Mt. Redoubt, in Alaska, is on the verge of eruption and could spew rock fragments, or tephra, into the unsuspecting atmosphere, filling the sky with a fine dust that will stick to windshield wipers, treetops, and moustache hairs. It could create a cataclysmic landslide, known as a lahar, of ice and debris that will change the local ecosystem. Now imagine the aftermath: Alaskans will be exposed to a snow-like atmosphere of ash and will have to wear thin facemasks to avoid inhalation of the toxic material, hoping their children's lungs aren't permanently damaged. More importantly, the flora and fauna will be buried under "incandescent mixtures of volcanic materials."
Although this sounds like the plot to an apocalyptic disaster movie, the authors of the informative Environmental Disasters, Natural Recovery, and Human Responses write that this is only a banal occurrence for the aging earth and its habitants. Humans have been dealing with natural disasters since the beginning of our existence. In fact, according to Roger del Moral and Lawrence R. Walker, 12 percent of today's human population takes the risk of living nearby or on a volcano that has erupted within the last 10,000 years.
del Moral and Walker, both ecologists, take the reader on a journey through the historic, and potential future, impacts of natural disasters on the environment and on humans, while focusing on human amelioration and environmental reactions to those catastrophes. This volume, polished and glossy like a freshman textbook, makes one feel there might be a test after completion. However, when finished, the reader is presented with an abundance of intriguing facts that any aspiring environmental intellectual could use to impress friends at a cocktail party.
The book begins with the powerful quotation: "The natural world is shrinking, losing its ability to sustain biodiversity and, indeed, the human species." The thesis that del Moral and Walker tout reminds the reader that by studying the actions of the natural Earth after a disaster, humans can mimic these actions to repair the damages that occur in global catastrophes, both natural and man-made.
Like a textbook, this book is broken up into sections and each natural disaster is described by its gradient of severity. The groupings are confined to whether or not the terrain during or after the natural disaster is fertile, infertile, stable, or unstable. For example, dunes are placed under the gradient of infertile and unstable because the biota, especially plant-life, is unable to flourish on or around them. The instability derives from the dunes' constant shifting. In contrast, fires are described as creating fertile, stable habitats because "the heat of the fire stimulates seed germination and removes growth inhibitors from the soil, while dormant buds in stems are also stimulated to burst into activity." This promotes the argument that the prevention of forest fires is detrimental to the natural ecosystem of a forest. Humans have been trying to prevent forest fires, both natural and manmade (recall Smokey the Bear) for eight decades, and, according to Walker and del Moral, this unwavering philosophy is a human error.
The authors claim that the longer a fire is prevented in a certain area, the more time invasive species have to move in and take over. This buildup of materials causes the inevitable fire to intensify in size and power, therefore inhibiting local residents ability to get out of harm's way. After such a buildup, a raging blaze occurs and recovery of the fallow ground takes more time because the area is susceptible to mudslides, floods, and erosion.
Unfortunately, humans insist on colonizing every forest imaginable, unless prohibited by government. This is why, for example, California has seen a slew of fires, in rich quarters of the state, which have been so disastrous that firefighters have not been able to mitigate the burning. Additionally, fires in Australia, like the ones that began in early February, claiming almost 200 people, are almost impossible to control and continue to burn suburban homes and take human lives.
In the chapter on mangroves and salt marshes, there is a story of the Maori people of New Zealand. Like many ancient Polynesians, they exhausted the terrain for every purpose imaginable: They ate the snails, eels, and oysters that were swimming among roots; dyed flax skirts with the earth and lichens; and used the wood to heat stones for feasts. Furthermore, the book presents a compendium on historic figures, some real and some imagined, like Pliny the Elder and Pele in Hawaii, Hawaii's goddess of volcanoes.
In the end, del Moral and Walker claim that there have been many misguided ideas throughout history concerning human interactions with nature after natural disasters. Fortunately, they do a good job of explaining how humans can expect plants and animals to react to natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina and how we can improve the aftermath. It is publications like this that will eventually help the human race get out of the ominous situation that we have created and humans can learn how to interact with our environments post-disaster. Change will only come if we find "new paradigms to respond to this increasingly disrupted and biologically chaotic world."