Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

August 3, 2010

Lee Clarke’s 9 Future Catastrophes

Filed under: Futures — by Christopher Bellavita on August 3, 2010

I learned about Lee Clarke’s 2005 book, “Worst Cases: Terror and Catastrophe in the Popular Imagination,” through a post on the Emergency Management Strategic Foresight Initiative website [registration required].

There is an engaging interview with Dr. Clarke on the University of Chicago Press website.  That site includes links to Clarke’s list of the top 11 worst case disasters that have already happened, and (reprinted below) his list of 9 worst case future disasters:

Worst Case Disasters of the Future

Everything in these scenarios is possible. Many have been discussed in esoteric, scientific literatures. These are certainly scenarios, but they are not fanciful.

Chicago Catastrophe
A train carrying four ninety-ton carloads of chlorine careens toward Chicago. It’s out of control because a fire on the train has disabled the speed controls and incapacitated the conductor. No one ever thought that was possible. It slams into another train at the Chicago Clearing Yard, catches fire, and three of the four chlorine cars burst open. The resulting death cloud kills 2 million people. Luckily, it’s the middle of a snowstorm on Sunday, so a lot of people are home. Otherwise the carnage would have been worse.

Miami Destroyed
A category 5 hurricane slides up the Florida Keys, wreaking havoc and destruction along the way. Just north of the Keys it stalls over the Turkey Point nuclear power station. The cooling pools that hold its waste are destroyed, releasing a lot of dangerous radiation. Worse, the hurricane reveals that there has been a hitherto unnoticed weakness in the reactors’ containment shells. Workers try valiantly to shut down the reactors in the middle of the hurricane but fail, as do both shells. The hurricane moves into the Atlantic Ocean, regains strength, and loops back onto the city of Miami, creating a storm surge that destroys Miami Beach. Emergency planners say, “Who would have thought that a natural disaster and a technological disaster could happen at the same time?”

Northeastern Seaboard Inundation
Scientists have been warning for years that a piece of the outer continental shelf could break off, triggering a tsunami on America’s East Coast. “Stop being so pessimistic,” said the academics, “the chance of that happening is vanishingly small.” But one worst-case day it happens, just as the scientists said, and as a seventy-five-foot wall of water moving at five hundred miles an hour kills millions of people up and down the northeastern seaboard.

Avian Flu Decimation
Flu kills a lot of people on a regular basis. The Z+ strain of H5N1 (a kind of bird flu) is a monster. The question is not if, but when. When it finally happens, 1 billion people fall ill, vastly eclipsing previous predictions. Poor countries are written off. The American public health service, operating on wrong assumptions, vaccinates the very young and the very old. But the Sickness, as it is called, slams young adults and the middle aged, as happened with the 1918 pandemic. Governments shut their borders, because decision makers often panic, which is catastrophic for the United States because very little flu vaccine is actually produced there. With travel shut down, airlines throughout the world go bankrupt, in the early steps of a string of events that bring the world’s economy to a standstill. In the United States, the rich, and high-level government officials, hoard what vaccine they can get, while military officials–understanding that the 1918 flu shaped military operations–consider overthrowing the government so they can secure the vaccine for their soldiers.

Power Grid Goes Down for Three Months
The U.S. power grid suffers a series of breakdowns and terror attacks. There is no electricity anywhere in the country for three months, starting at the end of November. People flee the cities, because there is no food or water there. They leave the sick and old behind. Government decision makers move to Europe, and the country devolves to the early 1800s. Small farms survive, but large ones struggle mightily. People also flee the north, trying to find warm weather. After the country finally recovers, two-thirds of its population has died and the world is locked in economic depression. The United States becomes yet another a third world country with nuclear weapons.

Manhattan Not Worth $24
In Manhattan most of the buildings are unreinforced masonry, exactly the kind of buildings that fall down when earthquakes happen. New York City didn’t require builders to use earthquake codes until 1996. Geologists have no idea why earthquakes happen in places that don’t have big faults. Imagine that a magnitude 7 earthquake shakes Manhattan to pieces in 2050. Five million people are living on the island, and 2 million are killed as buildings collapse. Among the buildings are the city’s old firehouses, although there is so much debris in the roads that fire trucks can’t get to the raging fires anyway. During the week following the New Great Earthquake, the fires consume most of the city and render it uninhabitable for the foreseeable future. The tunnels are flooded and structurally unsound. Engineers don’t trust the footings of the bridges. Although a lot of buildings on Wall Street are still standing, bankers are talking about moving all operations out of New York.

Yellowstone Eruption Kills the Northern Hemisphere
Yellowstone National Park sits on one of the largest volcanoes in the world. A supervolcano. The last time it blew in a big way it spewed eight thousand times more ash into the air than Mt. Saint Helens did in 1980. The probability that it will erupt is low, as it is with most worst cases. In 2200 the unlikely happens, and Yellowstone erupts and throws so much magma into the atmosphere that it obliterates sunlight over the Northern Hemisphere. Cities depopulate. Agriculture collapses. South American countries become the new superpowers.

