Filed Under:Claims, Education & Training

The Near and the Far-Fetched Disasters

Scientists Look to the Skies

"'The sky is falling,'" shouted Chicken Little, and they all ran for cover.” Today it seems as if we are all running for cover from something: floods, wildfires, tornadoes, inflation, deflation in housing values, global warming, ice storms, hailstorms, bankruptcies or foreclosures, obesity, contaminated food supply, or some other newsworthy event. Perhaps we can blame it all on the media. If they didn’t report all that bad stuff, then we would not know about it and worry. The reality, however, is that we do have media, and the media can sometimes scare the hell out of us.

I have been a part of that media since first joining the news department of the Wall Street Journal back in 1961. In reviewing the multitude of publications I receive to aid in preparing for the semiannual updates to my four textbooks published by Thomson Reuters West—ranging from the American Bar Association’s The Brief and the Defense Research Institute’s For the Defense to Best’s Review and National Underwriter—I often come across articles, statistics, or court cases that are surprising. Several I have shared in these columns over the years, and others have made only the one-shot introductions to the supplemental updates, citing what may be a current event, but not something of long-lasting interest to that textbook’s reader.

Solar storms may have done little damage in a non-technological pre-21st century world, but such a storm today, warns the AER writers, “can disrupt radio communication, aviation communication and navigation, and can interfere with the GPS signals used in our positioning and timing technologies.”

“One perhaps under-addressed risk,” they add, “is a cascading interruption in energy supply. Even a short-term electrical power outage can create a shortage in oil supply because all refineries depend on electrical power from the grid.” A geomagnetic storm, they say, will “not only cripple the electrical grid but also corrode oil and gas pipelines.” In post-tsunami disaster zones, gasoline is now pumped into autos by the station owner pedaling an exercise bike that is hooked to a generator, producing enough electricity to activate the pump and fill a car’s tank.

It is important to keep in mind that disasters are not all connected to nature; economic disaster has struck and is still a world-wide concern. Greece may default, as might other European Union nations. The U.S. came close to default, but that was a political stunt, not a real economic calamity. One might suggest that the U.S. does not have unemployment or even immigration problems. Rather, it has a population problem, with too many people in the wrong place with the wrong set of skills and the wrong abilities to conform to a globalized technology-based 21st century.

Yet, even those nations that do seem to be coping better with those specific problems are being fooled. China, for example, rushed to build the world’s fastest rail line. It was, however, built with rampant fraud, inferior construction, and poor planning. Already hundreds have been killed in high-speed collisions; managers and contractors have gone to jail. China may have been first with the fastest, a train that travels at more than 300 miles per hour, while the best the U.S. can manage is 125 miles per hour on Acela for a very short stretch (the rest of Amtrak is limited to a maximum of 79 miles per hour), but we may find that for all our fast technology something as simple as a solar storm can destroy it in minutes.

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