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Doug Miller, associate professor and chair of Atmospheric Sciences, works with students preparing equipment to track rainfall and snowfall levels in the Western North Carolina mountains.

Rethinking natural disasters

By Katie Rozycki ’07

As the saying goes, “When it rains, it pours.” By many accounts, that adage has proven true this year. In the first months of 2010, Chile, Haiti and China faced catastrophic earthquakes. Closer to home, some parts of the Southeast saw historic spring flooding following an unseasonably snowy winter. And then there was the massive volcanic eruption in Iceland.

What in the world is going on? Despite these newsworthy natural disasters, UNC Asheville scientists say these events are not uncommon, just unsettling.

Asheville is not in an earthquake-prone area where we expect large earthquakes, but the truth is you could get a large earthquake at any time and any place.”

“Although this was an unusual winter in Asheville, we didn’t set any single storm snowfall amounts, and we didn’t set a minimum temperature record for a single day,” said Doug Miller, associate professor and chair of Atmospheric Sciences.

Even a natural disaster like an earthquake isn’t an anomaly, according to Bill Miller (no relation), professor and chair of Environmental Studies. “Our recent earthquakes aren’t a trend; they’re normal,” he said.

According to Bill Miller, minor earthquakes occur nearly constantly around the world—even in our own backyards. “Asheville is not in an earthquake-prone area where we expect large earthquakes, but the truth is you could get a large earthquake at any time and any place,” he said.

An earthquake may not shake the South­east this season, but a hurricane might.

“There are indications that suggest we will have an above normal hurricane season,” says Chris Hennon, assistant professor of Atmospheric Sciences.

Despite this prediction, hurricanes have a significant enemy this year: El Niño. El Niño is the warming of the ocean waters in the East Pacific Ocean, which ultimately strengthens upper level winds in the Atlantic Ocean. “Hurricanes don’t like that,” said Hennon, but he contends that El Niño’s autumnal behavior is “a big unknown.”

In spite of the unpredictability of weather there are precautions one can take. When it comes to earthquakes, Bill Miller stresses that if you are inside when an earthquake hits, go to a doorway, the corner of a room or lay down in a bathtub, and don’t go outside. “Think about how many buildings around you have lots of glass. You don’t want to be underneath those falling shards,” he said.

If you live in hurricane-prone areas, Hennon recommends keeping a hurricane kit on-hand, which should contain a radio and batteries, mini-stove, water and non-perishable food.

While they advise safety measures, there is little experts can do to predict many incidences of natural disasters. “Scientists believe that we will see more extremes in weather as our climate shifts to a warmer state,” says Hennon. “But we do not yet have the skill to predict exactly what and when, though, so there is little gained by raising alarm bells.”

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