10 Possible Future Disasters

People run as a building collapses during an earthquake in Mexico City. Could a massive quake threaten global disaster in the future? © Sergio Dorantes/Sygma/Corbis

"In a world ..."

That's how the trailer for this article's movie would begin, followed by a two-minute series of slow-motion collapses, fireballs and sooty, photogenic close-ups. And why not? Be they perils from space, forces of nature run amok or the results of human hubris, upheavals feel — for those not enduring them, at least — cathartic.

But real disasters aren't lone events born of simple, soluble problems, and they don't end when the credits roll. Nor are they necessarily a question of scale. The line that divides an incident from a disaster is defined by a society's preparedness and capacity to deal with the aftermath. Vaccines, rapid-response teams and early-warning systems can shift that line toward recovery, while poverty, corruption and ignorance slide it toward catastrophe.

For good or ill, the technology and unprecedented control over life and death we have will likely allow future disasters to unfold along lines unique in world history. As we look at the upcoming examples, try to let that bit of novelty cheer you up.