"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.
Genetic Manipulation Gone Wrong
Let's delve into destruction with one of the clearest cases of genie-out-of-the-bottle tech since nuclear arms: genetic manipulation.
From the get-go, ethicists and science-fiction authors alike have feared that our genetic ambitions would outpace our safeguards. We could take comfort in contemporary technology's cost and crudeness and hope that the robustness and adaptability of life would take care of the rest. But newer techniques like CRISPR-Cas9 and TALENs have transformed genetic manipulation from shotgun to laser-guided scalpel. What once took years and cost a small fortune now requires weeks and a few thousand dollars.
On the plus side, the technology could allow us to alter grain genomes to resist fungus or equip mosquitoes with genetic barriers to malaria. But whereas older methods of genetic modification would eventually breed out of populations, these new techniques can leverage "selfish" genes that force organisms to pass modifications to offspring. Put simply, we can now wipe out entire species with a single mistake [source: Maxmen].
In April 2015 a team of Chinese scientists described using CRISPR-Cas9 to edit nonviable human embryos. Scientists have called for a freeze on gene fiddling at such an early stage, and many journals refuse to publish such studies for ethical reasons. But bioethical standards tend to lag behind technology, and who can say what a less ethical party might attempt?
When it comes to biological factors that tear through entire species, humans can't take all the credit.
Remember how the West African Ebola outbreak of April 2014 stirred up fears of how far and fast a virulent disease could spread — and of how ill-prepared to deal with it we might be? You should, because days after the World Health Organization pronounced the region Ebola-free in 2016, another case popped up [source: Fox].
History has shown that a pandemic now and then can be a good thing, at least for the survivors. Apart from their traumatic emotional effects, pandemics can create better prospects for poor laborers and aid in ecological recovery, as long as they don't kill too large a fraction of the population. But while in progress, they can profoundly alter how societies function, taxing infrastructures well beyond their tolerances and forcing people to spend their off-work hours nursing family members.
A disease that kills 80 to 90 percent of all people on Earth could tip this balance toward an unrecoverable social and technological crash. The more we travel, alter our landscapes and closely mingle with all types of animals, the more we increase our risks [source: Vince].
So how likely is either of these events? It's hard to say. We've averaged a pandemic roughly every 10 to 50 years over the past few centuries, with the most recent being the global H1N1 flu pandemic in 2009 and 2010 [source: Vince]. That means another pandemic could happen during your lifetime.
Coronal Mass Ejection
Coronal mass ejections (CMEs), or bursts of plasma and magnetic field from the sun's corona, have much in common with pandemics. They follow a cycle, albeit a far more regular one (the conditions are ripe every 11 years or so) [source: NASA]. They also cause variable but potentially ruinous damage, and their destructive scales depend, in part, upon humans' connectedness.
In 1859 amateur astronomer Richard Carrington observed a solar flare that heralded a geomagnetic storm. The burst of magnetized plasma that struck Earth built enough electrical ground charge to power telegraph transmissions for days [source: Billings]. Since then, astronomers have watched for such Carrington events (powerful solar storms) and their linked CMEs with mounting concern.
We've been lucky so far. A trick of magnetic field alignment tempered the impact of a sizable CME in October 2003. It nevertheless caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damages by disrupting flights, satellites and power grids. In July 2012 another CME barely missed us [source: Billings].
In the worst case, a CME could cause continental power outages and loss of GPS satellites. That would mean no commerce, no refrigeration and no fuel or water pumps, amounting to trillions of dollars in damages and untold casualties. Some experts cheerfully predict outages would last a few weeks at most. But a quick about-face would prove impossible if, as some people fear, the CME's ground current cooks all the transformers. In that case, the risks of social breakdown and mass starvation become quite real [source: Billings].
Speaking of mass starvation, did you know there's a theoretical limit to how many people the planet can support? It's mainly limited by available solar radiation, but there are other limits we would reach well before that one.
In the 18th century, economist Thomas Malthus famously worried that the population was growing much faster than the food supply. Many scholars shrug off his warning today, but near the turn of the 20th century, a food crisis loomed because of the lack of nitrates and ammonia. German chemists Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch bought some time by devising a nitrogen fixation process that takes gas from the air and turns it into fertilizer.
