top of page

That was too close... Five natural disasters that may yet happen.

By Andy Cooke

As this series comes to an end, I'm going to wrap up by doing something a little different: looking at a wider set of potential natural disasters.

This series has looked at moments where a random twitch of Fate - or luck - saved us from a disaster which had the potential to alter history. Often in a very significant way.

Natural disasters are usually exemplars of random events - the Butterfly Effect is named after the potential of a butterfly flapping its wings changing the trajectory of a tornado far away around the globe, weeks later (more on that later). This article is a slight change of pace - I'm going to look at categories of potential natural disasters which haven't (yet) changed history. Or, at least, not to the extent of which they're capable. I've included potential examples from the past in each category. There are plenty more.

When you are looking for Points of Divergence for your alternate history, don't forget to consider these natural disaster possibilities. Consider the outcomes - not just in immediate effect, but politically, economically, socially...

In short, there is plenty of opportunity for apocalyptic alternate history that has not been covered in existing works.

5 - Storm surges - the Thames Barrier fails

Image by the Environment Agency

The Docklands under water. Southwark. The Isle of Dogs. Westminster and Whitehall. Woolwich, Hammersmith, West Ham ... the flood waters going right up the Thames Estuary and inland to the Thames Valley.

The water pours down into the Tube. London shudders to a total halt. One of the two "Alpha + +" world cities on the planet incapacitated.

The death toll might be small (but painful); the wider effects can be left to your imagination. The sewage system of millions of people overwhelmed and backed up. Communications hubs damaged or destroyed, the seat of Government unavailable, the key financial district of Europe overwhelmed.

Could this happen? After all, the Thames Barrier exists to prevent it.

However - the Thames Barrier can, in theory, be overwhelmed. It would need a combination of a tidal surge, high tides, and a storm blowing in the wrong direction - a combination that's calculated at occurring just once per 1,000 years. You can look at that number and think, "Hey, we're safe!" Or you can look at it and say, "So which year will it be?" When you think about it, if there are a hundred places around the world safe from all-but-one-in-a-thousand-years events... it means we'd expect one such, somewhere, in any given decade.

In December 2013, the worst storm surge in 60 years hit the Thames Estuary, driven by Cyclone Xaver. However, the combination of conditions above didn't quite reach the "sweet spot" and so the Thames Barrier held - comfortably. Otherwise the map above would have come to pass. A butterfly flapping its wings a week or so earlier could have changed the storm so nothing at all happened - or that the synergy came together and the waters came to London after all.

4 - Hurricanes - Hurricane Ike dodges Houston at the last moment; Hurricane Patricia veers around Mexico seemingly seeking to avoid causing damage

Hurricane Ike from the ISS

Three years after Hurricane Katrina smashed New Orleans, the Category 4 storm, Hurricane Ike, bore down on Houston in Texas. The fourth-most populous city in the USA was facing a twenty-feet storm surge, and low-lying areas began to be evacuated - but could enough people be moved to safety before it hit the city?

At the last moment, it swerved away. Hurricane tracks are extremely susceptible to tiny, chaotic changes in air pressure or random jets of air thrown off by themselves - which is behind the proverbial Butterfly Effect. More than twenty people died from drowning, fires, accidents, or medical equipment failures - but we only need to look at New Orleans to see just how bad it could have been if the storm hadn't dodged aside at the last moment. At the tail-end of the Bush administration, six weeks prior to the 2008 Presidential election, there could easily have been a second Katrina.

Hurricane Patricia approaches Mexico

Seven years later, a Category 5 hurricane smashed into the western coast of Mexico. Making straight for Puerto Vallarta, in the middle of the most populous area of the Mexican Pacific coast, and from there, towards Guadalajara - with five million people in the metropolitan area alone.

It turned aside and struck the coast further south, in one of the least populated areas of Mexico, halfway between Puerto Vallarta and the busy port of Manzanillo. Veering away from built-up regions, it battered rural and sparsely populated areas instead - a fairly unlikely event in a place as densely populated as Mexico. There were minimal deaths - thanks to a butterfly flapping its wings in the right place at the right time. Had Patricia caused massive damage in Mexico in December 2015, the effects would linger to this day.

3 - Earthquakes - San Francisco is not levelled by the 1989 earthquake

Los Angeles. San Francisco. Tokyo. Istanbul. Seattle. Tehran.

