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Fighting a Fear of Natural Disasters

The threat of climate emergencies has this nervous writer on high alert


I was excited to read recently that a giant blob of hot rock is building up under the New England states. I needed a new natural disaster to worry about.

Hello, my name is Liane and I am a recovering worry wart.

Anxiety is hard-wired into my DNA. Or maybe it’s hot-wired. Either way, I blame my mother.

Yes, I tend to be a tad nervous, so you can see why I’d be delighted to think I could be blissfully warbling along with a bunch of my fellow boomers at the James Taylor concert at Tanglewood just as a hot balloon of bubbling rock blows up the Berkshires.

But as big as the blob is, according to geophysicists, compared to other masses churning under the continental U.S., this one’s not even a whopper. Bragging rights belong to the Yellowstone caldera, which squats over an active super volcano capable of eruptions thousands of times more violent than Mount St. Helens. It’s like an unopened can of Mountain Dew that’s been shaken. When the top finally pops, it will blast enough ash to blanket the lower 48. A Washington Post reporter observes such a scenario would be “a bad day” that “requires some attention.”  A nice stab at ironic understatement. But it doesn’t fly with jumpy folks like me. We know when we’re hearing a dog whistle for disaster.

When I’m not obsessing about the cataclysm du jour–and I realize some can be very serious with tragic implications, like the recent tsunami in Indonesia–I have more pedestrian worries. Sink holes in parking lots. Bubonic plague in New Mexico. A 143-ton glob of fat known as the Whitechapel Fatberg menacing the London sewers.

Existential Questions about Climate Change

Last year, I got all worked up when a trillion-ton killer iceberg the size of Delaware broke away from Antarctica. The Larsen ice shelf has been floating in Antarctica for at least 10,000 years. The chunk that broke off is known as Larsen C. Apparently there was a Larsen B — which was the size of Rhode Island — that I somehow missed, probably because I was too busy fretting that the century old Kensico Dam, a 6.8-mile jog from our house, might burst.

As a professionally anxious individual, thinking about climate change makes me ponder existential questions. What’s the sense of doing anything if we’re already doomed? If there’s global warming and oceans rise and weather patterns go kablooey, farm land will flood. Vegetable crops will fail. I, for one, will really miss avocado toast.

By now you may be wondering, was she always this way? When my husband and I got engaged, he wondered the same thing. He asked my mother, “Is your daughter the kind of person who’s only happy when she has something to worry about?”

“Yes,” she said a little too readily for my taste. “Why? Does this mean you’re changing your mind?”

He’s still sticking around, though. He accepts that the 24/7 news cycle is a feast for folks like me, a big all-you-can-eat smorgasbord of doomsday delights. There’s always something for me to chew on. Killer tsunamis that wash away entire Japanese villages. Volcanic plumes from Iceland that shut down air travel to Europe. Bulging magma chambers spewing enough hot rock to fill the Grand Canyon.

Adding a New Worry

Thanks to an article in the New Yorker last year, I’ve been able to add the Cascadia Subduction Zone to my list. Apparently, there’s a humongous fault line in the Cascade Range in the Pacific Northwest. A huge quake is coming. It isn’t a matter of if, it’s a question of when. This one will be the Really Big One, unlike its more popular friend, the San Andreas Fault, which is merely the Big One.

Here’s a refresher for anyone who skipped Earth Science 101: Tectonic plates are those drifting slabs of mantle and crust. Like real estate agents, they love to rearrange your stuff, only in this case it’s the earth’s oceans and continents. Subduction zones are the places where one tectonic plate slides underneath another. The tectonic plate in Cascadia is called Juan de Fuca.

Juan is slipping steadily under North America. When scientists talk about it, they say scary stuff like, “the paradigm has shifted to ‘uh-oh.’” Words you never want to hear from a scientist. They say the subduction zone is 620 miles long, starting in California, meandering past Oregon and Washington, and terminating at Vancouver Island. After the Really Big One, anybody living 50 miles inland will be looking at beachfront property.

Just yesterday, I got an invitation to speak at a book event in Portland, Ore. My immediate professional reaction was, Nuh-uh. The FEMA director in that area says, “Our operating assumption is that everything west of Interstate 5 will be toast.” Not the kind with avocado. So long, Seattle. Ta-ta, Tacoma. Farewell, Walla Walla.

Ready with Emergency Essentials

That’s when I told myself “get a grip” and switched off my iPhone. I needed a news cleanse.

With nothing better to do, I lingered over breakfast. Then I lounged in the hammock. I was living the dream. Until I noticed how loudly the birds were twittering, which made me wonder what I was missing on social media. Were the polar ice caps still hanging on? Could you (and by you, I mean me) catch hantavirus by lying around in your own backyard? Not being stressed out was stressing me out.

But my husband says he’s not worried about me. He knows I actually handle these things better than you’d think. Many years ago, we were shaken awake early one morning by a 4.0 magnitude earthquake. It sounded like a Mack truck idling under the apartment building. I leaped with fear from our bed. But I had the presence of mind to ask him, “Did the earth move for you, too?” In my defense, we were still newlyweds.

So, yes, that’s how I roll. I just heard there’s a Nor’easter heading up the coast. Which means I’ve got escape routes to map. I need to reorganize my Go-Bag, which is not to be confused with a Red Cross-approved Shelter In Place Kit. My Go-Bag has all the emergency essentials I could possibly need, because you can never be too prepared.

To be extra sure, I’m packing my own avocados.

By Liane Kupferberg Carter
Liane Kupferberg Carter is a writer, journalist and autism advocate. Her articles and essays have been published in the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, Parents Magazine, Scary Mommy and Brain, Child. She is also the author of Ketchup Is My Favorite Vegetable: A Family Grows Up With Autism (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2016).

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