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Worst Case Scenarios: On the Prediction of Extreme Events in Ecology by Mark Denny, Ph.D, Marine Sciences, Biomechanics, Stanford University, was a fine lecture about the subject of catastrophes with which I have perhaps an overzealous interest. It was mostly about the ecology of a seashore environment and how ordinary events can occasionally combine to create extraordinarily harmful effects upon the local environment. It was about mathematically based statistical projections of when relatively benign and knowable daily events are combined and interact in a positive feedback way and become major events. The examples were of combining high tides with seasonal weather patterns and then calculating how often these factors would be severe enough to impact the local environment in an injurious way. Based on a fairly small sample of these ordinary events he combines them with a computer program and cycles them through thousands of times and discovers just how frequently times these benign things become a problem when combined. This way he was able to construct time lines and frequency expectations of a given level of intensity and what percentage of a local population would be severely affected. With that knowledge he can make some estimates as to how various members of the environment will respond. He measured how much force the waves would have to exert on some shore-bound mollusks to break them loose and then compared that to how frequently the waves would exert that amount of force.

It was all numbers, graphs and words but it was fascinating and I felt it would be important for my special interest in future human events. I asked him about questionably problems of human ecology here at Berkeley, living as we do on an earthquake fault with a 140 year fracture rate with humans living about 70 years. He had given a very similar example earlier about mollusks with a given life expectancy equal to about half the catastrophic event. Then I asked him about human world disasters, like major wars, because in his introduction he mentioned the usual geological extinction events and their potential causes but he didn’t mention an atomic war. I specifically brought that up and he said he had thought about it a few times but it kept him awake at night and he liked to sleep, so he avoided thinking about such things. They are outside of his expertise. But it appeared his analysis was better than other similar mathematical ones which are used for these types of sad projections.

His lack of commitment to modeling this terrible subject bothers me greatly because I have heard that same avoidant response from all sorts of people who are in a position to make a difference. I encountered this same effect when talking with some really important political people last year (Nuclear Power as a Solution to Climate Change), who are intimately involved in policy issues. A similar response was had from Lederman, Alvarez and the “Crater of Doom”, folks who are people comfortable thinking about doomsday types of things.

I worry about the survival of Earth and The EarthArk Project’s success if even these well informed people are lukewarm even to abstract research.