All cities vulnerable to large earthquakes; all cities where such an earthquake could have history-changing consequences. Earthquakes are unpredictable events - there are too many factors playing into them, some all but random.

The 1906 "Big One" that hit San Francisco ruptured the San Andreas fault in two places: north of San Francisco, and to the south, in the Santa Cruz mountains, with the epicentre of the Magnitude 7.9 quake near the Golden Gate Bridge.

In 1989, the San Andreas fault shifted again, at the Santa Cruz Mountains, near the peak of Lomar Prieta.

This happened to be just enough to relieve the stresses sufficiently.

It was less than a thirtieth as energetic as the 1906 quake. It still caused considerable damage to San Francisco (and severe damage to Santa Cruz), killing dozens and injuring thousands.

The build up of pressure that resulted in the Lomar Prieta earthquake could easily have caused a different area of the fault line to shift as well. Every city on my list (and many more) could easily have had a catastrophic and history-changing earthquake as well (the 1999 Izmit earthquake near Istanbul, for example. Or you may not have the 2011 Tohoku earthquake that caused the tsunami that struck Fukushima... instead having the stresses dissipated elsewhere nearby, shifting a nearby faultline instead. Near Tokyo)

2 - Solar storm - 2012 doesn't see the collapse of electronic communications and massive, life-threatening disruption

Our Sun is not a completely stable star.

A fact that can make one quite uncomfortable. Solar storms on the surface of the sun, solar flares, and coronal mass ejections are not uncommon events.

In 1859, one such solar storm caused an eruption of charged plasma. This was not unusual - on the large side, maybe, but not unheard of. The plasma eruption, vigorous enough that it blasted off the surface of the Sun and sped through the Solar System, happened to impact Earth on 1st-2nd September.

As it struck the Earth's magnetic field, the most glorious auroras were seen - people could read the paper by the light of the aurora.

And the electromagnetic pulse took out telegraph systems all over Europe and North America. Sparks flew from telegraph lines and pylons. Disconnected telegraphs could still send messages, with no power source. Imagine the effects of such an electromagnetic pulse on our connected world today.

You almost didn't have to imagine it. In 2012, a very similar solar storm blasted off another coronal mass ejection, plasma surging out... and missing the Earth, as the Solar equator just happened to be pointing in the wrong direction (had it occurred nine days earlier, we'd have been hit).

1 - Supervolcano eruption. While we watch Yellowstone, the ground near Naples bulges dangerously...

We still have much to learn about supervolcanoes.

We know that they erupt with a force literally orders of magnitude greater than Krakatoa or Mount Saint Helens (Mount St Helens blasted 1.1 cubic kilometres of ash into the atmosphere; the great Toba supervolcano eruption of 75,000 BC sent up to 3,000 cubic kilometres skywards, plunging the world into a long winter that may have nearly caused human extinction).

We know there's one under Yellowstone National Park, one under Long Valley in California, one in North Sumatra, one in Chile, one in Bolivia, one in New Zealand, at least one in Russia, in Japan, one in Italy, near Naples...

We think we know that the Yellowstone one isn't anywhere near erupting (insufficient liquid magma), but scientists have changed their minds on this a couple of times so far. The one in Long Valley was thought to be all-but-extinct, but recently it's started looking more alive (they'd thought the magma chamber had crystallised, but recently found out that there was over a thousand cubic kilometres of magma there after all).

And the Phlegrean Fields near Naples has been rising and subsiding rhythmically for some decades now with the pulsing heart of its magma chamber filling and leaking out again. Last time it went off properly, it caused climate change so severe that it is theorised that it caused the final extinction of the Neanderthals. Nowadays, three million people live right next to it. Right in the heart of Europe.


Thank you for reading this series; I hope I've given you some food for thought for potential random inflexion points in history over the past two-and-a-half months. All good things come to an end, as do less good things, and this series has run its course.

I may continue it with a turn of direction, however. I've focused exclusively on disasters that didn't happen; I could always move on by broadening it to any event that didn't happen. Or I could shift to another series I was considering: "Punks" (covering Cyberpunk, Steampunk, Dieselpunk, Atompunk, etc): what makes a setting "-Punk"? Many of these are now alternate history, after all. Suggestions welcome in the comments.



bottom of page