Is there a link between recent natural disasters?
September 22, 1999
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- When a wave of natural disasters strikes around the world, it's only natural for people to wonder if there is some sort of link between the huge forces of nature.
Was Hurricane Floyd, which roared out of the Atlantic last week, in any way related to the typhoon which battered Hong Kong the same week -- the worst typhoon to hit that city in 16 years?
And could the deadly earthquake in Turkey have pulled the seismic trigger which led to the quake in Taiwan?
Some answers to those questions and others can be found at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, operated by Columbia University, where specialists track what happens beneath the earth's surface and above it.
"We know of connections between earthquakes when they are close to each other, namely within tens of miles, said Kurt Jacob, a seismologist at the observatory. "But when they are essentially a whole world apart, then that connection cannot be established on any scientific basis."
Jacob pointed out there was an unusual cluster of earthquakes at the turn of the last century and again in the early 1960s. The 60s quakes rattled Alaska and Chile, which suffered the largest quake ever recorded at magnitude 9.5. That temblor sent a tidal wave across the Pacific to Japan.
And what of 1999?
"From a purely seismological earthquake standpoint (it was) a normal year. Magnitude 7 earthquakes, we can expect easily about a dozen of them a year," said Jacob. "So why are we then concerned? Well, what happened in this case is that some of those magnitude 7 earthquakes occurred in high population centers and that's the real difference. The number of earthquakes is pretty much as expected, nothing unusual so far."
What about what's happening above the earth's surface?
One theory is that the fluttering of a butterfly's wings in China can alter air patterns which in turn could determine whether it rains in New York State.
At the observatory, climatologist Mark Cane sees some connections.
"One of things that has been studied a lot is the impact of the El Nino events on hurricanes. So, in an El Nino phase, you get fewer hurricanes in the Atlantic," said Cane. "We are not in an El Nino phase -- we are in the opposite phase -- and so we should get more hurricanes, that is what is predicted and it seems to be, so far in this hurricane season, what is happening."
For an American century that began with a hurricane which killed more than 8,000 people in Galveston, Texas in 1900 -- to the dust bowl of the 1930s, when the soil was swept off the land, and people, desperate for work, were driven from their homes -- to the "storm of the century," the Blizzard of '93 which killed 270 people on the East Coast in 1993 -- and the great floods of that same year in the Midwest, which killed 48 people and caused $20 billion in damage -- there has always been a difference between bad-weather years and disastrous years.
"I think it will be one of the superstar years for the century in a lot of ways," said Cane. "What we see that's really different lately is we keep setting records for the warmest-year-ever for the globe, and we have various kinds of catastrophes or extreme events that certainly stand out."
It is human nature to want to discover connections, some sense behind the apparent random blows from disasters.
Albert Einstein said, "God does not play dice"... meaning there is a predictable pattern in everything.
Scientists are still searching for those patterns and connections behind the destruction. When they cannot find them, all they can say is -- "things happen."
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