The Tragedy of Nepal

Over two hundred million years ago, there was a large island, what is today the subcontinent of India, in what would be today’s Indian Ocean, separated from the Eurasian continental plate by the (no longer existing) Tethys Ocean. It lay on a different plate, and slowly moved north toward Eurasia, eventually colliding.

As the two plates crunched together, the compressive stresses at the boundary forced the land upward. Thus were born the Himalayas, the world’s tallest mountain range above sea level. Born with them was one of the most seismically active and potentially destructive areas in the world.

Climatologist/statistician Roger Pielke pointed out a few years ago that, since 1570, over 85% of earthquake fatalities have occurred in the region. Sadly, this weekend’s catastrophe in Kathmandu will likely boost the percentage.

In geological terms, events like this happen very often, almost continuously, as the plates continue to grind together, but on a human time scale, the last one occurred over eight decades ago, in 1934. We don’t know what the current death toll is, but that one killed over ten thousand people. Very few Nepalese alive today were around then to remember it, and so complacency had set in (as in many ways it does in other parts of the world that can historically expect major quakes, but where there have been none within human memory, such as the New Madrid region of Missouri and Arkansas).

But despite the lack of personal knowledge of the populace, this event was perfectly predictable. In fact, it was predicted recently (though not the timing), with an estimate of 40,000 fatalities and many more casualties, based on the increase in population of the affected areas in the intervening decades. Fortunately, so far, the loss of life has been below the projections (about 2400 at this writing, though we still don’t have a full accounting, and won’t for weeks).

One group of people who did accept the risk of going to Nepal probably hadn’t considered this possibility of an earthquake, given all of the other dangers they face: those adventurers climbing the highest mountains, and mountain, in the world. The climbing season had just begun on Everest, K2 and Annapurna. It was expected to be a record year in terms of attempts, after destruction of a route by an ice fall disrupted last season and forced a change of routes this year.

On Everest alone, there were 150 climbers and 175 Sherpas/Tibetans on the north route, 359 climbers and 350 Sherpas on the south one, and 108 for Lhotse from the Nepal side -- about a thousand people on the mountain, in the base camp, or higher up the mountain, when the quake hit. In addition to frostbite, apoxia, exhaustion and hypothermia, avalanches are a known and continuous danger. The base-camp location was probably chosen to try to minimize this. But they probably hadn’t considered the possibility of the mountain itself violently shaking and driving tons of snow down.

When the quake occurred, much of the camp was wiped out, and several were killed. The video is harrowing [warning, bad language in multiple languages].

At the higher elevations, in Camps 1 and 2, the route back down has been cut off, and the climbers and guides will have to be evacuated by helicopter when the weather allows. Everyone on Annapurna is reportedly safe but, at least on Everest, this climbing season is almost certainly over almost as quickly as it began.

In the rest of the region, in addition to the loss of life, the cultural loss has been devastating, with the almost-total destruction of some religious sites, and Buddhist and Hindu temples. Traditionally, such structures are not built to modern earthquake codes. We will see whether they are rebuilt, and if so, to what specifications.

Which brings us to the issue of the real cause of mass casualties in natural disasters: Poverty kills.

As we saw in the 2006 tsunami in southeast Asia, and as we see in earthquakes, the biggest factor in how many people die is whether or not they had the resources to build infrastructure that could survive the disaster, and to recover afterward. The Northridge earthquake in Los Angeles in 1994, while not as large as this one, would have killed many more people if structures hadn’t been built to modern standards.

The biggest casualties were from a single collapsed apartment building. And after the earthquake, the region’s societal wealth allowed rapid rescue and rebuilding. Third-world countries such as Nepal have no such resources. Absent the aid of the C-17s and other aircraft flying in with supplies, from America, Israel and other wealthy nations, the death toll would mount still higher, as victims are dug out too late to rescue them, and the injured die from their injuries and infections absent adequate medical supplies.

Those advocating dramatic reductions in carbon emissions to prevent future natural disasters potentially arising from anthropogenic change to the climate often claim to be advocates for the third-world poor, such as those on low-lying islands, or in flood-prone areas such as Bangladesh. But to the degree that their recommended policy solutions reduce growth in societal wealth, by forcing expensive energy choices over low-cost fossil fuels (and that degree is large), they help ensure not only that the poor stay poor, and more vulnerable to events both natural and human caused, but that the wealthier among us will be less able to afford to help in situations like this.