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Red Cross Warns of "Super Disasters"

Increasingly natural disasters are raising concerns of man's impact upon the ecological balance. Is there cause for concern? What lies ahead in the next century?

by Mario Seiglie

In a dramatic message, the International Red Cross recently admitted their alarming statistics showed a notable rise of unusually large natural catastrophes they call "super-disasters." They consider mankind is partly to blame for the increase of these mega-cataclysms.

"Everyone is aware of the environmental problems of global warming and deforestation on the one hand," said Dr. Astrid Heiberg, president of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, "and the social problems of increasing poverty and growing shanty towns on the other. But when these two factors collide, you have a new scale of catastrophe. At the Red Cross and Crescent alone, we have a huge increase in the number of people needing our assistance due to floods and earthquakes. In the last six years, it has risen from less than half a million to more than five and a half million" (International Red Cross and Red Crescent Society press release, The World Disasters Report for 1999, emphasis added throughout).

Summary of 1999 Red Cross World Disasters Report

The first chapter in The World Disasters Report for 1999 ominously stated, "Compared to the 1960s, the past decade has seen the number of great natural catastrophes triple, costing the world's economies nine times as much-the bill for 1998 alone was over US$90 billion… From tsunamis and earthquakes to floods and famines, humankind is increasingly threatened by the forces of nature. With almost a billion people living in unplanned urban shanty towns, deforestation wrecking ecological defenses against catastrophic natural events, and global warming making the forces of wind, rain and sun even harder to predict and counter, the world is at risk as never before."

With more information available, a large number of scientists are becoming convinced mankind is influencing the weather patterns around the world. "By analyzing the consequences of Hurricane Mitch and the deadly twins, El Niño and La Niña," the Red Cross press release adds, "the report shows compelling evidence of a trend towards weather triggered super-disasters… The developing world will continue to be hardest hit by the cascading effects of human-driven climate change, environmental degradation and population pressures… Already 96 percent of all deaths from natural disasters occur in developing countries."

Cynthia Long, of the U.S. based Disaster Relief Organization, commented on the Red Cross report: "The report found that human-driven climate change and rapidly changing socio-economic conditions have and will continue to set off chain reactions of devastation leading to more behemoth catastrophes… By analyzing the massive hurricanes, droughts, floods and epidemics that plagued the planet last year, the organization discovered a dangerous trend toward 'super-disasters'… Declining soil fertility, drought, flooding and deforestation drove 25 million 'environmental refugees' from their land and into vulnerable squatter communities of crowded cities. Fleeing from weather-devastated homes, the group represented 58 percent of the total refugee population worldwide" ("International Red Cross Predicts More Global 'Super Disasters,'" Disaster Relief Organization, June 25, 1999).

Doug Rekenthaler, managing editor of the U.S. Disaster Relief Organization, stated, "Indeed, the clear-cut lands of the developing world and the negligent environmental policies that make them that way increasingly are being implicated in natural disasters around the globe… These barren hillsides send rainwater, rocks, and mud racing into lowland areas where unsuspecting villages often are entombed in their homes. Thousands of people have died this summer as the result of such flash floods and mudslides unleashed by monsoon rains" ("Loss of Trees Leads to Worsening Disasters in Developing World," Disaster Relief Organization, September 22, 1998).

1998 the Worst Year for Natural Disasters on Record

This past year, 1998, according to the Red Cross report, was the worst year for natural disasters since they began keeping records. "More major natural disasters occurred in 1998 than in any other year on record," the agency stated.

Is this just bad luck? Not according to the Worldwatch Institute, based in Washington, D.C., which concluded most of 1998's disasters were actually "unnatural" since they consider mankind has played a prominent role in worsening these effects.

"From deforestation of mountain slopes to development in flood plains and watersheds," noted Rekenthaler, "from poor topsoil management to excessive burning of fossil fuels, mankind increasingly is becoming an enemy to his own state. Complicating the picture are data trends indicating the planet is rapidly warming. Last week, the World Meteorological Organization announced that 1998 was the warmest year since records began being kept in 1860. Moreover, 1998 marked the 20th consecutive year in which global surface temperatures were above normal. Seven of the hottest years on record have occurred in the past decade… As a result, the majority of scientists today are convinced Earth is warming."

Even scientists who are skeptical of a man-made global warming trend have admitted the recent evidence is compelling. "It is very important that we not jump to conclusions about weather extremes because, in a sense, every year has its extremes," explains Rob Quayle of Global Climate Lab. "But some events in 1998 just were so striking that it is obvious something is going on. This definitely was a year characterized by weather extremes."

