How Big is Too Big? Practical Disaster Planning

How Big is Too Big? Practical Disaster Planning

November 30

As we’ll see, it’s not exactly practical to plan for every single possibility. It’s no big secret that you need to prepare for the worst, but how bad is too bad, and how do you know if a disaster threat is even real to begin with? Let’s take a look at some doomsday scenarios the media has popularized and determine which threats are real, and which might not matter.

Io9 recently published an article about fear-mongering at its finest, citing a press release for a new book that claims that a combination of miniature black holes,  a giant tsunami, and a massive volcanic eruption are all tied to the prophesies of the Mayan Calendar, and will soon destroy the planet.

Keep in mind, this book is fictional, but everything from the press release to the somewhat hilarious trailer for the book are constructed to make it appear as a fully researched and legitimate scientific look at these disasters.

According to the press release, author Steve Alten’s book, PHOBOS: Mayan Fear, connects miniature black holes produced by the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) with two of Mother Nature’s ticking time bombs: a 3,000 foot mega-tsunami originating from La Palma island off the coast of Africa, and the eruption of the Yellowstone Caldera, a super-volcano expected to explode with the power of ten thousand Mt. Saint Helens and that would destroy tens of thousands of lives while also blanketing the Earth’s atmosphere in gas and ash, cutting off the sun’s rays and leading to a 100,000 year Ice Age. “Guys, this is super cereal!”

While I did mention Alten’s book is a work of fiction, it has supposedly been rigorously researched and is based on some (misleading) scientific evidence and is meant to invoke fear by presenting genuine possibilities. While threats do exist (albeit on a less sensational level) there’s a whole lot of hot air to sift through, so let’s start with the miniature black holes and see if we can’t get some of this ash to settle.

Walter Wagner is one person responsible for spreading panic surrounding the safety of the LHC, even bringing a case to Hawaii’s district court in September 2006. His claim is that the Large Hadron Collider could theoretically produce miniature black holes capable of swallowing the entire earth and should be more rigorously tested.

Pop science author Jennifer Ouellette has a great article debunking the theory of mini black holes destroying the world, explaining that Hawking radiation causes black holes to gradually evaporate over time, proportional to their size. Bigger black holes take longer to evaporate, while smaller ones take less time. If the collider could create miniature black holes (which is the cause of a debate in itself), they would be roughly the size of a subatomic particle which would evaporate in seconds—well before it could destroy the entire earth. Plus, as Brookhaven Lab physicist Dmitri Kharzeev points out in a Popular Mechanics article, “if high-energy particle collision could produce black holes, one would have swallowed us a long time ago.” Since no black holes have been created by particle colliders to date, it’s highly unlikely they’ll start now.

Next is the giant tsunami wave. The La Palma tsunami threat was originally researched by geologists Simon Day and David Mcguire and presented in a 2000 BBC Horizon broadcast. The research suggests that during a large volcanic event, half of the Cumbre Vieja (the active volcanic ridge on La Palma), could slip into the Atlantic Ocean, causing a mega-tsunami that could decimate the Eastern United States as well as other coastal cities with a 3,000 foot tsunami wave. The research is very controversial, and is partially based on rapidly occurring landslides that may point to a potential Cumbre Vieje failure.  Current research indicates that the landslides could have occurred gradually and therefore may not generate tsunamis unless the magnitude greatly increased.

A Dutch website dedicated to exposing the flaws in the research claims that the threat is simply not real and that the research conducted by Day and Mcguire is not based on scientific fact, claiming instead that the story exists to create fear and amplify hazard-industry profits. According to the site, if proper calculations had been made with the research, this large-scale disaster scenario would never have been considered much of a threat at all, let alone a city destroying mega-tsunami.

With regard to the potential Yellowstone eruptions, the threat of eruption is real, but not at an earth shattering magnitude (well, not exactly). There are a couple of reasons why scientists expect volcanic eruptions in Yellowstone, one of which is the rising caldera (a cauldron-like volcanic feature formed by the collapse of land following a volcanic eruption) which suggests volcanic activity is more likely since subterranean volcanic substances are nearer to the surface. The main reason people expect such a cataclysmic event to occur in Yellowstone is that it has happened before, at least three times within the last 2.2 million years. Throughout those millions of years, however, more small volcanic events have occurred and are therefore more likely to occur than one large eruption that blocks out the sun for the entire planet.

The real threats include rhyolite and basaltic (magma with varying compositions) eruptions and water-driven eruptions that could present danger to the general public in the form of significant ash fall and liquid magma flows capable of reaching neighboring areas. Smaller scale volcanic events like these are common in volcanically active areas and there is no need to panic or exaggerate the threat, but it is a good idea to plan for volcanic threats if you live in or near volcanically active areas. There is a small potential for an extremely large eruption to occur, but most scientists agree that it’s extremely unlikely.

There are some threats you needn’t plan for—or that you can’t. A volcanic eruption of planet-threatening magnitude would place you in a situation where humanity would be attending to basic survival needs, and businesses would likely not exist in the same form as today.

On a different level, it’s important to consider large threats for your disaster recovery plan, but in instances like those above it’s likely that your data will be the least of your concerns.