Just as people in Taiwan are worrying about global warming and the possibility of more calamitous storms like Typhoon Morakot, reports show that five people have died so far in Taiwan of the new strain of the (A)H1N1 influenza, or swine flu, with four deaths occurring in as many days.
It seems society’s social vigilance “radar” is working more like a driver’s rear-view mirror, focused too much on what has already happened and not enough on what lies ahead. The chances of Taiwan getting hit by another powerful typhoon in the near future are slim, just as the safest place to be on a battlefield is a shell crater. However, other kinds of disasters could happen at any time.
Here are three suggestions and observations: We must be fully prepared to deal with infectious diseases this autumn; we must actively prepare for the possibility of an earthquake and we must be aware that disasters around the world are not caused by global warming alone.
The threat of swine flu is looming. The Department of Health (DOH) is warning the public through widespread media reports that there may be as many as 7 million (A)H1N1 infections in Taiwan. The DOH assures us that the government is fully mobilized to fight the epidemic and everything is under control. However, there are other diseases waiting in the wings.
Experience tells us that autumn is the key season for infectious diseases. There have been outbreaks of more and more different kinds of contagious illnesses around the world in recent years, and the scale of these epidemics is growing.
Medical workers who often travel between Taiwan and China reported an outbreak of pneumonic plague in China’s western Qinghai Province last month and, around the same time, reports of a spate of infections of a type of herpes that attacks internal organs emerged in central China.
Although these reports need further verification, it is advisable to be prepared for the spread of such illnesses well in advance.
I have two suggestions. First, the governments on both sides of the Taiwan Strait should willingly strengthen procedures for notifying each other when diseases break out. Saving lives is more important than saving face. Second, Western medicine and traditional Chinese medicine each have their strong points. Practitioners of the two traditions should set aside their prejudices and work together on disease prevention. Chinese herbal medicine, whose history stretches back thousands of years, can sometimes help in cases that specific Western drugs cannot cure.
Strong earthquakes have been occurring more frequently in Taiwan recently. Although the first half of this year only saw nine quakes above magnitude 5.0 on the Richter scale — fewer than the 19 and 16 that occurred in the same period of last year and 2007 respectively, the frequency has picked up considerably from July onward.
There were four earthquakes above magnitude 5 in the last five days of July. Then, on Aug. 17, two earthquakes stronger than magnitude 6.0 shook the seabed off the coast of Hualien County, followed by one measuring 5.6 in the sea off the Hengchun Peninsula on Aug. 22. During the same period, there was a series of three earthquakes of around magnitude 7.0 in Japanese territorial waters near Taiwan on Aug. 5, Aug. 9 and Aug. 11.
There are two ways of interpreting frequent earthquakes. One is that they reduce the chances of a major quake by releasing accumulated friction forces between tectonic plates. The other is that they are a sign a major earthquake is coming soon.
For the sake of public safety, it would be better to exercise caution by preparing for a major earthquake. Even if there is no big earthquake in the short term, the fact remains that Taiwan is on an earthquake belt,and powerful quakes cannot be avoided.
In this respect, I offer three suggestions. First, rescue drills for handling a sudden and high-magnitude earthquake should be held. With personnel, equipment, rescue dogs and so on ready for quick deployment, action can be taken within the crucial first 48 hours after a disaster occurs.
Second, the government and media should collaborate to reinforce the public’s knowledge about earthquake response. Third, the government should invite experts to list the locations at which an earthquake could cause calamitous damage and make contingency plans accordingly.
Global warming cannot explain disasters caused by excessive cold. In a column published in the International Herald Tribune on Dec. 9, journalist Jeff Jacoby wrote: “Some experts point out that global temperatures peaked in 1998 and have been falling since then.” The article names several academics holding such a view, including Richard Lindzen, a professor of Meteorology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
This year, two US meteorologists — Patrick Michaels and Robert Balling Jr — published a book called Climate of Extremes, in which they present data and charts casting doubt on the theory of global warming. Furthermore, there have been many instances of disastrously heavy snowfalls. Record amounts of snow fell in Japan in January 2006, leading to the deaths of 89 people.
In February of the same year, temperatures in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region plunged to minus 41°C, and many gazelles died from the cold or because they could not reach grass buried under deep snow.
In January 2007, blizzards struck many parts of Europe, killing 40 people. In January last year, heavy snowfall struck 21 of China’s provinces, affecting more than 100 million people.
All in all, the trend in the global climate seems to be that cold places are getting colder and hot places hotter. Warming, therefore, is not the whole picture.
Global warming also offers no explanation for the increasing frequency of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. Tom Simkin and Lee Siebert, authors of the Smithsonian Institution’s Volcanoes of the World, have found that volcanic eruptions around the world have become more frequent since 1950, and data collected by the US Geological Survey shows that the frequency of earthquakes worldwide has been increasing continuously since 1973.
The Earth’s surface, or crust, is a layer of rock ranging from 3km to 60km thick. Beneath this crust is molten rock, called magma, whose temperature ranges from 600°C to 1,300°C. If the average surface temperature of the Earth, which is about 15°C, were to rise by less than 1ºC because of global warming, it is hardly conceivable that this could agitate motion of the magma beneath the crust, making earthquakes more frequent and volcanoes more active.
Currently, a more likely explanation for increasingly frequent disasters of various kinds around the world is something deeper. Put simply, the movement of heavenly bodies — the Sun and the Moon — causes shifts in the Earth’s magnetic core and a weakening of its magnetic strength, and this in turn leads to more frequent earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, and to extremes of temperature, frequent disease outbreaks, epidemics and other disasters.
The challenges that lie before us include more than just typhoons and global warming. Will an understanding of potential disasters alarm the public? Not really — being prepared can only increase public safety.
Lin Chong-pin is a professor at the Graduate Institute of International Affairs and Strategic Studies at Tamkang University.
TRANSLATED BY JULIAN CLEGG
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