Archives for natural disasters



Another Look at an Unorthodox Hurricane-Prevention Idea

Very interesting backgrounder on Stephen Salter, the British scientist who, in the course of trying to turn ocean waves into electric power, discovered a potential way to prevent, or at least limit, the impact of hurricanes:

Devastating tropical storms of the kind that battered the U.S. last week could be weakened and rendered less deadly using a simple and cheap technology based on a surprising component – old car tyres.

One of Britain’s leading marine engineers, Stephen Salter, emeritus professor of engineering design at Edinburgh university and a global pioneer of wave power research, has patented with Microsoft billionaires Bill Gates and Nathan Myhrvold the idea of using thousands of tyres lashed together to support giant plastic tubes which extend 100m deep into the ocean.

Wave action on the ocean surface would force warm surface water down into the deeper ocean. If non-return valves were used, he says, the result would be to mix the waters and cool the surface temperature of the ocean to under 26.5C, the critical temperature at which hurricanes form.

This is the same hurricane-prevention invention we discussed in a brief Freakonomics Radio segment and in greater depth in SuperFreakonomics: Read More »



What’s Wrong With Punishing Bad Predictions?

In the heat of a Presidential campaign, it can be hard to pay attention to other news. But a small-seeming story out of Italy yesterday has, to my mind, the potential to shape the future as much as a Presidential election.

As reported by ABC, the BBC, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and elsewhere, an Italian court has convicted seven earthquake experts of failing to appropriately sound the alarm bell for an earthquake that wound up killing more than 300 people in L’Aquila in 2009. The experts received long prison sentences and fines of more than $10 million.(Addenum: Roger Pielke Jr. discusses the “mischaracterizations” of the verdict.)

There is of course the chance that the verdict will be thrown out upon appeal, discredited as an emotional response to a horrible tragedy.  Read More »



Why Does the Likelihood of Terrorism Increase After Natural Disasters?

In a new RAND working paper, authors Claude Berrebi and Jordan Ostwald use international data to argue that countries which experience a major natural disaster are more likely to have an increase in terrorism activity afterward. In the abstract they write:

…Using a structured methodology and detailed data on terrorism, disasters, and other relevant controls for 167 countries between 1970 and 2007, we find a strong positive impact of disaster-related deaths on subsequent terrorism deaths and incidence. We find that, on average, an increase in deaths from natural disasters of 25,000 leads to an increase in the following year of approximately 33 percent in the number of deaths from terrorism, an increase of approximately 22 percent in the number of terrorist attacks, and an increase of approximately 16 percent in the number wounded in terrorist attacks, holding all other factors constant.

Read More »



New York City Media’s Hurricane Overkill

By last Friday, New York City was in full-on hurricane panic mode. Public transportation was scheduled for a Saturday shut down, stores were selling out of batteries and flashlights, windows were being taped, sandbags stacked; three-hundred and seventy thousand people were evacuated. This was going to be bad, the local media kept telling us. Really, really bad. Even the number-crunching, data-driven Nate Silver got in on the action, posting an extensive piece on his fivethirtyeight blog that if Hurricane Irene got close enough to New York City, it could be the costliest natural disaster ever. And by Friday, it was heading straight for the Big Apple.

By midnight on Saturday, things (in the words of NBC anchor Brian Williams) were “getting a bit sporty” in NYC. Wind was gusting, rain was coming sideways. The streets were empty, save for dozens of intrepid local TV news reporters deployed throughout the city, standing ready to report on the impending damage. Which, remember, was going to be bad.

The center of Irene hit New York around 9am Sunday. Winds reached 65 mph, the strongest in 25 years. By 10 am, the worst was over. No hurricane-shattered skyscraper windows, no preemptive power outages, no real flooding to speak of. The general tone among New Yorkers Sunday morning was, “That’s it?” But to watch the local TV news on Sunday, the storm had been epic. Rather than call in their battalion of reporters stationed around the area, the NYC TV news media kept reporting. All day. Read More »



Are Bad Storms Good Long-Term News for Insurance Companies?

According to the National Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla., there have been 1,151 tornadoes reported (though not confirmed) so far this year. By comparison, there were 1,282 tornadoes during all of last year, and a total of 1,156 in 2009. This is resulting in billions of dollars in damage claims across much of the South and Midwest. According to EQECAT, which provides disaster and risk models to insurance firms, weather-related losses could cost insurers upwards of $10 billion in the U.S. this year, up from an average of between $2 and $4 billion per year.

But while the short-term impact will obviously be difficult as insurance companies cover record losses, the recent rise in weather-related disasters could end up being good for their stock prices. Read More »



Freakonomics Radio: Why Can’t We Predict Earthquakes?

The Tohoku earthquake off the Japanese coast on March 11 measured 9.0 on the Richter scale. That’s the fourth-biggest recorded earthquake in the world since 1900, the worst in Japan since modern instruments were first used 130 years ago. The earthquake and the tsunami it triggered led to shocking damage — loss of life, loss of property, all sorts of aftermath issues. But as shocking as the damage has been, the earthquake itself wasn’t all that surprising. Seismoloigists — the scientists who study earthquakes — know a great deal about where they’re likely to occur, and how serious they’re likely to be. Read More »



What Are the Economic Consequences of the Japanese Disaster? A Guest Post by Anil Kashyap and Takeo Hoshi

From a loss-of-life standpoint, the Japanese earthquake/tsunami may well be at least five times more severe than 9/11. While natural disasters in the past have claimed more lives, it’s extremely rare for a developed country to suffer this kind of catastrophe. While the economic losses no doubt take a distant back seat to the human suffering, nonetheless there are many important economic questions to be answered. I can’t think of a better pair of people to do so than Anil Kashyap and Takeo Hoshi. Read More »



Japan: To Give or Not to Give?

In the wake of Japan’s tragic earthquake and tsunami, Felix Salmon argues against donating to the cause. Salmon cites concerns about the hobbling effects of earmarked funds, uncoordinated NGOs, and Japan’s wealth. Read More »