An American Museum of Natural History exhibit opening Saturday, “Nature’s Fury: The Science of Natural Disasters,” shows that New Yorkers have more to worry about than rising housing costs, subway fare hikes, and stagnant wages.
Another thing to add to our “Please, God — No!” lists?
“Hurricanes! Because we’re in a coastal city! Hurricanes are spawned in tropical seas and move west and northwest up the coast,” explained Edmond A. Mathez, earth and planetary sciences curator at the museum.
In case you think we met our quota two years ago when Superstorm Sandy walloped NYC, Mathez said, “of course there will be more” such calamities.
Mathez was speaking at a preview of “Nature’s Fury,” which vividly demonstrates and displays the causes and consequences of tsunamis, volcanos, tornadoes, earthquakes, landslides and hurricanes. The end of the exhibit features a “Superstorm Sandy” area with an interactive tabletop map and dramatic recounting of what led up to the storm, as well as efforts made to mitigate its terrible toll.
Luckily, our city leaders are not science deniers and are aware of risks to come (“that’s the most important thing” said Mathez).
But the curator acknowledged there is a long tradition in many places of managing only after crises. Denying and minimizing happens “especially in democratic countries, where people can argue,” about the likelihood of an epic disaster and how much should be spent to prepare for or avoid impact.
But also, Mathez noted, epic disasters are infrequent, and “we forget! … We’re not biologically programmed to deal with events that occur infrequently.” The exhibit is an ominous interactive stroll through “the worst that can happen,” with lots of interesting history, factoids, science and mythology: The Chinese had an earthquake seismometer in A.D. 132, though it measured earthquake direction, not strength.
One depicted in the exhibit is an ornate vase-like structure of eight dragon heads surrounded by open-mouthed toads. Shaking caused a ball to drop from a dragon’s mouth into a toad’s, indicating the direction of the earthquake. Northwest Indians attributed the origin of a tsunami to an underwater clash between a giant whale and a mythical creature called a thunderbird. There is also plenty to learn about reverse faults, dust devils and waterspouts, and an earthquake’s primary waves and secondary waves.
If there’s a silver lining in natural disasters, it is that communities often gain strength after massive adversity. Strangers became neighbors after Sandy, and the eruption of local helpfulness resembled the cohesion of Samoan communities following a tsunami, noted Jennifer Newell, assistant curator of the AMNH division of anthropology. “Part of the message (of the exhibit) is that communities find strength in recoveries,” though the bonds forged in crisis often fray as the disaster fades into the past, said Newell. “We have to increase the extent to which we rely on each other going forward,” she said. “In a way, it’s sad that it takes an epic disaster to bring us together,” Newell said.
“Nature’s Fury: The Science of Natural Disasters,” runs Saturday through Aug. 9, 2015, from 10 a.m. — 5:45 p.m. daily, though the Museum is closed Thanksgiving and Christmas. Tickets to “Fury,” which include Museum admission, are $27 for adults, $16 for children 2 and up, and $22 for students and seniors.