What is happening in Japan is just one example of multiple layers of pre-existing risk laid bare when a disaster strikes.
Global populations are confronting increased exposure to natural hazards such as earthquakes, floods, droughts and other extreme weather conditions. They are facing the cumulative implications of earlier human decisions that compounded the effects of an initial physical hazard — for example, the failure of poor housing construction just outside cities or the compromise of rivers due to over damming and navigation channeling that perverts the natural feedback between erosion and the movement of sediment.
There are other compound crises waiting to unfold.
For years, environmental experts have warned of the dangers posed by unprotected uranium tailings (the waste byproducts produced when mining for nuclear fuel) in the former USSR. In Kyrgyzstan, for example, landslide, flood and mudflow hazards were not considered in the planning of tailings storage there. Should any of those occur, there is a chance those nuclear tailings would be exposed, heightening health, environmental and economic risks for surrounding populations. And the risks posed by nuclear tailings are not limited to the former USSR. The potential risks that tailing dams and ponds (where waterborne waste material from mining is stored) pose in the context of earthquakes and flooding, in particular, has also been well-documented in the U.S. and Germany among other countries. Even natural water storage infrastructure facilities could produce compound crises should dam structures suffer in an earthquake.
And, of course, closer to home, there is the continued oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, an area at high risk of hurricanes and severe tropical storms. As Americans living along the Gulf Coast know all too well, the proper maintenance and disaster-resistance of these industrial enterprises are paramount if a major hurricane is not to trigger an environmental and human catastrophe there in the future. It is clear that our industrial activity — nuclear power production, oil rigging, natural gas drilling, coal mining and the manner in which we dispose of the radioactive and chemical waste — can no longer be conducted without more careful consideration of how these activities may be affected by natural disasters.