Today a different nutrient shortfall looms — a shortage of phosphorus. Our bodies need phosphorus to move energy around and to build cells and DNA. But our demand will likely outstrip our known supply within 30 to 40 years [source: Clabby]. The push for biofuel options will only deepen the crisis.
Currently, a large amount of phosphorus is lost in human and animal waste. Much of what remains ends up in the trash or washes away as farm runoff. Reclaiming these sources and finding new ones could buy some time, but everything has its limit — even the bounty of the earth.
The Thermohaline Circulation Shuts Down
Like most natural mechanisms, the global climate system has a certain amount of built-in give. But push past that point, and forcing factors, or environmental processes that affect climate, take over. This could create feedbacks that will alter climates for decades or centuries to come.
One nightmare scenario begins when global climate change melts arctic ice too quickly. As the resultant freshwater spreads across the North Atlantic Ocean, it shuts down a looping global current vital to global climate called the thermohaline circulation (THC). The THC runs off a blend of heat and density, and its motion helps transport heat around the world. For example, Atlantic surface waters warm up near Florida and flow northeast toward Europe, which partly explains why London has a temperate maritime climate even though it shares the same latitude with Calgary, Canada and Kiev, Ukraine.
Research suggests the THC has shut down in the past, likely due to massive freshwater dumps that occur during waning ice ages. Whether such a shutdown will occur because of climate change remains unclear, but the bulk of data says the THC will more likely experience a slowdown [source: Hausfather].
In the unlikely worst case, however, the effects of a mini-ice age combined with other climate change stresses could be nothing short of seismic.
The Cascadia Superquake
Pop culture may have taught us that California's San Andreas Fault will one day drop the Golden State into the Pacific Ocean (it won't), but at least it has made us aware of California's looming Big One, an earthquake of magnitude 8.0 or greater. We cannot say the same for another overdue earthquake threatening the western states and Canada: the Cascadia superquake.
At least temblor-tossed Southern California features earthquake-proofed buildings and emergency-preparedness policies to handle seismic activity. Conversely, the Cascadia subduction zone — a 620-mile (1,000-kilometer) area where the Juan de Fuca plate slides under the North American plate — undergoes dormancy periods just long enough for unwary coffee-drinkers to blithely build cities elsewhere [source: Watts].
To imagine how the superquake might play out, we need only consider how a similar event affected land on the opposite side of the Ring of Fire, in Japan. In 2011 the 9.0-magnitude Tohoku quake and resultant tsunami killed 18,000 people, triggered the Fukushima meltdown and caused more than $200 billion in damages. All this happened in a region prepared for quakes, just not ones of such scale [source: Schulz].
A similar quake and tsunami has a one in 10 chance of striking the Pacific Northwest in the next half century. Under current states of awareness and readiness, such an event would shatter the Interstate 5 corridor that runs along the West Coast, killing thousands and leaving millions of refugees homeless and hungry. The chances of a smaller but still devastating quake striking in that same time frame stand at one in three [source: Schulz]. Either way, it's only a matter of time.
A Killer Asteroid
For those inclined to gamble with disaster, nature offers plenty of prospects. Just ask the dinosaurs.
On Feb. 15, 2013, a fireball streaked across the sky over Chelyabinsk, Russia and exploded in a window-shattering airburst. It was nearly a disaster: A ground strike might have killed tens of thousands of people [source: Kaku]. Regardless, the event proved that Earth's game of asteroid Russian roulette is far from over.
Scant hours after the event, a space rock three times larger than Chelyabinsk's threaded the space between Earth and its artificial satellites. Had this city-killer struck a densely populated location like New York, it would have destroyed midtown instantly, blasted down surrounding skyscrapers and rained firestorm-spawning meteors for hours. Short-term death tolls might have reached the millions [source: Kaku].
Of course, water covers 71 percent of Earth, and many large inland regions remain sparsely populated. Thus, in the rare case that such a massive rock actually hit Earth, it would stand a small chance of striking a population center. But a nation-wrecker or even a planet-killer could come knocking someday, perhaps sooner than we'd like to think.
