Rare but disastrous

Preparing for Wildcard Events

Wildcard events that are extremely doubtful though catastrophic can largely be discounted from evaluations of economic stability but likely global impacts of city earthquakes cannot


Realigning activities consistent with a Holistic Perspective also highlights the importance of pre-planning for certain ‘wildcard events’ that, even though unlikely, would be hugely disruptive if they happened. If for example any such events do in fact occur within the next few decades, they will only reinforce any pressures toward increased global chaos. Of course, by definition, wildcard-events although catastrophic are rare. However, something like an asteroid strike is certainly sufficiently plausible that it is highly appropriate to maintain the existing arrangements for monitoring Near-Earth Objects, such as NASA’s recently launched Spaceguard Project.

In tandem, once sufficient numbers of countries can again afford extra expenditure, the international community should supplement global funding of programs aimed at devising practical responses to the discovery that a very large object is indeed heading our way. Even theoretically it is a tough problem to crack. Although it might, for example, be helpful to fire nuclear missiles at – or detonate them near – a few types of space-object, in many cases that would simply result in breaking them up into multiple large objects that were all still heading on a collision course for Earth.

A far more probable crisis within the next few decades is that a major earthquake strikes an important city. The seismic risks to major cities in China’s western region were not systematically surveyed at the time rapid expansion began, only now are they being fully appreciated. Likely targets elsewhere in the world (such as Istanbul) are badly prepared because very-few buildings have adequate earthquake protection. In addition to the major loss of life and property that will result, there may be far-wider economic impacts to the global economy if, for example, Turkey has by the time of such major city earthquakes already joined the EU. Other cities at high risk (like Tokyo, San Francisco and Los Angeles) have many more modern buildings designed to withstand severe quakes. But that does not necessarily mean that an extreme earthquake in those cities will not still cause massive disruption.

As was found at Fukushima in March 2011, although few buildings in the vicinity fell as a result of the earthquake, and although tsunamis are sufficiently common in the area that a sea wall protected the nuclear power-plant, and although in the event of a crisis graphite-rods automatically lowered in order to shut-down the reactor, and although there was even a battery back-up for the cooling system in the unlikely event that the main generator failed – it was still a disaster. What went wrong was that the sea wall proved slightly too low, so the tsunami knocked out the generators, with the result that there was no cooling for the still-hot reactor after batteries ran out eight hours later. That sort of unforeseen cascade of unfortunate and unlikely events is typical of major industrial accidents. It is also likely to be the pattern in Tokyo, San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Current research suggests that there may never be ways to predict earthquakes sufficiently accurately to justify evacuating cities. However, it is nevertheless already possible to set up a sensor network that can give ten or twenty seconds’ warning. That may not sound like long – but with the correct electronic communications network it is sufficient time for all elevators to stop at a floor and open their doors, for road signs to flash ‘Slow Down’, for mainframe computers to store what they are doing, and for surgeons to take their scalpels out.