Rim: It's Crowded Around Here

Local Calamities Can Have Global Impact

Recently, as the volcano "Popo" outside of Mexico City began to show some activity, geologist David Howell had a question:

"What would happen if there was a major eruption?"

The answer wasn't pretty.

"If you drew a map and used the volcano as a bulls eye, then drew circles out to where the volcanic dust would be five inches thick, you would find that 22 million people are at risk," Howell said.

But the impact wouldn't stop there.

"The surrounding countries, the towns along the New Mexico and Texas borders, and California all the way up to Los Angeles could be subject to mass migrations," Howell concluded. "The reverberations would be extensive."

Howell's point is that local calamities have an increasing potential to have global repercussions. It's for this reason that Howell, a U.S. Geological Survey research geologist in Menlo Park, Calif., is co-chair of an initiative called Crowding the Rim, made up of a broad-based coalition of organizations and individuals.

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Recently, as the volcano "Popo" outside of Mexico City began to show some activity, geologist David Howell had a question:

"What would happen if there was a major eruption?"

The answer wasn't pretty.

"If you drew a map and used the volcano as a bulls eye, then drew circles out to where the volcanic dust would be five inches thick, you would find that 22 million people are at risk," Howell said.

But the impact wouldn't stop there.

"The surrounding countries, the towns along the New Mexico and Texas borders, and California all the way up to Los Angeles could be subject to mass migrations," Howell concluded. "The reverberations would be extensive."

Howell's point is that local calamities have an increasing potential to have global repercussions. It's for this reason that Howell, a U.S. Geological Survey research geologist in Menlo Park, Calif., is co-chair of an initiative called Crowding the Rim, made up of a broad-based coalition of organizations and individuals.

Its purpose is simple: Members implement strategies for mitigating the "domino" effect natural disasters can have in the Pacific Basin.

This area includes not only the Asian countries west of Burma, usually considered the Pacific Rim, but also Australia and much of the coastal areas of North, Central and South America -- an area comprising about 60 percent of the earth's surface.

"In November of 1999, the world's human population passed six billion; during the next half century it will reach about nine billion," Howell said. "Nearly two billion people live within one-day's commute of the Pacific Ocean, and their numbers are being augmented not only by their own reproduction, but also by an accelerating migration of people drawn to the economic and physical attractions of coastal zones."

The Pacific Rim is inherently dangerous, because the region is characterized by collisions of tectonic crustal plates and their contingent hazards: earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and such sequelae as typhoons, landslides, floods, fires and tsunamis.

"As a coastal zone, the Rim is especially vulnerable to disasters associated with extreme weather events," Howell said. "From the Americas around the Rim to New Zealand, coastal lands often feature extreme vertical topography vulnerable to landslides or extensive lowland vulnerable to tidal and storm surge.

"Most general circulation models show that the changing global climate will increase the frequency of unusually intense episodes or rainfalls or windstorms," he added, "placing these areas under even greater risk of catastrophe."

Reducing the Risk

The current project had its beginnings in the Circum-Pacific Council, which was founded by Michel T. Halbouty in the early 1970s.

Initially, this effort was designed to produce a variety of maps of the Pacific Basin, specifically to help understand the geology and the distribution of oil and gas. In the late 1980s, a series of hazard maps were produced.

The 1990s were a period of winding down, however, and the question then arose of what to do with the Council.

"The question was, should we declare victory and terminate it, or try something else?" Howell recalled.

Howell, who was influenced by Thomas Friedman's book, The Lexus and the Olive Tree, which showed that with the new global economy how a disaster in one area would have reverberating consequences in other areas, floated the idea of redirecting the Council to this new focus.

"We played with different terms, such as 'living on the edge,'" he said, "but 'crowding the rim' seemed right, for it is an economic concept and physical reality that people understand."

It soon became clear that this was a project that would have to involve a broad base of both scholars and practitioners. Partnerships quickly formed.

Currently, Crowding the Rim is an international public-private partnership involving the Circum-Pacific Council, the USGS, Stanford University and the American Red Cross. Initial seed money was provided by Chevron, with follow-up grants from the U.S. Department of Defense, BP Amoco, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, Thales Survey Inc. and the international Union of Geological Sciences.

To date close to $1 million has been raised in cash, and $1.5 million in in-kind services.

In early August Stanford University played host for the first international summit, which was co-chaired by Howell and David Kennedy. The meeting was expected to engage 160 representatives from most of the countries in the Pacific basin, including people from the natural and social sciences, business, industry, finance, military, and humanitarian, health and emergency fields.

Available at the meeting was the HAZPAC Geographic Information System, a digital database of maps and hazard information that has condensed a vast amount of data into a useable form. A slimmed down version is available on the Internet (http://www.crowdingtherim.org). Also on hand was another tool, RIM-SIM, an interactive game simulation, based on the ripple effect that a disaster in one hypothetical country can have on another.

Because of these tools and other efforts, educational modules are being prepared for use in both high schools and colleges. The intent is both creating an awareness of the problem, and personalizing it so that it can lead to action. A series of workshops are being prepared to be presented in the various Pacific Basin countries, and also in the works is a series of multi-hazard maps that will rank the various dangers in different areas on a scale of 1 to 5.

"We hope to reduce the impacts of future disasters on the populations and economies of the Pacific Rim by raising awareness of factors contributing to vulnerability and risk and identifying effective preventive measures," Howell said. "We will promote public policies and strategies that can reduce disaster risk and strengthen governments' ability to anticipate and respond effectively to potential impacts."

And, he added, the group will encourage the creation of vital linkages and cooperative efforts between scientists and policy makers, across political and professional (or disciplinary boundaries) and between the public and private sectors.

"Through collaborative mitigation actions involving all stakeholders," Howell said, "we will reduce the consequences of future disasters."

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