As a little girl in the 1950s and 1960s, I remember the mosquito trucks. I could hear them chugging slowly down the Main Street of Preston. Sometimes children would follow behind trying to catch them.
Those were the heady days when we thought that we could control nature. DDT, pesticides, plowing, and herbicides were just a few of the ways that we were going to make nature yield to humankind’s demands. In the 1950s through the 1970s we attempted to take control over Mother Nature.
During droughts, planes seeded the clouds with silver iodide or other particulate matter to create rain. Towns built sandbars and dumped tons and tons of sand on their beaches to keep them from eroding.
Hawaii even tried bombing volcanoes to prevent eruptions and redirect lava flows. The military had several classified projects to change monsoons or hurricanes by flying aircraft into storms and seeding the eyewall with silver iodide or soot.
Scientists developed methods to trigger earthquakes and tried them out in Rangely, a small town in Colorado. (Ironically, the recent boom in oil and gas production has created a dramatic increase in earthquakes which are caused by wastewater injection.)
We cut down forests to produce farmland; we filled in wetlands to build homes; and we developed levees, canals, dams, reservoirs, and pumping stations to control flooding. While some of these abatements were successful, Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Harvey taught us that Mother Nature can thwart even the best engineered plans.
By the 1970s, scientists recognized that attempts to control nature were both fruitless and destructive. They pivoted to prediction.
The eruption of the Fagradalsfjall volcano in Iceland in December is an example of the benefits of that research. The eruption had been predicted, despite the fact that before 2021, the volcano had slept soundly for almost 6,000 years.
How did volcanologists know it was coming? They continuously monitored the number and size of earthquakes, the chemistry of ground gasses and groundwater, changes in land formation, and elevated ground temperatures. But volcanoes still keep their secrets because they change constantly. Because of that, volcanology is a dangerous profession (as of 2017, 67 have died from unexpected eruptions).
Volcanoes are easy to recognize by their conical shape. There are estimated to be 1,000 volcanoes on the earth, but many are hidden underground or underwater.
One of the most dangerous underground volcanoes, because of its proximity, is adjacent to Naples, Italy. Naples is nestled between two active volcanoes, the famous Vesuvius (destroyer of Pompeii) and the unseen Campi Flegrei volcano. The Campi Flegrei volcano has been showing disturbing signs of instability for over 60 years. In the 1980’s, scientists believed an eruption was imminent and ordered evacuation of the area, but it never happened. So now, they carefully monitor the cresting and falling of the land surrounding the volcano and have begun mapping out the magma in the volcano using sound waves.
How good have we gotten at predicting Mother Nature’s onslaughts?
Not too good. To date, predicting the size, location, and timing of natural hazards remains elusive.
Scientists can accurately predict when tides will flow and how high they will reach. Flooding is somewhat predictable using tidal data, rainfall, and ground saturation.
Satellites monitor weather patterns over the oceans to predict where and when hurricanes may form and eventually make landfall. Atlantic Ocean hurricanes form slowly from disturbances in the air off the coast of Africa. Satellites enable meteorologists to monitor their formation, but meteorologists remain limited in their ability to predict when they will form and exactly where they will hit land.
Initially wildfires can be predictable, but once they gain momentum, wind gusts, land formations, fuel, and the nature of wildfires themselves can cause devastating, unpredictable consequences in an instant.
The ability to predict landslides remains elusive, even using fractal simulations. Scientists don’t yet have a deep enough understanding of the causes of slope failures.
Tsunamis can be predicted after an earthquake is detected, and some underwater tsunamis can be predicted in advance. But scientists can only accurately predict tsunamis by observing water retraction towards the horizon and sometimes this is only a few minutes before the wave hits (e.g., the Phuket tsunami).
Earthquakes are predictable when scientists know the fault lines, but there are many fault lines even under LA that remain undiscovered. The Northridge earthquake occurred on a fault line that seismologists did not know existed. If seismologists know about the fault line, they can use a seismometers or seismographs to detect accelerated tectonic plate movements and predict an earthquake. But the natural world is more accurate. Rats, weasels, snakes, and centipedes evacuate several days before a large earthquake. Animal behaviorists are trying to learn why.
For volcanoes, there are early warnings, as we saw in Iceland. When earthquakes and ground deformation increase rapidly, a volcanic eruption is imminent.
Tornados remain unpredictable and strike quickly with little warning. Scientists know that certain thunderstorm and hurricane cells are prerequisites for tornados, but the formation and behavior of tornados is still erratic. For now, satellite data can detect the cells and most communities have extensive warning systems to alert citizens after one has been observed.
Meteorologists have made little progress in predicting droughts, which are a nemesis to the Eastern Shore. El Nino and La Nina provide some clues but no real assistance in determining when a drought will occur and how long it will last. Droughts will remain random because of the instability of global weather patterns.
So where does this leave us?
Mother Nature remains in control. And while I am grateful that scientists keep trying, Mother Nature seems to be just winking at us.
Angela Rieck, a Caroline County native, received her PhD in Mathematical Psychology from the University of Maryland and worked as a scientist at Bell Labs, and other high-tech companies in New Jersey before retiring as a corporate executive. Angela and her dogs divide their time between St Michaels and Key West Florida. Her daughter lives and works in New York City.