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Hurricane Sandy Hints at the Perils of Global Catastrophe

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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It takes a lot to bump the United States election out of the national spotlight one week before election day. Hurricane Sandy was that big, a direct blow to the most heavily populated region of the country. But all the attention going to the northeastern U.S. has a sad consequence: we’re overlooking the devastation Sandy caused in Haiti. This situation offers an ominous warning of what could happen if catastrophe were to affect the entire planet.

Candlelit bar in Greenwich Village, Manhattan. Photo credit: Seth Baum

Candlelit bar in Greenwich Village, Manhattan. Photo credit: Seth Baum

This story is very personal for me. I live in New York City, and I do research on global catastrophes. While my neighborhood (Harlem) never lost electricity, this past Thursday and Friday I ventured to the area of Lower Manhattan that did. The area was much quieter than normal – clearly many people had left town. Of the remaining local residents, some reported enjoying the simpler life of “camping at home” and candlelit bars, while others were sick of it and wanted things back to normal. I even saw one woman frantically trying to care for an elderly neighbor who had run out of food and lacked the strength to go outside without her building’s elevator. This is a difficult situation, but as I know from my research, it could have been a lot worse.

Meanwhile in Haiti, things may be worse. It seems sadly inevitable that we have the worst storm to hit the northeastern U.S. in a very long time, and it is disaster-stricken Haiti that may have been hit the hardest. At least 60 Haitians have died from Sandy. The U.S. has more deaths, but these are spread across a much larger affected population. Meanwhile Haiti may now have 200,000 homeless from Sandy, many of whom were still living in makeshift homes built following the 2010 earthquake. Its cholera outbreak could be worsened by the floods. But most worrisome is the large loss of crops. Haiti has an agriculture-oriented economy. The crop damage is prompting concerns about food shortages. For all the destruction in the U.S., it’s not at risk of running out of food.

Flooding in Haiti caused by Hurricane Sandy. Photo credit: Chimen Lakay, IOM Haiti

Flooding in Haiti caused by Hurricane Sandy. Photo credit: Chimen Lakay, IOM Haiti

Despite the dire situation in Haiti, U.S. aid efforts are concentrated on the U.S. side of the storm. A giant benefit concert was held for the American Red Cross. Other domestic aid charities have also reported a spike in donations, whereas international charities report receiving much less. It is quite reasonable for the U.S. to focus on helping its own country, but it is nonetheless unfortunate that this focus could leave Haitians to suffer.

Haiti should get the aid it needs. The U.S. should even be able to help. Yes, we have our own recovery to attend to, but we are a large and wealthy country, most of which was not hit by the storm. Even if the U.S. does not contribute, the rest of the world could, just as it did following the 2010 Haiti earthquake and every other major disaster of recent years. The propensity for countries to help each other out in times of great need – even when those countries are otherwise at odds – is among the most uplifting features of the international system.

But a global catastrophe could thwart the international assistance paradigm. Just as the U.S. is now less able to aid Haiti, a global-scale event could leave each country devastated and with nowhere to turn for help. Each country would have to attempt recovery on its own. Each region within a country may be left to its own devices. Without external assistance, the challenge of recovery would be much more difficult.

No hurricane, however large, will ever cause so great of a global catastrophe. But other events could [1]. Some come from nature, including supervolcano eruptions and large asteroid impacts. But these events are relatively rare, happening no more often than once every 50,000 years. The most urgent come from human activity, including nuclear war and pandemics. Pandemics could come from nature or from bioengineering, but either type of pathogen would be spread by human trade and travel. The worst-case nuclear war and pandemic scenarios are plenty bad enough to prevent international and inter-regional aid. Other processes like climate change and biodiversity loss can cause global disruptions and help trigger global catastrophes.

In the event of a global catastrophe, each region could be left on its own. There would be no benefit concert, no international aid. If a region runs out of food supplies, its residents simply start dying. Rural Haiti may actually fare better than urban New York City, since Haitians are able to grow their own food. New York City without food supplies is a scary thought. A societal breakdown and collapse of law and order is possible, though also not inevitable. Research on the effects of resource scarcities on conflict and violence paints a mixed picture: sometimes scarcities bring more conflict, but not always [2]. Either way, this sort of global catastrophe poses challenges that go far beyond those of Hurricane Sandy.

Fortunately, we do have tools we can use to rise to the challenges of global catastrophe. Building local self-sufficiency can be crucial if external aid becomes unavailable. Preparations like stockpiling food and water help people endure catastrophes of all sizes. Research on specific threats and cross-cutting issues can clarify what we’re up against and point to smarter opportunities to both prevent global catastrophes and recover from them if they occur. And experience with local catastrophes can often be extrapolated to the global scale, as is the case with Hurricane Sandy. As the recovery from Sandy proceeds, we should work towards building society’s resilience to both local and global catastrophes.


[1] Bostrom, Nick and Milan Ćirković, 2008. Global Catastrophic Risks. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[2] Nordås, Ragnhild and Nils Petter Gleditsch, 2007. Climate change and conflict. Political Geography, vol. 26, pages 627-638.

