Two recent news stories have highlighted the same, unhappy facet of human nature.
On Saturday, March 22, without warning, a mountainous, muddy landslide wiped out an entire community, houses and all, in Oso, Wash. As of Thursday, 30 people were confirmed dead and at least 15 were still missing.
Did I say without warning? Not quite. For at least 60 years, geologists had been warning that the hillside was unstable and should not be built upon. As recently as 1999, a report stated that “the potential for a large catastrophic failure” existed at that very location .
Meanwhile, in Southern California, seismologists have been tracking an average of several hundred earthquakes per year of magnitude greater than 3.0, and they have been warning about the imminent, catastrophic “big one” for decades. Their warnings have typically been greeted with variations of “Ho, hum.”
But then on March 21, a 4.4-magnitude quake shook the San Fernando Valley, to be followed a week later by a 5.1-magnitude quake centered about 20 miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles. Suddenly, Southern Californian authorities have been shocked — literally — into developing serious, stepped-up efforts to minimize damage and loss of life when “the big one” hits. They have become true believers.
Today, the world faces a threat much more pervasive than earthquakes and landslides: the warming of Earth’s atmosphere and the rising of its oceans. Might we expect that when New York City is under water, some of the global-warming deniers will have become believers?
Nah. Facts are not within their ken.
ROBERT L. WOLKE
The writer is professor emeritus of chemistry, University of Pittsburgh.