Disaster polling, Part 2

In Part 1 of this series, I introduced you to the 43 respondents who answered some questions about their perceptions of natural disasters around the world. Let’s see how well they did on some questions about natural hazards in the US, and beyond.

I asked, True or False: There are volcanoes in the lower 48 states of the US.

93% answered True. They’re right! Look at all the triangles on this map. The west coast is an especially busy place.

I asked, True or False: There are volcanoes in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.

88% answered True. They’re right! Here, let David Attenborough tell you about them.

I asked, True of False: Every time an earthquake happens, a tsunami is generated.

5% answered True. They’re wrong, not every earthquake causes a tsunami. In fact, the percentage of tsunamigenic earthquakes out of all the earthquakes that happen in a given year is pretty tiny (and not all tsunamis are triggered by earthquakes – submarine landslides can cause them as well).

Do our respondents think earthquakes are preventable? 100% said no (and they are correct). Do our respondents think earthquakes are predictable? 28% said yes. This is a hotly debated topic, about which I have a personal opinion, but it would be inappropriate for me to share that here. I can say that there is a range of predictive timescales. There are those who think animal behavior, minutes or seconds before an earthquake, can be used as a predictor (though the USGS tells us these are warnings, not predictors – they may just feel P waves before we can). Some agencies, including the Japan Meteorological Agency (among others) have a system for early warning, based again on early detection (not prediction). Other scientists are using reverse tracing of earthquake precursors to model past events, in an attempt to predict future events that have similar precursors.

Then there are the researchers who think they can identify places where an earthquake is likely to happen within some number of years: They wait for Supermoons, or monitor gas release or groundwater movement, or more commonly look at large-scale strain buildup in the crust and regional seismicity over time. But even these data don’t tell a predictable story. For instance, for years in Japan, researchers thought they knew exactly what part of the plate boundary would rupture next. Then the Tohoku earthquake happened, surprisingly to many, in a very different place.

Like I said, this is hotly debated, and admittedly not my field of expertise. So let’s get back to the polling. Earthquakes and tsunamis are just two of many possible disasters in the world. Which have our respondents actually experienced?

Of the 43 people who answered, 1 person has experienced an earthquake, a volcanic eruption, a hurricane, AND a tsunami (and s/he is the only person to have experienced that last one). 67% of the respondents have experienced an earthquake, and of those, most also have experienced a hurricane (the most commonly-experienced disaster, at 77%), tornado (19%), or both. Only 14% of respondents have experienced a volcanic eruption.

When asked which volcano produced the biggest eruption in recorded human history, 53% answered Krakatau (nope), 9% Pinatubo (nope) and 37% Tambora (yep). Tambora’s 1815 eruption actually released 4x the energy of Krakatau, killed tens of thousands of people, and caused it to snow in New York in June. All in all, pretty scary.

But are volcanoes the thing that scare our respondents the most?

I listed a series of disasters, both natural and human-induced, and asked people to rate their fear on a scale of 1-5, where 1 = “I am most afraid of this horrible thing” and 5 = “I am either not afraid of this, or it’s not my priority to freak out about it.”

The results: Health-related disasters, like a biological terrorist attack, rampant disease, or famine ranked highest, with earthquakes and nuclear meltdown close behind. Volcanic eruptions are way down the list, scarier than zombies, but not as scary as a wildfire. This was interesting to me – we hear a lot in the news about terrorism, air safety, nuclear plant safety, and even earthquakes and eruptions. But I rarely hear more than a passing mention of famine and disease, while in some parts of the world millions are experiencing one or both, and it clearly ranks at the very high end of fears. These are the same respondents who say we’re hearing about more storms and earthquakes because they’re simply being reported on more often.

This makes me wonder if I listed “global climate change,” where it might fall. Are these slower-burning, less cataclysmic disasters lower on the priority list for news organizations, while more frightening to those who take a minute to rank what they fear in the world? These questions make me wish we got more than 43 respondents. These are the statistics of small numbers, and I would love to see how these results change with a broader sampling. Clearly a lot of scientists (especially earth scientists) answered, but what if we had more non-scientists in the mix? Would concerns change?

The results also made me wish we’d asked for respondents’ locations – do they live in a city, a farm town, on a coast, next to a power plant? That’s a lesson learned. I crave context to these data. We did ask, at one point, for people to rank their fears specifically about they place they live, and terrorist attacks and zombies ranked #1 (possibly in part because I know a lot of people in DC, where these two things are oft discussed).

My own fears rank very differently, and I’m sure that’s in part due to the things I encounter quite often (airplanes, known prior terrorist targets, the coastline). And maybe this speaks to my nature, but I realize in looking at this list that some things that I love, like volcanoes, are beautiful from afar, but quite terrifying if you’re on the wrong flank at the wrong time, which I have been.

What about your fears? Is there something we should be worried about that I missed?


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