The New Jersey Graveyard
For years the chemical industry has claimed it can safely self-regulate. This, notwithstanding numerous security breeches over the years. There are a handful of facilities in New Jersey that store some of the most dangerous chemicals you could imagine. Terrorists can imagine them just fine, of course, because they think in terms of worst cases. One day they mount multiple attacks on major facilities in the state. Only one succeeds, however, because a furniture-truck driver notices something suspicious on the turnpike and interferes with the plot. Still, the one place where they do succeed puts 12 million people at risk of death or injury. What is the worst that can happen? Only the imagination can limit that.

Asteroid Explosion over Pakistan
Astronomers tracked the killer asteroid for a long time, but then lost sight of it because Congress cut funding for the Program to Avoid Near-earth object Impactor Collisions—PANIC, as politicians derisively referred to it. Few people, other than worst-case thinkers, worried about the object, however, because even if it struck the earth it would most likely fall into an ocean. But it explodes over Karachi, with the force of a five-megaton nuclear weapon. Five million people disappear in the blink of an eye. Since they were in the middle of yet another dispute with India over Kashmir, Pakistani military officers think that India has launched nuclear weapons against them. Millions of people are incinerated in the ensuing five-minute war.

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Comment by William R. Cumming

August 3, 2010 @ 1:41 am

What’s to worry! Seems plausible to me but of course not we can study the probability of high consequence low probability events.
Where exactly does probablistic analysis fit in risk analysis?

What is risk of Chinese dropping their dollar hoard in next 3 decades?

Comment by Philip J. Palin

August 3, 2010 @ 1:55 pm

Several weeks ago here at HLSWatch, Art Bottrell recommended an earlier text by Dr. Clarke.

Mission Improbable:Using Fantasy Documents to Tame Disaster is a very helpful historical examination of how we mis-conceive and mis-use the planning process when it comes to catastrophe. I purchase a copy, read it, and have since purchased fifty more to distribute to various colleagues. (Helps to share common conceptual frameworks.)

More information is available from the University of Chicago Press at http://www.press.uchicago.edu/presssite/metadata.epl?mode=synopsis&bookkey=41349

Comment by dan oconnor

August 3, 2010 @ 5:08 pm

Both are excellent books. I aggreee with Phil on Mission Improbable; Any one charged with planning should read this book. His POV on oil spills was quite prescient.

Comment by Jason

August 3, 2010 @ 8:23 pm

“These are certainly scenarios, but they are not fanciful.”

But of course they are. They’re beyond fanciful, they’re ridiculous. It reminds me of Mel Brook’s “Spaceballs,” when the Darth Vader character called out for “ludicrous speed.”

Black Swan scenarios are good for “what if” games but can’t be the source for resource decisions or risk management. That’s why I’ll stick with probabilistic assessments. They’re just the sane approach to use in a resource-constrained world.

Comment by William R. Cumming

August 4, 2010 @ 3:45 am

Hey since I define “Catastrophe” as unplanned for incidents/events, perhaps the more you plan the fewer “catastrophes”!

And Phil you mean I did not make your top 50 for distribution?

Comment by Christopher Tingus

August 4, 2010 @ 6:08 pm

“What is risk of Chinese dropping their dollar hoard in next three decades?” The probability for such decision, far sooner, indeed far sooner!

So much disharmony among the populace here on Main Street USA and Washington and the central bankers could give a damn….however with elections upcoming, more attempted band-aids while both sides of the aisle ramp up the deficit numbers to assure we are enslaved to more government and forcing people to rely on it despite the rhetoric – no jobs, no demand, no money and unfortunately, armies will move, ships will sail and weapons launched and all will lose! A history lesson we prefer turning out cheek to onec again and once again inspired by the bankers – Goldman Sachs et al…. Just look at Obama’s team, all one way or another including Kagan, GS pawns!

Pingback by Homeland Security Watch » Food security: Do economies of scale suppress risk resilience?

August 5, 2010 @ 12:56 am

[…] right after providing potable water is the problem of food distribution.  In some of Lee Clarke’s worst case scenarios there is a more basic problem of maintaining food […]

Comment by Philip J. Palin

August 5, 2010 @ 5:33 am

Just stumbled across this assertion by Peter Drucker, seems relevant:

Uncertainty — in the economy, society, politics — has become so great as to render futile, if not counterproductive, the kind of planning most companies still practice: forecasting based on probabilities. Unique events… have no probability… Traditional planning asks, “What is most likely to happen?” Planning for uncertainty asks, instead, “What has already happened that will create the future?”

Managing in a Time of Great Change, pages 39-40

Comment by William R. Cumming

August 5, 2010 @ 9:56 am

Perhaps the somewhat garbled history of the HUMAN RACE in last 10,000 years is still not an adequate period of record for proper risk analysis. Or probabilities. Still we seem to need to do our best.

Comment by DCGomez

August 27, 2010 @ 10:12 am

I’d like to shout out my appreciation to Dr. Clarke for quick-starting my post retirement Hollywood screenwriting career. I now have 9 script treatments to write in the hope that the summer blockbuster disaster movie makes a comeback before any of the above scenario’s comes true. I’m betting on the probabilities.

Reading his list makes me feel a bit like Schrodinger’s Cat…I don’t know whether I am alive or dead.

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