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Earthquakes, Tsunamis, Tornadoes, and Other Earth-Shattering Disasters

Donald R. Prothero

Publication Year: 2011

Devastating natural disasters have profoundly shaped human history, leaving us with a respect for the mighty power of the earth—and a humbling view of our future. Paleontologist and geologist Donald R. Prothero tells the harrowing human stories behind these catastrophic events. Prothero describes in gripping detail some of the most important natural disasters in history: • the New Madrid, Missouri, earthquakes of 1811–1812 that caused church bells to ring in Boston • the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that killed more than 230,000 people • the massive volcanic eruptions of Krakatau, Mount Tambora, Mount Vesuvius, Mount St. Helens, and Nevado del Ruiz His clear and straightforward explanations of the forces that caused these disasters accompany gut-wrenching accounts of terrifying human experiences and a staggering loss of human life. Floods that wash out whole regions, earthquakes that level a single country, hurricanes that destroy everything in their path—all are here to remind us of how little control we have over the natural world. Dramatic photographs and eyewitness accounts recall the devastation wrought by these events, and the people—both heroes and fools—that are caught up in the earth's relentless forces. Eerie, fascinating, and often moving, these tales of geologic history and human fortitude and folly will stay with you long after you put the book down.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press


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pp. ix

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pp. xi

The idea for this book originated from the horrors of the December 26, 2004, Indian Ocean tsunami. My wife and I watched the news coverage and thought that there was a need for such a book. This need was further emphasized by the 2005 Hurricane Katrina disaster, the 2008 Mississippi Valley floods, and the 2010 Haiti earthquake. However, my heavy teaching load and many other...

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Prologue: Catastrophism and Uniformitarianism

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pp. 1-8

In the mid-1700s, western European thought was at a crossroads. For more than a thousand years, all scholarship and learning in Europe was the domain of priests and clerics, because they were practically the only people with at least some education. Most people in the world were illiterate, not able to read even their native language. Trained by their church, these clerics framed all ...

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1 Earthquakes: The Earth in Upheaval

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pp. 9-54

November 1, 1755, was All Saints’ Day, one of the holiest days on the Roman Catholic calendar. In the mighty city of Lisbon, Portugal, the faithful were crowding the streets. They were heading toward the great cathedrals and smaller churches that had been built over 200 years by the wealth of the Portuguese trade empire that ranged from Brazil to southern Africa and from India to China. Lisbon was one...

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2 Tsunamis: The Sea Rises Up

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pp. 55-75

The southern regions of Thailand and the north coast of Sumatra are heavily populated, and during the Christmas holidays, they are crowded with tourists seeking refuge from Northern Hemisphere winters as they enjoy the sun and pristine beaches. The day after Christmas (Boxing Day on the British calendar) a violent earthquake struck 160 km (100 miles) off the northwest coast...

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3 Volcanoes: Hell's Cauldron

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pp. 76-106

The year AD 79 was important in Roman history. A decade earlier, the Roman general Vespasianus had taken over as emperor, ending a year of civil war and anarchy following the death of Nero. Vespasianus had stabilized the empire, gotten the imperial accounts back on the profitable side, and improved the political situation for the middle and lower classes. He began many important...

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4 Landslides: Gravity Always Wins

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pp. 107-134

The winter of 2004–2005 was wet in Southern California. Many places in the steep mountains behind the urban belt had flooded and experienced landslides. Huge amounts of rain had fallen in the last weeks of December and the first weeks of January. In the sleepy coastal town of La Conchita, there was no reason to think that the winter rainy season would be unlike any other. La Conchita consisted of a few dozen houses with about 300 residents,...

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5 Floods: Raging Waters

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pp. 135-155

In the summer of 1922, J Harlen Bretz, a young geologist from the University of Chicago, was mapping the rocks of eastern Washington State. As a high school teacher in Seattle, he had been interested in the origin of the Channeled Scablands ever since 1910, when he saw a newly published topographic map of the Potholes Cataract and realized that it resembled a huge Niagara-sized waterfall with almost no water running...

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6 Hurricanes, Cyclones, and Typhoons: Nature on the Rampage

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pp. 156-181

Residents of the southeastern United States, Mexico, and the Caribbean know it as “hurricane season.” Officially spanning June 1 to November 1, hurricane season is the time of year when most of the hurricanes come out of the equatorial Atlantic, sweep up the Gulf Stream, and strike the eastern part of North and Central America. This is when the heat of the summer has fully warmed...

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7 Tornadoes: Funnels of Death

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pp. 182-201

Movies like The Wizard of Oz and Twister and national TV weather forecasts have influenced our mental image of tornadoes as associated with the wide-open plains, especially Kansas and Oklahoma. Tornadoes (fig. 7.1) are known to occur in all fifty states, but the central Great Plains of North America have a well-deserved reputation as “tornado alley” (plate 11A). More tornadoes strike the plains states (from northern Texas, through Oklahoma,...

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8 Blizzards: White Death

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pp. 202-215

During the 1870s, settlers flocked to the Great Plains and Rocky Mountain regions by the thousands. The completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869 and numerous other railroads opened access to homesteaders and farmers. Meanwhile, wars with indigenous Americans had been winding down ever since the 1876 Battle of Little Bighorn spurred the U.S. Army...

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9 Ice Ages: Frozen Planet

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pp. 216-241

In 1837, the Schweizerische Naturforschende Gesellschaft (Swiss Society of Natural Sciences) held its annual meeting in Neuchâtel, Switzerland. Surrounding the town were the towering cliffs of the tightly folded rocks of the Jura Mountains (from which the “Jurassic” Period got its name) and deep U-shaped valleys where remnants of glaciers could still be seen (fig. 9.1). ...

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10 Greenhouse Planet: Too Hot to Handle?

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pp. 242-267

Imagine taking a time machine to the final half of the age of dinosaurs. Known as the Cretaceous Period, it spanned the interval of time from 145 million years ago until 65 million years ago, a total of 80 million years. This is 15 million years longer than the entire duration of the “age of mammals,” or Cenozoic era, which has lasted for the past 65 million years. If you stepped out of the time machine, you would not recognize much of the landscape...

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11 Mass Extinctions: When Life Nearly Died

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pp. 268-293

In 1980, a scientific paper hit the professions of geology and paleontology like a blazing comet. After more than a century of speculating about how and why the dinosaurs had vanished, and why other great mass extinctions occurred, the authors had proposed a novel solution. In their scenario, about 65 million years ago, an asteroid 10 km in diameter had slammed into the earth and caused a global “nuclear winter” of cold and dark conditions...

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12 Can We Survive Nature—and Our Own Folly?

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pp. 294-307

We have come full circle and examined a range of natural disasters but now must step back and put them in perspective. Which ones cause the most damage? Which disasters are the most dangerous to us in the short term? Which are dangerous in the long term? What is most likely to kill us? What is capable of not only hurting us as individuals but also destroying human civilization ...


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pp. 309-313

Index [Includes Image Plates]

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pp. 315-326

E-ISBN-13: 9781421401478
E-ISBN-10: 1421401479
Print-ISBN-13: 9780801896927
Print-ISBN-10: 0801896924

Page Count: 360
Illustrations: 80 b&w photos, 37 line drawings, 16 color plates
Publication Year: 2011