Home Engineering The dark side of technology
More eruptions and earthquakes will follow in sites of high population densities such as Japan, Turkey, and California, as all of them are sitting on highly active tectonic plate boundaries. From their location there will inevitably continue to be serious consequences with each future earth movement. Prediction is difficult, but earthquakes cause stress relief in one region that moves the next likely site farther along the stress line. So, for example, there has been a steady and roughly predictable pattern of earthquakes moving westward along the top of Turkey. The sites have been estimated rather more reliably than the timescale. Unfortunately, it implies that cities such as Izmir and Istanbul (which was once the largest city in the Western world) will eventually be hit by major earthquakes at some point within very modest geological (and human) timescales.
With a global economy, the influence of these disasters can have surprising long-term, and long-distance, repercussions. I remember trying to buy parts for a laser printer, but these were only made in Kobe, Japan, and a major earthquake there caused a hiccup in the world supply. There are many other unique factories whose loss would have similar long-range effects. This type of problem is one of the consequences of technological progress. Rather than being dependent only on local food supplies and resources, we are now using distant suppliers and key minerals and ores that can be highly specialized in terms of origin. Loss of the resources—whether due to natural or human-induced disasters— will pose severe difficulties. We are equally vulnerable to political control of key items.
In general, earthquakes are locally devastating, but the rest of the world will survive. The only caveats are that the economic impacts caused by devastation of large industrial areas are felt for many years after the event. So, for example, a Californian quake could destroy Silicon Valley, which would be a major economic problem for the USA, but globally the skills would be retained.
Equally, China, an increasingly major industrial power, covers a very large land area, and has regularly had severe earthquakes. Inevitably these will sometimes destroy major cities and industrial complexes. A particularly bad scenario would be the loss the major hydroelectric power station on the Yangtze River, the Three Gorges Dam. This is the largest hydroelectric system ever built, with a power generating capacity of 22,500 megawatts. Damage or collapse would not merely result in a high death toll, but also inhibit industry and function of a large section of the country. Earthquakes and flooding in this case may not only be from natural events, as the change in water level involved from the construction has resulted in soil instability; nearly 100 landslides have been reported since completion in 2010. A major collapse is highly unlikely, but the sheer scale and novelty of the construction means the design is at the forefront of engineering technology. It has already reduced the incidence of natural floods (i.e. a positive feature), but unexpected and unfavourable long-term effects may appear for any engineering project on this scale.
Of the inevitable natural disasters, among the most serious and probable global events are likely to be caused by medium-size volcanic eruptions, not least as there are many of them and eruptions are happening every day somewhere in the world. The Icelandic examples earlier this century were not of a particularly large scale and continued only for a few weeks, but the corrosive dust particles were a serious hazard for planes. By contrast, when the next Yellowstone eruption occurs, North America, as we currently know it, will end. The long-term effects are very hard to predict, except that it is sure the entire world civilization will change and economic and military power structures will alter dramatically across the globe. The reasons for this include the circulating ash cloud that will cause crop failures and famine (particularly in the northern hemisphere), economic collapse of many countries, and loss of two or more major world powers.
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