Disasters

  • EarthquakesNapa earthquake may persuade lawmakers to fund earthquake warning system

    Last Sunday’s Napa earthquake may push Congress to increase funding for an earthquake warning system. Building out the West Coast earthquake warning system, called ShakeAlert, would cost $120 million over five years, and an additional $16 million a year to operate. Today, ShakeAlert operates in a testing phase, and sensors notify researchers and volunteer participants when an earthquake has been detected.

  • EarthquakesSeismic retrofitting of older buildings helps, but it has its limits

    Even before last Sunday’s magnitude-6 earthquake struck Napa, officials anticipated that such an event would damage many of Napa’s historic brick buildings. So years ago, brick structures were required to get seismic retrofitting — bolting brick walls to ceilings and floors to make them stronger. “We can’t keep every single brick in place in many of these older buildings without extraordinarily costly retrofits,” says a structural engineer. “We can reduce the damage in losses, but not eliminate them entirely in older buildings.”

  • FloodsInvestigating potential influences on recent U.K. winter floods

    A comprehensive review of all potential factors behind the 2013-14 U.K. winter floods does not definitively answer whether human activity played a role in the magnitude of the winter flood events. It does, though, examine how factors such as the state of the global oceans may have interacted with wind patterns and subsequent high-level atmospheric features.

  • EnergyExisting power plants will emit 300 billion more tons of carbon dioxide during use

    Existing power plants around the world will pump out more than 300 billion tons of carbon dioxide over their expected lifetimes, significantly adding to atmospheric levels of the climate-warming gas, according to a new study. The study is the first to quantify how quickly these “committed” emissions are growing — by about 4 percent per year — as more fossil fuel-burning power plants are built. Assuming these stations will operate for forty years, the power plants constructed globally in 2012 alone will produce about nineteen billion tons of CO2 during their existence, the researchers project.

  • DisastersSunday tremor may accelerate deployment of West Coast early warning system

    Researchers and individuals working with California’s ShakeAlertsystem received a 10-second warning before last Sunday’s earthquake struck the San FranciscoBay Area at 3.20 a.m. “Earthquake! Earthquake!” the warning system cautioned, followed by “Light shaking expected in three seconds.” Mexico and Japan already have a public earthquake warning system, but a collaboration in California among several institutions to create a similar system is still in an experimental phase. The project needs about $80 million for equipment, software, and other seismic infrastructure upgrades to launch the warning system throughout the West Coast.

  • DisastersMore states experiment with microgrids to withstand powerful storms

    During Superstorm Sandy, communities throughout the Northeast experienced power outages which affected critical facilities including hospitals, gas stations, and water treatment plants. As severe weather becomes more common, authorities are acknowledging the shortcomings of a large electric grid system. Some utility providers have contemplated burying power lines to help prevent outages, but it can cost up to $4 million per mile to place electric lines underground. Several states are now experimenting with microgrids, self-contained systems for generating and distributing power.

  • Food securitySouthwest may face “megadrought” within century: Study

    Due to global warming, scientists say, the chances of the southwestern United States experiencing a decade-long drought is at least 50 percent, and the chances of a “megadrought” — one that lasts up to thirty-five years — ranges from 20 to 50 percent over the next century. While the 1930s Dust Bowl in the Midwest lasted four to eight years, depending upon location, a megadrought can last more than three decades, which could lead to mass population migration on a scale never before seen in this country.

  • Nuclear risksSeismic faults make Diablo Canyon a nuclear catastrophe in waiting: Experts

    Sunday’s magnitude-6 earthquake in Northern California has renewed focus on the dangers of Diablo Canyon, considered by many as a nuclear catastrophe in waiting. In 2008 authorities discovered the Shoreline fault, which lies about 650 yards from the plant’s reactors. Surveys have mapped a network of other faults around the reactors. Diablo Canyon’s owner released research in 2011 which determined that any of the three nearby faults — the Shoreline, Los Osos, and San Luis Bay — is capable of producing significantly more shaking during an earthquake than was accounted for in the design of the plant’s most vulnerable equipment.

