the Dust Bowl of the 1930s—continued in the U.S., affecting almost two thirds of the country and causing devastating wildfires and severe agricultural losses. Colorado was ravaged by its worst wildfire in state history, with hundreds of homes being destroyed.
A series of tornadoes plowed through the American Midwest in February, killing 13 people and injuring hundreds. The following month saw another huge outbreak of tornadoes devastate Midwest states, claiming the lives of 39 people. In early April, tornadoes and violent storms raged through north Texas, destroying an estimated 650 homes. Later in the month, more than 75 tornadoes ripped through the central U.S., killing six people and injuring 29.
In the Philippines, more than 90 people were killed in floods resulting from monsoon rains. Hurricane Isaac left a trail of death and destruction in Haiti and other islands in August. In October, Hurricane Sandy killed some 69 people in the Caribbean and went on to do massive damage in New York State and New Jersey. The superstorm created an estimated $30-50 billion in total economic damages on the East Coast.
On and on the list goes. “Unprecedented” and “record” disasters are happening at a quickening pace. “History making” events are becoming commonplace!
We need to be concerned!
What is wrong with the weather? You have to have blinders on not to at least be asking the question. Why are these once-in-a-lifetime, where-did-this-come-from, never-before-witnessed calamities piling up on top of one another?
Such catastrophes should in fact challenge our thinking. They force us to contemplate the fragility of man. They demand that we consider some of the deeper questions we can all-too-easily ignore in more prosperous and peaceful times.
Sadly, most people glean no wisdom from such events. Sometimes, moving stories of heroism amid tragedy emerge, and some people use those to exalt the goodness, the supposed righteousness, of human beings. Others simply dig themselves out, curse the random cruelty of nature, and move on. Scientists, for their part, are searching for explanations within the natural world itself, particularly as disasters increase in their frequency and lethality.
Looking for Lessons
One thing that is clear is that never before has there been such potential for human suffering due to climatic disasters. In times past, when severe weather continually affected a particular area of the world, people simply migrated somewhere else. Now, because of fixed borders and population growth, little new land is available. The increasing population density has placed more people at risk when an extreme weather event occurs. Rapid growth in coastal populations puts more people in harm’s way when hurricanes or tropical storms strike. Swelling numbers of homes and businesses in flood plains increases the risk and frequency of high-cost flooding events.
Take the 2010 Haiti quake. Striking within a few miles of crowded, poverty-stricken Port-au-Prince, it claimed a staggering 220,000 lives. Just 25 years before, the same area housed only a third as many people, in far fewer unstable shanties. Richard Olson, director of disaster risk reduction at Florida International University, told the Associated Press that the same quake in 1985 would have had a death toll closer to 80,000.
Quakes of greater magnitude have hit elsewhere; in fact, the earthquake that rocked Chile the same year was an incredible 500 times stronger than Haiti’s. But because it struck a less populated, more prosperous and better-constructed area, it killed fewer than a thousand people.
Thus, conclude some, the problem isn’t the planet, but the people. “It’s a form of suicide, isn’t it?” said Roger Bilham, a geological science professor at the University of Colorado. “We build houses that kill ourselves [in earthquakes]. We build houses in flood zones that drown ourselves. It’s our fault for not anticipating these things. You know, this is the Earth doing its thing.”
It’s an interesting point—though a hard lesson to apply. It’s difficult to suggest viable solutions to the poor-quality construction in impoverished regions. And the regions we might label danger zones seem to be proliferating. On top of that, this theory would explain higher death tolls, but it wouldn’t explain the increasing volume of catastrophes.
For that, many scientists point to climate change. To account for everything climate-related—cold fronts, freakish blizzards, flooding rains, hurricanes and a host of other dangers—many of them blame greenhouse gases, injected into the atmosphere via human activity like deforestation and burning of fossil fuels. Thus, the lesson they draw from calamities is that man needs to stop producing carbon dioxide.
There is evidence that smog from industrial activity, smoke from slash-and-burn deforestation in developing countries, widespread replacement of green and open land surfaces by pavement, asphalt and buildings, and the exhaust of jets, cars, trucks, trains and ships have contributed to climatic variation. Other suspected weather-modifying agents include crop irrigation and the creation of man-made lakes. The influence of diverted rivers, dams, drained swamps and underground aquifers may be significant too because of the effect the water-versus-land ratio has on the heat balance. There is abundant evidence that mankind has abused, polluted, tarnished and ruined nearly everything our hands have touched on Earth.
However, it is scientifically impossible to attribute the scale of the increase in dramatic nature-related phenomena to such human endeavors. This is a hot-button issue clouded by politics—and quite a bit of conflicting data. Meteorologists do not know the extent to which climatic changes or variability may be accurately predicted in the long term, nor do they know why major global-impacting weather forces, such as high-altitude jet streams or powerful ocean currents, shift as they do.
Weather experts are only able to rely on scientific observation, experimentation and reason—physical evidence—to forecast weather in the short term. But this tells only part of the story.
God’s ‘Unlimited Broadcasting Station’
There was a time when people, “intellectuals” even, would look at nature and see God.
“I love to think of nature as an unlimited broadcasting station, through which God speaks to us every hour, if we will only tune in,” wrote George Washington Carver, the distinguished 20th-century scientist. Ralph Waldo Emerson believed that “the glory of the omnipresent God bursts through everywhere” in nature.
More and more people today, however, are quite removed from nature. Living in cities and in suburbs, we see nature as Animal Planet, or the dog barking across the street, or the lone tree along the sidewalk that gets in the way. Nature is recreation—a grassy field to play on, a lake to stroll by, something beautiful to admire, a place to go for serenity.
We have thus lost sight of the fact that our very existence depends on nature. Take rain. To the average city-dweller, rain has little bearing on day-to-day life; in fact, it’s often an inconvenience. But to the farmer, rain is life. It nourishes his crops and the pastures on which his herds graze. The farmer sees nature, and all its component parts, for what it ultimately is: the complex, interconnected, vitally important machine that sustains life!
This connection with nature tends to point us back to our world’s masterful Maker.
The earliest chapters of the Bible depict God creating the oceans and landmasses, the atmosphere and weather patterns, the various species of plants and animals, the ecosystems—and the vast host of laws that govern nature’s successful operation. These chapters describe God constructing the complex machine by which He would sustain mankind.
The Bible teaches that not only is nature the creation of God’s mind, it is, in fact, a vital instrument through which He communicates with us.
This Book—which most people have on their bookshelf, but few understand—gives us the other side of the picture, which all of the best scientific instruments cannot!
These days, any person bold enough to consider nature God’s “unlimited broadcasting station” is mocked as a religious crackpot. This is too bad. Because the Bible actually claims to pinpoint the causes of weather cataclysms, and to forecast long-term weather trends!
Could it be that God is indeed employing nature as His “unlimited broadcasting station”? That He is cursing our weather patterns and increasing the destructiveness of natural circumstances in an attempt to communicate with us? The Bible shows that this is exactly what He is doing. It shows that He is currently delivering a message via nature that we all desperately need to hear and respond to!
The disasters we see increasing are in fact a tool that the Creator of the natural world has reserved for Himself, to use at His pleasure—in order to speak with us! After all, we don’t tend to listen very well. But severe natural phenomena are impossible to ignore.
Yet for most people, even as our planet is coming apart, the message is still not resonating.