Maybe the Mayans were Right

Shaking ground, darkening skies, torrential rains; these are the signs of the end of the world, the 2012 apocalypse. Or, they are just the new weather trends.

Aug. 23, a huge earthquake hit the East Coast. Centered in Virginia, some sources claim that the ripples could be felt even in New York. The earthquake was one of the strongest in the area for a long while, measuring 5.8 on seismic scales, just slightly less than the biggest Virginia earthquake ever, a 5.9 catastrophe that occurred over a century ago. This event highlighted the need for better emergency preparedness — maybe not the “duck and cover” strategy that was at one time used as an anti-nuclear-attack plan (that’s for you, Mr. Hornor) — but certainly better communication, local planning, and maybe even shelters for areas with at-risk constructions.

The danger with an Eastern quake is that, unlike in California where standards for building designs are created with the earth-shaking, and sometimes earth-shattering, events in mind, buildings in say, Pennsylvania, are constructed with concern for high wind speed events instead. While 18th and 19th century structures are of course more vulnerable, even modern buildings are not always constructed to withstand such events. While damage could have been much worse, many buildings now have minor structural defects, meaning that any future quake is even more likely to bring them down.

It isn’t just your average office building or private home that’s at risk. Two nuclear power reactors in North Anna, Va. were forced to shut down. Fears of a Japan-style nuclear catastrophe existed, but luckily the power of the earthquake was not nearly so strong. However, had the event been worse, the power plant was mostly unprepared to deal with the damage, giving the Nuclear Regulatory Commission just another reason why the bar needs to be raised for protection measures in nuclear power plants. The North Anna reactors had been constructed to withstand a quake of a 6.1 magnitude, and so they were largely unaffected. But with extreme weather trends getting steadily worse, who knows how much longer they will be safe? Even if some of the fears are just alarmism, nuclear power seems to be an area where a larger safety margin couldn’t hurt.

The earthquake isn’t the only danger coming to the East Coast. Hurricane Irene ripped through the Bahamas early on Aug. 18 causing fairly high levels of damage and ravaging the two Southern islands, then headed for the continental U.S. as a Category 3 storm with 115 mph winds. The storm traveled up the East coast, causing black-outs in major metropolitan areas like Boston and New York, deadly floods in Vermont, and commuter chaos resulting from damaged transportation infrastructure throughout the Northeast.

This all might have an even bigger impact than just damaged buildings and weeks without power. A new study indicates that bad weather actually affects political systems. It indicates that the likelihood of civil wars in tropical countries like Burma or Colombia doubles in El Nino years; years which bring heat and more violent weather. The study looked at patterns of warfare in 90 different countries, as well as historical evidence all the way back to Ancient Egyptian dynasties. Global societies might not still be building pyramids, but they aren’t immune to these trends, which were validated by studies of the 2009 El Nino event. Even if there’s not another U.S. civil war (except maybe a political war between liberals and the Tea Party…), on a smaller scale, these events certainly have implications for the United States. It’s time for better emergency planning. Better response capabilities are necessary, both to deal with catastrophes within the U.S. and to streamline our international disaster relief programs.

By Lauren Sukin, Opinion Editor ’12

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