In recent decades, human technology has reached the point of being able to cause earthquakes—sometimes through waste disposal, sometimes via fracking. Kathryn Miles’s Quakeland is an examination of the connection between humans and earthquakes: how our own actions can cause them to occur, and how their aftereffects can cause disruptions to our increasingly interconnected society. It’s a memorable look at how technological progress can damage the natural world in ways we’d never imagined.
Facing the Wave
In 2011, a massive earthquake occurred in the Pacific Ocean near the Tōhoku coast. The resulting tsunami caused wide-scale death and destruction in Japan, including a meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. Gretel Ehrlich’s powerful work of nonfiction chronicles her travels throughout Japan in the tsunami’s aftermath, and precisely documents the wrenching effects it had on a nation. It’s one of several books that examines the human cost of such events: Sonali Deraniyagala’s memoir, Wave: Life and Memories after the Tsunami, about the aftereffects of an earthquake and tsunami in the Indian Ocean in 2004, also earned numerous glowing reviews after its 2013 release.
Rain is a ubiquitous occurrence for many of us. Sometimes it can herald a change in climate; at others, it can cause crops to grow and refill reservoirs. It can frustrate as well, when it turns outdoor activities into canceled activities. Cynthia Barnett’s acclaimed book takes a grand view of its subject, beginning with the Earth in its infancy and bringing the reader up to present-day concerns about climate change. Barnett has written several books looking at the relationship between humans and water, and this comprehensive work makes an urgent case for the importance of this bond.
The Great Quake
North America’s largest earthquake took place in Alaska in 1964, killing 139 people, destroying an entire village, and causing tsunamis that reached Japan. Its massive impact can still be observed on the landscape today. Henry Fountain’s The Great Quake examines the events and impact of the earthquake, giving a panoramic description of how the catastrophe unfolded. But his book also looks at the scientific consequences of the event, and how it led scientists to rethink their understanding of how earthquakes happen.
While many of the books listed here deal with relatively contemporary catastrophes, Erik Larson’s Isaac’s Storm ventures back over a century into history. Here, his subject is the hurricane that devastated Galveston—with a death toll measured in the thousands—in the year 1900. Larson provides readers with a haunting look at the storm’s effects, and the way in which its impact reshaped how we now consider the impact of massive storms.
A glance at recent news—or even a brief check of the weather outside—has led many people to an ominous conclusion: something has gone very wrong with the natural world around us. In recent months, hurricanes have devastated the Caribbean and the southern United States. Island nations in the Pacific face the prospect of being entirely flooded within a few years. Increased droughts have prompted political upheaval throughout the world. The sort of scenarios that have cropped up in foreboding speculative novels of the near future—Claire Vaye Watkins’s Gold Fame Citrus and Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife both come to mind—are increasingly turning into contemporary newspaper headlines. Here’s a look at five books that explore natural disasters, some on a macro level, others zeroing in on the impact of one catastrophe. Both options leave us with plenty to ponder, and hopefully provide lessons with which we can avoid repeating the errors of the past.