This is the eighth installment in a series of ten articles about the Discovery Channel Series The Colony [airing Tuesdays at 10PM ET/PT], which follows the lives of ten volunteers living in a simulated post-catastrophic environment.
In last night’s episode, a kidney stone puts one of the Colonists down for the count. As he recovers the volunteers are surprised by a new arrival and a very wet situation; later, two of the Colonists set out on what turns into a dangerous reconnaissance mission. For the last eight weeks, the Colonists have faced internal conflicts, psychological issues, the loss of resources (and sometimes of tempers), illnesses and injuries, hunger, thirst, and danger from other survivor groups. In the wake of a global catastrophic disaster, these issues and more are to be expected and must be addressed.
Many of the show’s viewers have questioned what caused or could cause such a worldwide crisis. For the first season of The Colony, the disaster is simply described as a “global viral outbreak.” However, there are numerous, credible, and scientifically explainable other events that could cause the results experienced by the volunteers.
Sandy Chase of ScienceCentral.com names a few:
- Pandemics: The Black Plague outbreaks of the Middle Ages killed one third of the population of Europe. The Spanish flu of 1918 killed an estimated 50 million people throughout the world. With drug-resistant tuberculosis and staph infections – as well as high-mortality communicable diseases such as the Ebola virus, H1N1, and bird flu now more prevalent and/or better publicized – more and more people fear that it may be only a matter of time before a globe-spanning deadly “super bug” wipes out potentially millions or even billions of people.
- Asteroid/Comet Impact: The planet Earth is pelted with small meteorites each and every day. It is only once in every few million years, however, that the planet is hit and significantly affected by a much larger asteroid. It is generally believed, for example, that it was an asteroid the size of the one that landed in the Gulf of Mexico 65 million years ago that led to the extinction of dinosaurs. A similarly sized asteroid hitting the planet would likely have a similar effect on mammals today. The devastation that would follow would include fires, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions, and the end result would be a sudden and long-term darkening of the skies by debris and smoke that could drastically diminish plant growth and lead to widespread starvation and other life-threatening effects.
Global Warming: Watching huge ice shelves collapse from the Antarctic continent into the ocean – a frequent scene on recent “nature” channels – drives home the reality that global temperatures are climbing at more than 1ºC per century. Although that seemingly modest temperature change makes for more pleasant weather in Canada, it has already altered animal migration patterns, the distribution of rainfall, and, some would argue, the frequency and severity of hurricanes. Other long-term possibilities, according to many if not all scientific studies, include the swamping of coastal cities, the shutting down of global ocean circulation, and the massive destruction of plant and animal habitats.
There are also the possibility of nuclear annihilation and the not yet fully understood threats posed by solar flares, black holes, and calderas – i.e., “Supervolcanoes” similar to the one underneath Yellowstone National Park. If a large caldera-forming eruption were to occur at Yellowstone, its effects would be felt worldwide. Thick ash deposits would bury vast areas of the United States itself, and the injection into the atmosphere of huge volumes of volcanic gases could drastically affect the global climate.
A Remedial Global “Strategy” – Is It Even Possible?
The weather itself cannot be simply dismissed as a potential causative agent of global disaster. In May 2009, a United Nations ISDR (International Strategy for Disaster Reduction) report stated that global disaster risk is increasing worldwide, in large part because of unsafe cities. The combined impact of environmental destruction and climate change, the report said, might possibly jeopardize the lives of hundreds of millions of people. (For additional information click on www.preventionweb.net.)
Across low- and middle-income countries, recurrent disasters – largely driven by a lack of government attention, unplanned urbanization, and deplorable economic conditions – are destroying both lives and livelihoods, the report says, noting that damage to housing from such persistent low-intensity events has quintupled since 1980. The buildup of such events, it is believed, in which less than 50 people are killed and fewer than 500 homes are destroyed (individual and personal disasters, of course, but not truly cataclysmic events), can be a telltale indication of a pending major catastrophe.
The U.N. report also suggests that frequent low-intensity losses often precede and mature into an accumulation of greater risks that will become evident when a more extreme event occurs. Among the report’s other findings:
- Between 1990 and 2007, global disaster risk increased by 13 percent (mortality) and by 35 percent (economic loss), in the case of floods; those increases were attributed to rapid increases in world population and GDP growth, particularly in disaster-prone areas.
- Just three countries – Bangladesh, China, and India, each of which is very heavily populated – collectively account for 75 percent of the global mortality risk from floods.
- Weather-related disaster risks are expanding rapidly not only in terms of the territories affected and the losses reported, but also in the frequency of events. In 12 countries of Asia and Latin America, 97 percent of municipal disaster-loss reports were linked to weather-related hazards.
- Fortunately, the report also offers a few rays of hope – by providing a myriad of solutions to mitigate disaster risks and a number of best-practice examples of how sound mitigation strategies have already made a profound impact in the reduction of risks.
The bottom line: Although the risk posed by any one of the global-impact types of disasters described above may be low, the collective impact of several could be catastrophic in terms of the loss of life, the impact on the world’s economy, and the adverse effect on the global environment.
Adam Montella is vice president of homeland security and preparedness services for Previstar Inc. and a nationally known emergency-management and homeland-security professional with more than 23 years direct experience in both government and the private sector. He served as the first general manager of emergency management for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey in the period following the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks and has served in many other emergency-management positions at all levels of government. A former member of the House Operations Recovery Team of the U.S. House of Representatives and of numerous local, state, national, and international emergency management associations, he also is a well known public speaker in his chosen field and a former recipient of Harvard University’s prestigious Innovations in American Government Award.