August 1, 2006 Disaster experts including meteorologists and seismologists have identified the types of catastrophic events the United States is most likely to face, quantifying the risk of earthquakes, urban hurricanes, wildfires and major floods.
BOULDER, Colo. -- Tsunamis, hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes ... Nature's fickle, and devastating forces are sometimes a surprise. But scientists are not waiting for the next big one. Another hurricane season is here, and while we hold our breath hoping for a less-destructive season than last year, scientists are stepping up to the challenge of looking at how the United States will stand up to all types of natural disasters.
A monster wave strikes the resort beaches of Thailand ... Amid the chaos, a vacationing couple from Tiny Town, Colorado, survives by climbing a tree, while brad was able to catch the destruction on his video camera.
"It looked like the white water was stacked up about 30 feet when Bradley said 'Run,'" Stephanie Hanks says. Her husband, Brad, adds, "All I could think of was that wave coming down on us."
On December 26, 2004, the Indian Ocean's tsunami shocked everyone. But scientists say there is no reason for surprise. No place on earth is without risk.
"In terms of the potential top five disasters that could affect the U.S., a lot depends on what sort of probability we want to talk about," disaster expert Ilan Kelman, of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., tells DBIS.
At NCAR, disaster experts identified the types of events the United States is most likely to face. For example, earthquakes on the west coast; urban hurricanes in the east could hit Miami, New York, or Washington, D.C., and cities along the Gulf of Mexico like Houston and New Orleans; wildfires near large cities; and major floods.
But none of these are predictions, only educated guesses based on what experts already know. Only one thing is for certain, according to Kelman. "One thing that we've learned about nature is that it always has surprises," he says
Stephanie and Brad's surprise was the caring and closeness of people in the aftermath of a tsunami.
According to the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction in Geneva, last year there was an 18-percent increase or 360 natural disasters compared to only 305 the year before. They attribute the rise to the growing number of floods and droughts.
BACKGROUND: At the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, scientists say that small islands and large coastal cities are more vulnerable to severe weather disasters. For example, Boston, New York and Washington, D.C., may be due for deadly hurricanes, while Michigan could experience a tsunami caused by a landslide, and the Midwest could experience an earthquake. Scientists are employing all kinds of new technologies to help them better predict all types of natural disasters.
EFFECTS OF CLIMATE CHANGE: If it seems like hurricanes are becoming more frequent and severe, that's because they are, thanks to rising air and water temperatures around the world, which make it easier for hurricanes to form. Some scientists attribute this to global warming and human activity, such as deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions. Others think that it is due to natural changes deep in the Atlantic, part of a natural cycle that shifts every 40-60 years.
PHASED ARRAY RADAR: Adapted from the SPY-1 radar technology used by the U.S. Navy to spot severe weather while ships are at sea, phased array radar uses multiple beams and frequencies to reduce scan time to less than one minute, enabling faster updates on weather conditions. This technology may help forecasters in the future provide earlier warnings for severe and hazardous weather; for example, it could increase the average lead time for tornado warnings beyond the current average of 11 minutes.
ABOUT TORNADOES: A tornado begins with a thunderstorm cloud, which can build up a lot of energy. If this energy creates a particularly strong updraft of air, it will form a vortex, much like how a whirlpool forms in a bathtub that is draining. The air is pulled toward the center in a spiral, forming a tornado under the thundercloud. Wind speeds can reach 200 to 300 MPH, and if the dangling vortex touches ground, the combination of the whirling wind's speed, the updraft, and pressure differences can cause severe damage. The path of a tornado is determined by the path of the parent thundercloud, but it will often appear to hop (called a "jumper"). This occurs when the vortex is disturbed, causing it to collapse momentarily and reform.