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  • Writer's pictureFrank DiGiovanni

Surviving Mother Nature

Updated: Jan 9, 2023

Have you ever experienced something truly extraordinary? Perhaps lived through something beyond your control? If so, some of these things are probably natural in their nature: a hurricane, blizzard, wildfire, earthquake, etc. I want to discuss what it’s like to live through something that is beyond human control.

If you’re old enough to remember 1995 here on Long Island (I was 15), then you’ll recall the wildfire that swept through the Pine Barren region of the island. Ultimately the Sunrise Fire scorched 4,500 acres of pine barrens and over 7,000 when those acres are combined with another fire that broke out that same year (in Rocky Point). While 400 people were forced to evacuate, businesses suffered as did tourism on the East End (as it was the height of tourism season). Thankfully only a few firefighters suffered injuries and more importantly, nobody was killed but the physical and emotional scars of that year remain to this day. Investigators said at the time they believed some of the fires had been intentionally set, but regardless of how it started, the Sunrise Fire and other wildfires are vital for some plant species. It was not the first and won't be the last wildfire to sweep the pine barren forests of Long Island.

According to the World Wildlife Fund's website, Pine Barrens are areas underlain by sandy, nutrient poor soils that typically support a stunted forest of pitch pine (Pinus rigida) and blackjack oak (Quercus marilandica) maintained by frequent fires. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service website states the following regarding pine barrens: “Pine barrens, found from southern New England through Long Island and into New Jersey, are inhabited by pitch pine and scrub oak, trees that are well adapted to fire and can depend on it for survival. To release their seeds, the cones of several evergreen trees such as pines, must be exposed to high temperatures to melt their waxy seals. Pine barrens are also home to rare and beautiful plants such as blazing star, wild lupine, and sandplain gerardia (an endangered species) that also need fire to reproduce. Fire controls competing plant species in Oak-hickory forests, found throughout the eastern U.S. Oaks are resistant to fire and benefit from nutrients returned quickly to the soil during a burn. Fire stimulates new sprouts in shagbark hickory.”

Wild Lupine, Pitch Pine and Scrub Oak, all courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

As terrifying as this fire was and other fires are, for those who lived through or escaped them, we must try to remember that we are only living in and alongside nature, we cannot possibly attempt to control it. Therefore, we must do what we can to mitigate the risks we take by building in and close to places like the Pine Barrens and take special caution when our area is under a red flag warning.

We live on an restless planet, I assume you realize that. And much how people say, “New York City is the city that never sleeps.”, our precious planet is always awake and moving about. No, not the roughly 1,000 mph it spins on its axis or the approximately 67,000 miles per hour it orbits our star, but it's the movement under your feet that we shift our attention to.

You have almost certainly heard of the San Andreas Fault in southern California and its long history of earthquakes, the 1989 Loma Prieta (“World Series Earthquake”) and the 1906 San Francisco (Great Earthquake) come to mind (for this geology fan). These earthquakes happened because two tectonic plates that float on the Earth’s mantle continually slide past each other at the “whopping” speed of 1.3 to 1.5 inches per year (or the speed your fingernails grow). The rocks in the fault can absorb a phenomenal amount of stress and pressure before releasing it all at once. This sudden and catastrophic release of hundreds or thousands of years' worth of stress demonstrates our planet is very much alive. But the San Andreas is almost 3,000 miles away from where I sit in Manhasset and distance occasionally makes things seem less… important or noteworthy to us.

