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,"
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
"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
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."