An automobile lies crushed under the third story of this apartment building in the Marina District, California, from the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989.
Credit: J.K. Nakata , U.S. Geological Survey
Misguided interpretations of the ancient Mayan calendar have led to rumors of the world ending tomorrow, Friday, Dec. 21. Some doomsayers believe a rogue planet will crash into Earth, or that a solar storm will spell total destruction. Others think the planets and the sun will align to cause cataclysmic tidal effects, or that the North and South Poles will suddenly and catastrophically trade places.
These scenarios have been exhaustively debunked by scientists. In fact, NASA has already issued a press release dated Dec. 22 and titled "Why the World Didn't End Yesterday." The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), meanwhile, has its own message: Flimsy apocalyptic forecasts aside, the Earth still has a fearsome capacity to generate natural disasters on any day of any year.
While any one of these events isn't likely to wipe out all of humanity in one fell swoop, here are six real and sometimes unpredictable threats that the USGS says Americans should be prepared for:
After a magnitude-6.3 earthquake killed more than 300 people in the Italian city of L'Aquila in 2009, six scientists and one government official were accused of being too reassuring about the risk of an earthquake prior to the deadly temblor. They were put on trial for manslaughter and found guilty earlier this year in a verdict widely condemned by scientists.
Not only is it virtually impossible, for now at least, to make short-term predictions about the time and place of an earthquake, but long-term predictions only touch on the probability of future temblors. For example, the USGS points out that based on past events in California, there's roughly a two-in-three chance that a magnitude-6.7 or larger temblor will strike in the next 30 years in the San Francisco Bay Area. But the agency says scientists are refining their probability models to take into account recent earthquake activity — for example, to help predict a larger earthquake after an initial smaller one. [Image Gallery: This Millennium's Destructive Earthquakes]
There are dozens of active volcanoes in the United States, and, according to the USGS, many of them could blow their lid at any time. The Mount St. Helens eruption on May 18, 1980, stands out as the most dramatic in recent memory. It killed 57 people and devastated the surrounding landscape, with the hot gas and debris wiping out countless animals and destroying large swaths of forest.
The blast was preceded by a swarm of small earthquakes. Thought it can be tricky to use such tremors to predict whether an explosive volcanic eruption might actually take place, scientists with the USGS keep a close eye on these signs of unrest, which also might include changes in gas emissions.
Perhaps in the wake of Superstorm Sandy, Americans don't need to be reminded that hurricanes can unleash devastating force on coastal areas. That storm left more than 100 dead, thousands homeless and millions without power from the Caribbean to New England. It caused billions of dollars in damage, hitting New York and New Jersey especially hard. But maybe one of the more remarkable aspects of Sandy was that it lived up to the predictions that weather forecasters laid out days in advance.
Today scientists have better computer models to predict the behavior of the weather patterns in the atmosphere that spawn hurricanes. And researchers with USGS on the ground can help forecast the likelihood of beach erosion, overwash and inundation.
Landslides might be underrated natural disasters. A recently assembled database put the death toll from landslides worldwide as much as 10 times higher than previously estimated, finding that 32,300 people died in 2,620 landslides between 2004 and 2010. Previous estimates ranged from 3,000 to 7,000 fatalities.
Landslides occur in all 50 states, but affect some regions more than others. For example, the U.S. West Coast is especially vulnerable during its rainy season from November to March. Landslides can result from earthquakes, volcanoes, man-made construction activities or changes in groundwater; people living on or below steep hill slopes are at especially high risk for landslide damage. The USGS is working with the National Weather Service on a prototype Debris Flow Warning System to map susceptible areas.
Record dry and hot weather in Colorado this summer sent wildfires ripping through the state, scorching some 300 square miles (800 square kilometers) and forcing thousands to evacuate. As the effects of global warming kick in, some scientists warn that such blazes will become more commonplace.
Though the fires often move quickly and unpredictably, scientists are refining their forecasts by learning more about patterns, ignition sources and fire size from past data, according to the USGS. The agency is also involved in response efforts, providing firefighters with real-time maps and satellite images of wildfires, as sometimes the first step in tackling a blaze is to look at it from above.
The sun sometimes bombards our atmosphere with electromagnetic particles in a burst of material called a coronal mass ejection (CME). The worst such solar storm in history occurred in September 1859. At the time, it set off fires in telegraph offices and colorful aurora, normally visible only in polar regions, were observed as far south as Cuba and Hawaii. A storm that powerful today would wreak havoc on our communications systems, potentially resulting in blackouts that last for months, leaving planes and ships without working GPS units for navigation and putting banking networks offline, among other consequences.
Damaging solar storms occur about four times a decade, according to the USGS, and can be detected days in advance by monitoring the sun. The sun shifts through periods of quiet and high-action, peaking roughly every 11 years. We're currently entering a solar maximum, though it's not expected to be an especially active period.
Preparing for disaster
You might scoff at survivalists like the Chinese farmer who created pods designed to withstand the Mayan apocalypse, but the USGS says it's not a bad idea to always have a disaster kit on hand with food, water and other basic needs.
"The question to consider on Dec. 21, 2012, and every day is: Have I done everything I can to ensure that my family and I are prepared, should a disaster strike?" a statement from the agency reads.
You can find more information about natural disaster threats and preparedness at the USGS's hazards website: http://www.usgs.gov/natural_hazards/