Photos: Seth Baum, and Chimen Lakay.

Seth Baum About the Author: Seth Baum is the Executive Director of the Global Catastrophic Risk Institute, a think tank studying the breadth of major catastrophes. Baum has a Ph.D. in Geography from Pennsylvania State University. All views expressed here are entirely his own. Follow on Twitter @SethBaum.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Comments 7 Comments

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  1. 1. geojellyroll 4:24 pm 11/6/2012

    Hmmmm…worse sdtorm to hit the US Atlantic in a decade…has almost zero effect on the US economy…less deaths than died in the US in traffic fatalities in a couple of hours.

    Gee whiz…should they cancel the Marathon? Never mind, the Giants and Jets were still playing.

    This is catastrophe? Methinks the global warming groupies are a bit disappointed.

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  2. 2. jonjermey 12:50 am 11/7/2012

    “Other processes like climate change… can cause global disruptions…”

    Well, it could if it was actually happening, but since it’s not, we would be better off worrying about more plausible things. And there are plenty of those.

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  3. 3. way2ec 3:00 am 11/7/2012

    @geojellyroll, seems the gloating is coming from you. The article is about the suffering of millions of people from one superstorm. It is also about the implications to millions upon millions more if and when a catastrophe or series of catastrophes were global in scale. That you and Jonjermey are “deniers” is no big deal, SciAm attracts even creationists who have dinosaurs in the Garden of Eden that became fossilized in Noah’s flood. That you would imply that global warming groupies are “disappointed” that the death tolls aren’t higher is a sad and pathetic reflection on you.

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  4. 4. Sisko 10:13 am 11/7/2012

    One of the interesting questions in a discussion/debate of the climate is when the discussion gets down to the specific actions being recommended for implementation and what those ideas will accomplish. Many of those uneducated with the science like to call people deniers when their suggested approaches are not fully agreed with, but how about a realistic assessment of the merits of alternative government policies for the US for the future.

    One of the most critical issues is to answer what will or would be the result of taking what is described as climate mitigation actions? Will the future weather be impacted in what is deemed a positive manner and positive for whom? When would this happen?

    Imo, it is inevitable that worldwide CO2 levels will continue to rise for at least the next several decades regardless of US actions. The growth in worldwide emissions will happen regardless of US or EU actions. Will it matter if CO2 is at 460 ppm or 470 ppm by 2060? Will there be a difference in the weather as a result? Isn’t it smarter to use our limited resources to invest in better infrastructure to minimize the damage from future bad weather? Aren’t countries that invest in building robust infrastructure going to be the best prepared to thrive regardless of the weather?

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  5. 5. Sisko 11:13 am 11/7/2012

    The position of Seth Baum and the unscientific editors at SA seems based upon the concept that every person in the world, and especially US citizens; are duty bound to provide support for all people around the world who are less fortunate. Seth believes that is their duty. Imo, Seth is an unrealistic and fails to acknowledge that the planet is not governed by a one world government, but roughly 200 independent nations with very different priorities.

    Imo, there is absolutely no duty for US citizens to pay higher taxes to support Haiti or any other county. If individuals wish to provide support that is their right and it may well be worthwhile, but the policy of a nation should be to 1st provide for the welfare of its citizens first and foremost.

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  6. 6. Bird/tree/dinosaur/etc. geek 7:57 am 11/9/2012

    Sisko/pokerplayer, please stop being a pompous and ignorant buffoon.

    “”"Will it matter if CO2 is at 460 ppm or 470 ppm by 2060? “”"

    Yes. That’s actually a highly significant difference, as we are just starting to find out.

    “”"Will there be a difference in the weather as a result? “”"

    Yes. That’s the point.

    “”"Isn’t it smarter to use our limited resources to invest in better infrastructure to minimize the damage from future bad weather? “”"

    Maybe short-term. Longer-term, reducing the population and going all-green is the only way to go. On the geological scale, we’re going to go extinct at some point, and it’ll probably be sooner rather than later, at the rate we’re going.

    “”"Aren’t countries that invest in building robust infrastructure going to be the best prepared to thrive regardless of the weather?”"”

    Again, short-term, not long-term.

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  7. 7. way2ec 3:34 am 11/11/2012

    Bird/tree/etc. you have “inspired” me to also respond to Sisko. Sisko, can you name any country at any time in history that DIDN’T first and foremost provide for its own citizens? Plenty of examples of exploitation of their own citizenry but they weren’t sharing it with their neighbors who were suffering. Yes, here in America, we have many who are suffering while at the same time we attempt to help those in other countries but it isn’t from a lack of wealth or resources, we have more than enough, and I’d love to see how much of your taxes goes to help others (as in Haiti) vs. how much went and continues to go to the unjustified wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. (Weren’t we after the Taliban? Got bin Laden in Pakistan. What weapons of mass destruction?) And weren’t the relief efforts in Haiti supported by countries from around the world? And how many billions of dollars were just spent in the election campaign? Given our percentile of the world’s population vs. our consumption of global resources, I’d say we’ve been doing more than our fair share of “taking care of our own”.

    Link to this

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