Take Apophis, an apartment-building-size asteroid due to kiss our atmosphere in 2029 and possibly smack right into us on its 2036 return trip. Astronomers are bullish that it won't, but if it does it will pack the wallop of a 300-megaton atom bomb, to say nothing of the ensuing fires, disruption of solar energy and famine [source: Kaku].
Global Economic Collapse
While pundits and politicians enjoy trotting out global economic collapse to energize the voter base, economists are split over the chances of such a crash. It's a ticklish problem, partly because forecasts can distort the very system they seek to describe, and partly because collapses can result from disparate sources, from a deep and protracted depression to runaway inflation. Indeed, economists still struggle to unravel collapses that already occurred.
All we can really say, as we watch China prop up its ailing stock market and the European Union struggle to define a set of economic policies suited to the diverse needs of its member states, is that indicators look more than a little dodgy. Whether we look at the tepid fiscal recovery, obstinate job insecurity or looming food and water anxieties, it seems likely that problems will only worsen under global climate change scenarios or energy-asset depletion [source: Froetschel].
Or not. That's the nature of the dismal science, after all: risk and uncertainty.
Meanwhile, China's economic strategies, including its debt addiction, are past due for a reckoning — one that could rock the world economy. Elsewhere in East Asia, Japan courts a currency war by exporting its deflation [source: Mauldin]. Then again, Japan could sidestep the issue entirely by leading the world in building the robots that will revolutionize our lives — or end them ...
Some say the world will end in fire, some say ice; others say it will end in the steely grip of self-improving superintelligence born of human hubris. Po-tay-to, po-tah-to.
On one hand, it's hard to imagine we'd be so foolish as to create a Frankenstein's monster without a fail-safe. But do you know what's not hard to imagine? That some garage hackers or industrialists, driven by rivalry, revenue or (Asimov help us) fetish, will sit nose-to-breadboard until they've created artificial intelligence or some weird imitation of it.
However it happens, the doom that follows need not come from so literal a source as a robot hand around our throats. A society unprepared for massive labor shifts and joblessness could face financial and social turmoil. Should society survive, millions of people will face existential crisis, whether in the form of a sense of futility or a headlong descent into decadence and dissolution.
Optimists insist that matters will self-correct, and economists argue that tech will create more jobs than it destroys. But even ignoring the risk that superintelligent machines will rise, self-improve and decide a femtosecond later to eliminate humans, we'll still face one of the most transformative moments in social and psychological history. Because however it shakes out, it'll be something we're not prepared for, and that alone will make it a disaster.
World War III
There's probably no greater disaster imaginable than a world war fought with tactical nukes, cyberattacks and bioweapons. It's an idea that we haven't taken very seriously since the Cold War. But when the World Economic Forum asked experts across a variety of fields to name the most likely, worst outcome of the next 10 years, guess what they picked?
The reasons are deeply enmeshed: food and water insecurity, climate change, financial crises, infectious diseases and profound social instability. Add rising nationalism, dubious territorial claims by major powers like China and Russia, Japanese militarization and a pinch of terrorist pseudo-states, and a fearsome picture begins to emerge.
Of course, one could argue that our global connectedness militates against any large-scale conflict; we simply would lose more than we gained. The U.S., China's biggest product consumer, and China, America's banker, share an economic suicide pact so tight that some have nicknamed it MADE (mutually assured destruction of economy). That said, entangled powers once made World War I unthinkable, too, and its major players had a lot in common.
Then again, they didn't face the prospect of nuclear extinction. Nor did they have our access to satellite intelligence and instant communications, assets that help limit misunderstandings. So, on balance, a third World War would be irrational but not impossible. Why doesn't that make us feel better?
A pair of physicians are proposing that the great explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton died from a hole in his heart. Learn more at HowStuffWorks Now.
Author's Note: 10 Possible Future Disasters
Socially or ecologically, there is growing concern among experts that change today occurs at a rate that far outstrips our ability to cope with it. Moreover, in a world characterized by ever-growing connectedness, it's unlikely that some types of disasters — economic, political, ecological and epidemiological — will remain geographically confined. The same globalization and mass communication that transform the world may just as easily doom it if we're not careful, and perhaps even if we are.
More Great Links
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