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'Mother Nature will win when she wants to'



Published: Sat, January 1, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



Scientists are struck by the imbalance of power between humanity and creation.

KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS

WASHINGTON -- Man can dam rivers, build skyscrapers, even go to the moon, but sometimes nature needs only a split second to remind us who's really boss.

Last Sunday's tsunami offers yet another humbling lesson that the power of nature far exceeds the reach -- indeed, even the imagination -- of man.

The earthquake and subsequent tsunami released as much energy as 1 million atomic bombs. It changed -- slightly but perceptibly to modern science -- the wobble and rotation of the Earth. It also redistributed Earth's mass, moving the North Pole 1 inch and causing the length of a day to shrink permanently by 3 millionths of a second, according to geophysicist Richard Gross of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. It also prompted prominent scientists to ponder the relationship between mankind, nature and God.

Yet this monstrous event wasn't even the worst natural disaster of the past 30 years. The 1976 Tangshan earthquake in China killed at least 255,000 people, and maybe more than half a million.

And when measured by geologic time, last Sunday's upheaval of earth and sea was but a mere pygmy.

65 million years ago

Consider, for example, that about 65 million years ago, a 6-mile-wide asteroid smashed into the Earth and triggered a tsunami 300 feet high. It threw debris into the air that blotted out the sun and caused a global winter, and it killed about three-quarters of the Earth's species, probably including dinosaurs.

That was the fifth mass extinction in Earth's history.

Nature's majesty is even more awesome deep in the universe, where suns explode and black holes swallow entire solar systems.

"Mother Nature will win when she wants to," said Kathryn Sullivan, the first U.S. woman to walk in space and a former chief scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

When the forces of man and nature clash, she said, "you get reminded that the power of this planet is really there. We are, in our forces, implicitly nothing."

Nature's unleashed forces are still building this world.

Last Sunday's tsunami "is something that in an instant demonstrates to us the dynamic processes that shape our planet; it's why we have mountains," said Paul Richards, a professor of natural sciences at Columbia University. "It's what it means to be a member of planet Earth. ... Does that inspire awe? Obviously, it does."

Scientists say the more they study Earth and the universe, the more they're struck by the imbalance of power between humanity and creation.

"Nature is much more powerful, and we have precious little ability to influence what happens at that scale," said Rice University professor Neal Lane, former chief science adviser to President Clinton. "It's a deeply humbling experience. We are able to control an infinitesimal amount of energy compared to the natural-energy events going on in the universe."

Mankind has much to be humble about.

"The forces of man are pretty puny," said biology professor Ursula Goodenough at Washington University in St. Louis. Tsunamis remind scientists to think about great forces and "what we give assent to for having the gift of the lives we have."

Belief in God

For scientists such as space-traveler Sullivan, that means belief in God.

"There's certainly portions and power of some scope beyond me that I know are not going to be found at the end of a telescope," she said.

For others, such as biologist Goodenough, it means acknowledging scientific laws of the universe, such as gravity, but not a God in a biblical sense. "For me," she said, "that's a religious understanding."

Lane said the majesty of nature was what motivated scientists.

"I have always found it overwhelming," Lane said. "I think the mystery of nature is really what drives most scientists. That's why they don't sleep very much at night. Those mysteries are out there."

The same issue is addressed from a different perspective in the Bible's book of Job, when Job questions why he's suffered so:

"Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind: 'Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you and you shall declare to me. Where were you when I laid the foundation of the Earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements -- surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it?"

Shortly afterward, God asks Job if he thinks he has God's power to "lift up your voice to the clouds that a flood of waters may cover you?"

Whether in the lab or the pew, humans continue to struggle against larger powers, often trying to control or at least harness nature, and sometimes succeeding -- until dramatic events such as this mock human presumption.

Bothersome

This bothers some scientists, including Kathleen Tierney, a University of Colorado sociologist and the director of the Natural Hazards Research and Applications Information Center.

By damming natural rivers and building large cities in hurricane-prone areas such as Florida, "we are continuing to act as if nature doesn't even exist, and that we can do anything we want on this planet and we're not going to suffer the consequences from it," Tierney said.

"Do we respect nature, and do we live with nature? No, we want nature to do our bidding," Tierney said. "We live in a society that believes that technology can solve all of our problems, that we can overcome our own human limitations through technology."

When a tsunami comes, she said, it shows that Earth "doesn't care. It's nature."

Disasters do, however, reveal another human power, one that can't be measured in energy released, physical destruction or computer calculations of the Earth's spin.

"What I see in disaster," Tierney said, "is the tremendous resilience of people."




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