  • PreparednessFlorida better prepared to deal with disasters than it was in 2004 -- the Year of Four Hurricanes

    Much has improved for residents and emergency managers in South Florida since the state’s 2004 Hurricane season, known as the Year of Four Hurricanes. That season, Hurricane Charley released 150-mph winds, followed by Frances, Ivan, and Jeanne. Officials in South Florida are implementing new technology and improved protocols to battle the next round of extreme weather events.

  • Infrastructure protectionRising sea levels force the Solomon Islands provincial capital to relocate

    Taro, the Solomon Islands provincial capital, will be relocated to the mainland due to coastal hazards and the risks of rising sea levels resulting from climate change. Taro is less than two meters above sea level, presenting a significant risk to the community, which will be compounded in the future with climate change and the resulting rise in sea levels. The relocation project is hailed by the Solomon Islands National Government as a best-practice model for natural hazard resilience planning for other provinces across the Solomon Islands and more broadly across the Pacific region.

  • ResilienceNew Jersey launches distributed energy initiative

    More than two million households lost power in New Jersey during Superstorm Sandy in 2012, and water and wastewater treatment plants lacked electricity, forcing millions of gallons of raw sewage to be released into the state’s waterways. State officials concluded that relying exclusively on centralized grids for electrical power distribution would continue to be a risk during disasters such as hurricanes. The state recently announced the launch of the nation’s first Energy Resilience Bank(ERB), which will support the development of distributed energy resources at critical facilities throughout New Jersey.

  • ResilienceCoast Guard, National Guard units in N.J. still dealing with Sandy’s damage

    The USCGC Sailfish, an 87-foot patrol boat, is temporarily based out of Bayonne, New York, unable to return to its berth at Sandy Hook, where the storm caused $50 million in damage to Coast Guard facilities. National Guard facilities around New Jersey sustained more than $35 million in storm damage, and further along the Jersey shore, the National Guard is dealing with over $40 million in damage to Army and Air Force facilities.

  • Planetary securityUkraine tensions hobble U.S.-Russia cooperation on planetary asteroid defense

    Last week the United States said it would freeze a U.S.-Russian nuclear agreement, an agreement which would, among other things, allow Russian scientists into the nuclear complex at Los Alamos National Laboratoryand, in return, grant American scientists access to Russian nuclear facilities. The decision to suspend the agreement was taken in response to Russia’s conduct toward Ukraine. Experts say the decision may damage efforts to defend Earth against a common enemy. The option of using a nuclear weapon to destroy an Erath-threatening asteroid has been gaining in popularity among scientists, but its implementation calls for cooperation with Russia’s space agency.

  • Chemical plant safetyTexas chemical plant disaster highlights dangers at similar sites

    Following a deadly 17 April 2013 fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas which took fifteen lives, officials from the managing company moved to shutter similar sites, including an urban one in Pennsylvania. Among the plants to be closed was an El Dorado Chemical Company plant in Pittsburgh, located right next to residential area and a school – on the site of which the company stored around thirty tons of ammonium nitrate. The city emergency management department was aware that the plant was to be closed, but they were not informed of the date – or the fact that the company chose to move the volatile and toxic material. City leaders say that using thirty-three trains to carry the toxic materials through the city was even more dangerous than leaving it in storage on site.

  • Cyberattack insuranceEnergy companies slow to buy cyberdamage insurance

    The U.S. oil industry will spend $1.87 billion on cybersecurity defense systems by 2018, but less than 20 percent of U.S. companies overall are covered for cyberdamages. “Imagine what could happen if a large refinery or petrochemical facility’s safety monitoring systems were hijacked near an urban area, or a subsea control module was no longer able to be controlled by the people who should be controlling it,” says one expert. “As we’ve all seen from Deepwater Horizon [the 2010 BP Gulf oil spill] those risks and damages can be astronomical. It requires an immediate response.”