- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 25, 2004

Fortunately, the nearest coast to the Canary Islands, where the waves will be around 300 feet high when they hit, is that of the lightly populated Western Sahara.

Few living in the coastal plains of Morocco, southwestern Spain and Portugal will survive either, but the waves will drop in height as they travel. The coasts of south Ireland and southwest England also will take a beating. But, by then, the wave only be about 30 feet high.

The real carnage will be on the western Atlantic, from Newfoundland down the Canadian and U.S. East Coast to Cuba, Hispaniola, the Lesser Antilles and northeast Brazil.

With a clear run across the Atlantic, the water will still be 60 to 150 feet high when it hits the North American eastern seaboard, and it will keep coming for 10 to 15 minutes.

Worst hit will be harbors and estuaries that funnel the waves inland: goodbye Halifax, Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, D.C. Miami and Havana go under almost entirely, as do low-lying islands like the Bahamas and Barbados. Likely death toll, with no mass evacuation beforehand? About 100 million people, give or take 50 million.

The western flank of Cumbre Vieja volcano on the island of La Palma in the Canaries will slide into the Atlantic one of these days: A diagonal fracture has already separated it from the main body of the volcano, and only friction keeps it attached. “When it goes, it will likely collapse in about 90 seconds,” said Professor Bill McGuire, director of the Benfield Grieg Hazard Research Center at University College London.

And when it goes, probably during an eruption, the splash will create a mega-tsunami that races across the Atlantic and drowns the facing coastlines.

The last time the volcano erupted, in 1949, its whole western side slid 13 feet down toward the sea, and even now keeps slipping very slowly downward. Given the scale of the catastrophe if the next eruption sends this mountain crashing into the water, Mr. McGuire is angry there is so little monitoring equipment on La Palma to provide an advance warning: “The U.S. government must be aware of the La Palma threat. They should certainly be worried, and so should the island states in the Caribbean that will really bear the brunt of a collapse.”

“They’re not taking it seriously,” Mr. McGuire concluded. “Governments change every four or five years and generally they’re not interested in these things.” It was a classic scene, revisited in every natural disaster movie: crusading scientist calls feckless governments to account and is ignored by squalid politicos. The science journalists couldn’t wait to get their pieces into print.

But wait a minute. Haven’t we heard about this threat before? What’s new this time? Nothing, except there hasn’t been a stampede to cover La Palma with seismometers. Now, why do you think that is?

Suppose the governments whose coastlines are at risk, from Morocco to the United States, were warned Cumbre Vieja was reawaking. What would they do? Evacuate 100 million or 200 million people from the low-lying lands indefinitely?

They don’t know if there really will be an eruption (seismology is not that precise), how big it will be, or if this one finally will shake the mountainside loose. It could happen in the next eruption, but it might not happen for 1,000 years.

No national leader wants to evacuate the entire coast for an indefinite time, causing an economic and refugee crisis on the scale of a world war, for what might be a false alarm. But nobody wants to ignore a warning, and perhaps be responsible for tens of millions of deaths. From a political standpoint, it’s better to have no warning at all.

Natural disasters that can affect the whole planet are known to scientists as “global geophysical events” — gee-gees, for short. There are two kinds: those you might be able to do something about, and those you can’t. When governments face the first kind, they can respond quite sensibly.

Since we first realized two decades ago that asteroids and comets smashing into Earth have caused a number of mass extinctions, a U.S. government project has identified and begun tracking 3,000 “near-Earth objects” whose orbits make them potentially dangerous. In another generation, we may even be able to divert those on a collision course. And if there’s one gee-gee you would want to prevent above all, that’s the one.

But there’s no similar remedy in sight for volcanos or earthquakes, or the tsunamis they might cause. Here, we must just keep our fingers crossed.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist.

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