Aerial photo of the San Andreas Fault in the Carrizo Plain.Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

So, let us travel some 270 miles directly north of Manhasset, to Plattsburgh, New York and back in time to Saturday, April 20, 2002. I was asleep in my dorm room on the campus of SUNY Plattsburgh after a night of… frivolity… when at 6:50 a.m., I woke to the sounds of my printer, shot glasses and television rattling around on my desk. The 5.3 earthquake, the USGS stated in an earthquake bulletin, "...was felt from Buffalo, New York to Boston, Massachusetts and Baltimore, Maryland." This quake wasn't due to a fault like the San Andreas but rather due to the Indian Lake fault zone that runs through the Adirondack Mountains. This fault slides far less than the San Andreas but this area is also still rebounding from the last glacial period that ended roughly 13,000 years ago. The staggering weight of a mile-plus thick ice sheet pressed the land down and since the glaciers' retreat, the ground has slowly continued to rebound to pre-glacial periods. This rebounding and slipping caused this 2002 earthquake, damaging road, chimneys and other structures and unnerved roughly 3,000 students in the early morning of an April morning. Honestly, I was not scared, rather somewhat excited to be in my first earthquake because I knew what I had to do to keep myself relatively safe. (However, it was the first and strongest aftershock that spooked me... go figure.)

But if you travel some 920 miles southeast of Manhasset, things get even more strange. The New Madrid Seismic Zone is a major seismic zone and a prolific source of intraplate (within a tectonic plate) earthquakes in the Southern and Midwestern U.S., stretching southwest from New Madrid, Missouri. These quakes are rare compared to their inter-plate earthquake (at the boundaries of two plates) cousins, but still need considering and preparing for, especially because these can be large quakes. Because of their infrequency, people tend to forget what has happened in the part of the country, until nature reminds them… Much like many other natural disasters do.

We know the mechanics behind earthquakes and take steps to prepare our buildings from them. Things like mass-dampeners help tall buildings sway in the opposite direction of the ground during an earthquake and base-isolation pads allow a building to move safely during the shaking as well. Earthquake straps can be used to anchor furniture to the walls to prevent them from falling but more reading and information is readily available from the Red Cross website. Yet there is even more information that comes from the good people at Regional Foundation Repair who provided us with information about their work on retrofitting your home's current foundation against the uncertainty of "What if?..." In this article, they first talk about how earthquakes impact a home’s structural integrity. Then they define what seismic retrofitting is and share its benefits. Lastly, they share how to determine when a building needs retrofitting and talk about the methods of retrofitting a home.

And while the likelihood of one, or more, earthquakes with a magnitude of 6.7 or higher in California in the next 30 years is 99%, the odds are less here on the East Coast. However, their information is something you can (and should) share with anyone you know who lives out there. Better to be prepared than caught unawares.

Regardless of what we live through, it is the sudden and often violent reminder that we are only able to control so much of our everyday lives. Our planet is, has been and will be a place of staggering natural violence and unparalleled beauty. Often times, these can be one in the same if you change your perspective.

For example, the Taal volcano in the Philippines, seen below. Because of the violence inside the eruption column a phenomenal amount of static is created, causing the picture you see here: a massive electrical discharge, volcanic lightning. And yes, sadly, pictures like this one often coincide with death; people, pets, livestock, and plants often succumb to the unstoppable onslaught of mother nature. But the far-away beauty, to me, cannot be understated. The volcanic (Pyrocumulonimbus) cloud lit from the lightning, the eerie glow from inside the ash column juxtaposed with the light from the city below it all, is beautiful in its own way. We’re used to and (probably) not scared from thunder and lightning during a thunderstorm, but those things emanating from a volcano, combined with all of its other life-threatening dangers?!? Probably terrifying.

Taal volcano produces a Pyrocumulonimbus Cloud, Philippines. Photo by Domcar C Lagto -Pacific Press via ZUMA Wire/Shutterstock

Now look at the same eruption from a different time and location. What do you see? Horror? Joy? Danger? Beauty? Fun? All of these are in the eye of the beholder but look closer and you might see all of them. Something to remember is that, as dangerous as volcanic ash is, the ash is loaded with nutrients used by plants and those who harvest them, all who live along the slopes of volcanoes around the globe. Terror or boon, volcanoes must be respected for their danger and benefits.

Children playing during Taal eruption. Image courtesy Arden Pimentel

As we try to live on a restless world with things that are often far beyond our control, we prepare as best we can, react when we must, hopefully learn from our and others’ experiences, and build the knowledge before moving forward... We will never be able to live danger-free but we can use these learned experiences and tools to mitigate the very real dangers that our world has.

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