More Frequent Killer Hurricanes and Tornadoes

For the first time in this century, in September of 1998, four hurricanes simultaneously plowed through the Atlantic Basin. Since 1995, this area has been victim to 48 hurricanes, 15 of major proportions, of which the monstrous Mitch reached the maximum Category 5 with 180 mph winds. It killed at least 11,000 people, caused $5 billion in damages, left millions homeless and much more poverty in the area. In 1992, Hurricane Andrew caused $30 billion in damages.

The reason for this increase in hurricanes and their intensity is also being blamed partly on global warming. "Earth's warming also is affecting the oceans," comments Rekenthaler, "where sea surface temperatures in some areas are the warmest ever recorded. And those heated waters are being blamed—at least in part—for this year's [1998] bumper crop of tropical storms, hurricanes, and ultra-heavy rainfalls in some areas of the world. The warmer waters also are being blamed for a massive die-off of coral reefs around the world, which not only serve as hearth and home to marine life, but also as natural barriers to tsunamis and other damaging coastal waves. The result of all this warming is that the storms that roar in from the oceans are larger, are laden with unusually large amounts of moisture, and are powered by strong winds, all of which serve to make life miserable for those living in their paths."

Also, the number of twister-related deaths in the United States reached its highest level in 24 years. In the first half of 1998, three F5 tornadoes, the rarest and most powerful of the twisters, wrought havoc in their paths.

Kevin Trenberth, director of the Climate Analysis Section of the National Center for Atmospheric Research recently completed a study that backs the idea that regions of the earth are experiencing wetter or drier than normal conditions.

"As the earth warms," explains Trenberth, "more and more moisture is sucked into the atmosphere. There is 10 percent more moisture in the air today due to increased evaporation. When a storm system picks it up, it delivers that to the earth much harder than if it wasn't there. At the same time, dry regions are experiencing longer droughts. That's what you get with global warming. The warmer temperatures pull tremendous amounts of moisture into the atmosphere, leaving some areas dry while delivering a lot of rain to other regions. These droughts, in turn, lead to massive crop failures and famine. As one example, Texas and Oklahoma suffered through the second worst drought of their history last summer, resulting in billions in aid to farmers and ranchers."

This unstable weather pattern can explain the common phenomenon nowadays of having massive rains in some places and drought in others. In a recent report, climatologist Jonathan Overpeck suggested that the mega-droughts that periodically occur across the planet could be increased by global warming and lead "to a natural disaster of a dimension unprecedented in the 20th century."

Not all the news is negative. Global warming has increased the growing seasons. A 35-year study of plant life shows spring is arriving six days earlier and fall is being delayed by five days. Plant life does respond favorably to increases in average temperatures. Yet the toll is great if the price is the instability of weather patterns which churns killer hurricanes and tornadoes, creates devastating floods in one area while it slowly broils other territories into parched lands.

As noted above, there is some controversy over what actually is causing the weather-related disasters we have witnessed recently. It may or may not be attributable to "global warming." But it is indisputable that revolutionary upheavals have been occurring-and indications are that they will continue. "Super-disasters" and "mega-droughts" are not the normal terms used by sober scientists and agencies such as the Red Cross, which usually resist sensationalizing the news.

Perhaps the best summary of this worldwide trend toward global warming, and man's part in it was given by Worldwatch Senior Researcher Janet Abramovits in December 1998. "I don't think it's an exaggeration to say I can set my watch by next year's disasters. We'll have landslides in the Pacific Northwest this winter when heavy rains hit the deforested hillsides [it happened]. We'll have heavy springtime flooding in Europe [also has occurred]. We'll have tropical fires [also has happened]. It's becoming so easy to predict" (Doug Rekenthaler, "The Year in Review: Are Weather Extremes Now the Norm?", Disaster Relief Organization, December 11, 1998).

Centuries ago God promised His specially loved people that they would experience a perfectly balanced symbiosis of sunshine and rain-neither too much, nor too little. He declared these ideal conditions for food production and for safe living conditions to be "blessings"—and indeed they are (Deuteronomy 28:12).

He linked those blessings to the behavior of the people, warning them that weather would spin out of balance when the populace abandoned His revealed spiritual values. "I will make your heavens like iron and your earth like bronze. And your strength shall be spent in vain; for your land shall not yield its produce, nor shall the trees of the land yield their fruit" (Leviticus 26:19-20).

How much of what is happening in the world's weather is merely "natural cycling" and how much is directly related to the ungodly conduct of its citizens? It seems clear that the world is not being blessed with good weather.

Mankind would do well to look to its conduct and to humbly seek the One who can provide what we lack. WNP

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