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THOMPSON: Do we live in the most dangerous times?

January 30, 2017 - 2:29 PM

 


OPINION


We live in the most dangerous times ever. You hear people say that, but do we really? Well, it's complicated. The answer is yes...and no. I usually hate weasel-word answers to such precise questions. That said, the truth is some threats have worsened and some have lessened in recent years.  That fact alone doesn't delight me. If you're dead...does it really matter how? 

Of course, all threats are not created equal. For example, the homicide rate worldwide has gone down by almost 20 per cent in the past decade. I felt pretty good about that, until I discovered the chances of earth being hit by an asteroid have increased during the same time.  

NASA says one huge asteroid has a one-in-63,000 chance of hitting earth in 2032. The impact would be 50 times more powerful than the biggest nuclear bomb ever tested. Very mixed emotions here: I'd be 82 years old...a pretty full life. And, one-in-63,000 are pretty fair odds. I'd feel even better had NASA not actually named the asteroid...now known as 2013 TV135. Who's in charge of asteroid names at NASA?

The more I considered various threats, the more confusing it became. Experts - from noted theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking to America's former CIA Director John Brennan - tell us we're definitely not as safe as we used to be. A lot of people have us in their sights...so to speak. Terrorists, of course. Crazy people with guns. Sane people with guns. And, as Hawking said in a recent article, "We now have the technology to destroy the planet on which we live, but have not yet developed the ability to escape it."

Nine countries have more than 16,000 nuclear weapons. And some of those countries have, yes, dangerous leaders. But there's more to fear than people who might do us harm. From wars between states to wars within them, from crime and terrorism to climate change and cyber attacks, we are beset by a seemingly endless array of threats and dangers. 

You can't really compare threats easily...current or past.  It's a very subjective matter. Was Neanderthal man at greater risk day to day than we are? Did a herd of wooly mammoths 
pose as big a risk during the Pleistocene era as terrorists are to us today. Maybe...maybe
not. So far, this essay might dampen the spirits of even the staunchest optimist. No telling what it might do to a pessimist.  

Of course, there are those terrifying natural events that always seem to loom on our horizons...the stuff of disaster movies: hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, tsunamis.
But one natural disaster poses a threat like no other: Volcanoes. They were a huge danger
hundreds of thousands of years ago...and they are today.  

I'm not talking about garden-variety volcanoes, like Kilauea on the Big Island of Hawaii. Every two or three years, it spews magma and gases, drawing several thousand tourists who watch lava flow to the Pacific Ocean. No, I'm talking about super volcanoes.  

Super volcanoes are, well, super. And when they blow their tops - quite literally - there is a worldwide impact. There is a super volcano beneath Naples, Italy, a metropolitan area that is home to more than three million people. Known as Campi Flegrei, which in Italian translates as burning fields, it's been cooking beneath the earth's surface for hundreds of thousands of years.  The last eruption in 1538 created 458-meter-tall Monte Nuovo - Italian for new mountain - on the Naples coastline in just a few weeks.  

But that was a relatively minor eruption. Is Campi Flegrei a concern today? Yes.  Its caldera -
a depression crater caused by an ancient volcano collapsing on itself - is more than seven miles across. Some 200,000 years ago, its cataclysmic eruption sent enough ash into the earth's atmosphere to block sunlight for a year or more, causing a volcanic winter. Indeed, some scientists say it contributed to the end of Neanderthal man in Eurasia. 

Two weeks ago, a team of scientists from the Italian National Geophysics Institute in Rome, reported that physical measurements and computer models indicated magma in Campi Flegrei is reaching Critical Degassing Pressure (CDP). At some point that gas and magma has to go somewhere. More than 80 measurable earthquakes - often a precursor to volcanic activity - have hit Italy in the past year.

But predicting volcanic eruptions makes predicting next month's weather in a specific area look easy. By the way, the ability to predict weather in a given area beyond 24 hours is five percent better than flipping a coin. Even so, the Italian government signalled its concern by raising the threat level from green to yellow, which requires more or less constant scientific monitoring.

At least 19 other super volcanoes exist around the world...six of them active. Of those six, three are in the United States, including the two largest, Yellowstone caldera in Yellowstone National Park, and the Long Valley caldera in Southern California. The Yellowstone caldera - a few hundred square miles in size - last erupted 640,000 years ago, but still fuels the countless hot springs and geysers today.  

Those of you long enough in the tooth - like me - to remember the Mount St. Helens eruption in 1980 might relate to this comparison. The last eruption of the Yellowstone caldera spewed 8,000 times more ash into the atmosphere. Again, no sunlight for years and a volcanic winter. The Long Valley caldera eruption was about 3,000 times bigger than Mount St. Helens.  Both, certifiable catastrophes.

Volcano experts - called volcanologists - agree that super volcanoes erupt about every 100,000 years. Also, they now know that while earthquakes can lead to volcanic activity...it's not a necessary and sufficient condition. Magma can build to such pressure in a super volcano that it simply has to go somewhere...and that somewhere is through an opening in the earth's crust.

Campi Flegrei - the super volcano beneath Naples - is part of a string of 24 volcanoes in the Phlegraean Fields, which runs under the land and sea in the Mediterranean region. Volcanologists can't tell us exactly when or where the next super volcano will erupt. It could be in Italy, New Zealand, Iceland, Japan or the United States. It could occur in weeks or in thousands of years.  What they do know is that it can be cataclysmic.

Super volcanoes are one of the dangerous threats to our safety today. Like terrorists...and homicides...and disease...and climate change...and asteroids...they are real. You soon realize there are some threats we can do something about. And some, not so much. Super volcanoes are somewhere between.

Dr. Glyn Williams-Jones, associate professor at Simon Fraser University's Department of Earth Sciences and a volcanologist, says we need to do a better job of educating the general public about super volcanoes and continue building the expert teams necessary to mitigate and manage an inevitable event.

"Today, a wide range of scientists, communications and public policy experts are engaging the public and that's critical," says Dr. Williams-Jones,  "We have an obligation to present information that is neither fear-mongering nor careless. When we shine light where there is darkness, the public is informed and can prepare for almost any event."

That makes sense to me. I'm not going to fret about every threat. I can't live with that kind of paranoia...and negativity. I'm too much of an optimist. I'll continue to live each day...fully aware that the exit strategy for all of us is known...just not exactly when and exactly how.

Carpe Diem!


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