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Natural events v. natural disasters

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Ingolfur Juliusson/Reuters/File

(Read caption) Northern Lights above the ash plume of Iceland’s Eyjafjall ajökull volcano, April 23, 2010.

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Before there were natural disasters, there were natural events.

Earth’s great plates shifted, forming continents and oceans. Its crust erupted, spewing gas. Storms raged, forests burned, droughts parched. Nobody noticed.

As they say in Geology 101, human time is nothing compared with geological time. Civilization only really began at the end of the last Ice Age, about 10,000 years ago. The great monuments of humanity – the pyramids of Giza, the Great Wall of China – have been around only for the last few seconds of a geological clock that began ticking 4,500,000,000 years ago.

Natural events became natural disasters when human time intersected with geological time. During quiet periods, the handiwork of disasters is enjoyable, even necessary. Fresh air, abundant seas, inspiring mountain ranges have few detractors.

“We wouldn’t have air and water without volcanoes,” says Stephen Nelson, a specialist on volcanoes and head of the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Tulane University. “We wouldn’t have mountains without earthquakes.”

The more geologically active the area, the more impressive it often is. From California to Kashmir, the landscape is magnificent, with dramatic upthrusts and fertile values. The soil is rich with minerals. Rivers run through it.

Japan sits in a uniquely active earthquake zone, which makes the Japanese islands an attractive place to live. You can tell how much the people of Japan love their islands by looking at their art. One of the most popular themes is called “sansui.” These are paintings of steep mountains and waterfalls, sometimes with tiny human figures walking in the foreground.

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