Apocalypse, A Natural History of Global Disasters by Bill McGuire
There's no doubt that disasters are on everyone's mind these days. What with earthquakes, hurricanes, floods, tsunami, and other disasters threatening everyday life, not to mention man-made threats such as global warming and terrorism, it is no wonder that people have doom on the brain.
Well, Bill McGuire, who's acquired the nickname "Disaster Man", is here to tell you all about what could end mankind's existence on earth tomorrow. Taking a distinctly British "stiff upper lip" attitude, he goes into four different scenarios: mega-volcanic eruption, giant tsunami, killer earthquake, and earth-killing cometary impact.
First, he talks about the history of natural disasters, and how the earth has been shaped over history by countless incidents of each of these events. You get the idea (and the fear) that these occurrences are inevitable, and that if each of us lives long enough we'd see all of these events unfold.
Of course, the time scale involved makes it much less threatening, as the period between events such as the comet/asteroid that caused the final extinction of the dinosaurs happens, on the average, once every 100 million years or so. The trouble is, of course, that if it does happen, the chances of it wiping you out, not to mention just about everyone else, make your chances of dying in a cometary impact about 1 in 10,000, which is only twice as much as the chance of you dying by electrocution. While a cometary collision is not something that is likely to happen soon, it does make you wonder what else may be traveling through space, unseen by us until it's too late. It's the fear of the unknown that makes the book so compelling.
The first scenario is one of the more interesting ones: a mega-volcano erupting under Yellowstone. What's interesting is that all of the events described by McGuire have happened before. The last super-eruption under Yellowstone took place 660,000 years ago and covered an area equivalent to 16 states with lava and pyroclastic flows!!!
The last super-eruption that occurred anywhere on the planet was at Toba, near Sumatra, some 70,000 years ago. It was more than 8000 times greater than the Mt. St Helens eruption in terms of debris ejected, and it drove temperatures across the globe down from 3 to 5 degrees Celsius. Such an eruption today would devastate the global economy as well as cause untold amounts of famine.
Each of the scenarios McGuire describes takes place in the near future, and is a compelling fictional account of what could happen. Such accounts are actually popular, and have made it into several science programs, notably on the Discovery Channel. In McGuire's account, the volcano under Yellowstone slowly builds over the years until in 2075, it erupts in a cataclysmic event that destroys the United States and plunges the world into a premature winter.
The second scenario is of a mega-tsunami hitting the East Coast of the United States. Of course, the Indonesian tsunami of 2004 ignited interest in the huge waves that have wreaked havoc on many coastlines throughout history. No one, though, has seen a mega-tsunami, a wall of water more than 100 feet high that could devastate an entire nation.
The cause of the mega-tsunami in McGuire's scenario is a collapse of a volcano in the Canary Islands in 2011. Again, his scenario is based on reality. The island in the scenario experienced a near collapse in 1949. Such mega-landslides have happened around the Hawaiian Islands and southern Norway thousands of years ago. The tsunamis generated have been measured in the hundreds of meters based on records of shorelines that were hit. In McGuire's scenario, the mega-tsunami devastates Europe before it hits the East Coast of the US with 30-meter (approximately 100-foot) waves.
The third scenario is a huge earthquake in Japan. Of all the scenarios, this once seems the most likely, just because it has certainly happened in the past and it will happen again in the future. A history of earthquakes in Japan is given, including the 1923 quake which killed more than 200,000 people. Much is made of the fact that the prediction process is still unreliable, and that there are no precursors anyone could use to predict when and where a quake is going to happen.
In McGuire's scenario, stress has been building up underneath Tokyo Bay for many years, until one day in 2030 that stress is released. The terrifying feeling of being in the quake is well-described, but what is even more interesting is what happens afterwards.
The local economy is destroyed, of course, which leads to global depression. How long it would take for the world to recover is anyone's guess. In the story it takes years for Japan to come back after withdrawing to rebuild its shattered capital. But when it does, no one wants to deal with Japan anymore: the shock of them withdrawing from the world's stage was too much to take, and now no one trusts them. It is an interesting and all-too-plausible theory of what could happen in the future with any large nation taking such a blow.
McGuire's final scenario is the most devastating: a cometary impact on the earth in 2001. Made popular on numerous TV programs and of course in movies like Deep Impact and Armageddon, the potential disaster has been well-documented and played out many times.
But it is impossible to know how we would react to the specter of imminent destruction. Would the entire world fall apart in an orgy of violence, or would we become a more spiritual people if faced with such an event? McGuire doesn't really answer that question, instead concentrating on the months and days leading up to the event, including an ill-fated attempt to send a probe into the comet.
He describes several of the hits by smaller debris, including one that destroys Detroit. But just when the world thinks the comet has passed them by without inflicting too much damage, a 1-kilometer fragment falls, shattering the British isles and most of Western Europe. This is the bleakest scenario of all: the entire world plunges into global famine due to the cooling effects of the dust thrown up by the impact. Such an event could literally plunge the world back into the Dark Ages.
However, as McGuire says at the book's end, his goal is not to frighten people, but to inform them of the natural dangers out there. This he does well in a book that is fun to read. While the events described are terrifying, his fictional accounts will keep anyone who is interested in natural history and disasters reading until they finish. It may not make you run to the nearest bomb shelter, but you'll gain some appreciation of the world we live in and its dangers -- not just man-made, but natural as well, and the unpredictability of random chance. And, until something does happen, all you can do is just what McGuire advises: keep smiling!!!
Note: Apocalypse seems to be out-of-print, but can be bought used through Amazon. You might also be interested in Bill McGuire’s newest book, A Guide to the End of the World. Both can be found on Amazon through the following links: