Natural Hazards and the Demise of Civilization.

Steve's picture

Most of us experience nature’s hazards in fairly benign ways. Perhaps our electricity goes out for a few days in an early snowstorm or we’re forced to detour for a while from our usual road because a bit of it sloughed into a creek during a heavy rain. Sure, on occasion, natural disasters are more serious. Fires and landslides do sweep through neighborhoods. Whole towns do vanish in tornados and hurricanes. Still, most of us witness large-scale disasters only on late night TV or by Google at coffee break. It’s hard to imagine that throughout history, natural hazards have brought demise to entire civilizations.

One example of interest to me is the eruption and tsunami from the volcanic island of Thera in eastern Mediterranean Sea. Thera, now a tourist destination called Santorini, exploded in 1628 BC. Experts believe that the eruption and associated tsunami initiated the downfall of the Minoan population on Crete 60 km to the south. A thousand years later, inspired by long-echoed stories of the events at Thera, Plato penned his tale of Atlantis.

Out of curiosity, I have run a physics-based simulation of the Thera tsunami. On Crete’s north shore it predicts 20 to 30 m waves. A 30 m tsunami is scary enough, but when you think of it, the predicted waves at Crete are not terribly bigger than those that struck Japan in March, 2011. How could tsunami alone bring to ruin the entire Minoan civilization? Most likely the wave had collateral effects sufficient to push society past a tipping point. Japan’s tsunami, for example, triggered a nuclear plant accident with ramifications more profound than the wave itself. We know that the Minoans were a sea faring civilization heavily dependent on trade -- the Hong Kong of their time. Tsunami damage to fleets and harbors may have plunged this commercial way of life into a downward spiral from which it could not recover. Perhaps jealous enemies found the tsunami-weakened Minoans ripe for invasion and conquest. No one knows for sure.

So, next time nature knocks out your electricity, consider the Minoans and put things into perspective. Odds are, unlike them, when the lights come back on, civilization as you know it will still be there.

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Steven N. Ward   Santa Cruz



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DavidAlexander's picture

There are always natural hazards in the world and they have not stopped civilization from growing. I have read from grademiners service that most of the continents have faced many catastrophes. It seems that humans have always found a way to survive.

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