- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Specialists in weather and geophysics say too many people are moving to locations worldwide that put them at increased risk for disasters such as hurricanes, earthquakes, volcanoes, and landslides.

“One of the main reasons” so many people are being hurt and killed by natural disasters today is that the “population is rapidly growing” and “more people are moving into harm’s way,” says Tim Kusky, a professor of natural sciences at Saint Louis University in Missouri.

“In other words, more of them are moving along the coastlines, onto the slopes, and into river valleys and flood plains,” said Mr. Kusky.

More than 2.5 billion people worldwide were affected by floods, earthquakes, hurricanes and other natural disasters between 1994 and 2003, a 60 percent increase over the previous two decades, according to United Nations data.

In the past 11 months, the Indian Ocean tsunami killed close to 300,000 people in southern Asia and two weeks ago a 7.6 magnitude earthquake in Pakistan killed 53,000 people, leaving 3 million homeless.

This year’s hurricane season has been particularly harsh in the U.S., where four major Category 3 or stronger hurricanes have struck the mainland, surpassing the total for the three previous years combined, killing more than 1,000 people and flooding New Orleans.

“Hurricanes aren’t the problem. People are the problem,” said Frank Lepore, a spokesman for the National Hurricane Center in Miami.

“The issue here is that man is taking his wealth with him to the coastlines. He’s building in areas prone to hurricanes. There is an inevitable correlation between population growth [in risky areas] and stronger hurricane activity.”

Since 1995, hurricanes have become more frequent and more intense. Scientists say hurricane activity in the United States was weak in the 1970s, 1980s, and early 1990s.

But now, several specialists say, the country is in the first decade of a natural storm cycle of heavy hurricane activity that could last another 15 or 20 years. They say the current cycle’s strength is related to the warmth of ocean temperatures and the lack of wind shear.

“Ocean temperatures are also cyclical. But global warming does seem to have slightly elevated temperatures. This would mean we’re entering a period of more and stronger hurricanes,” said Mr. Kusky.

Mike Blanpied, associate coordinator for the U.S. Geological Survey’s earthquake program, says it’s “fairly clear” earthquakes are not on the rise. He said it might surprise people to learn that, on average, there are 17 earthquakes with a magnitude of 7 or greater in the world each year.

“But many of them occur in the ocean or in areas of low population,” so they receive little or no publicity.

Mr. Blanpied said the earthquake that caused the Indian Ocean tsunami on Dec. 26 was a magnitude 9, only the fourth of its kind.

The risk from earthquakes is growing “since we’re building more housing and placing more people in earthquake-prone areas,” Mr. Blanpied said.

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