News: AAAS 2009 Annual Meeting News
Dwindling Resources of Soil, Water and Air Require New Rescue Plans
In her plenary address to the 2009 AAAS Annual Meeting, Kieffer called for the creation of a "CDC for Planet Earth"--an organization that could respond to planetary threats such climate change with the same kind of coordination the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed during the SARS and bird flu outbreaks of the late 1990s. [Watch a video of Kieffer's address.]
Time is not on our side, she emphasized. The processes that create critical resources such as fossil fuels occurred on a geological time scale, like the thousand-year glacial cycles that scoured the Canadian Shield and deposited rich topsoil in the U.S. Midwest.
But the human species is consuming these resources in "shallow time," depleting in hundreds of years what took millions of years to create. "Humans are a geological-scale force now," despite our tendency to look no further forward than our children and grandchildren, said Kieffer.
And for the first time in history, "societies of the whole planet are so interconnected that Planet Earth is essentially one island," where the stealth disasters of one region can become a crisis for the whole globe, she suggested.
A CDC model for the planet's health would provide a framework for monitoring and developing solutions to these disasters in the same way the CDC monitors disease outbreaks, said Kieffer. And although it may seem easier to detect a flu cluster than rising ocean acidity, "we do have advance warnings of stealth disasters, as shown by so many talks in this meeting," she noted.
Kieffer, who holds degrees in math, physics, geology and planetary science, is the Walgreen Endowed Chair of Geology and Physics at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. A MacArthur Fellow best known for her work in fluid dynamics, Kieffer has analyzed the physics and chemistry of eruptions on Jupiter's moon Io, meteorite impacts, river floods, volcanic blasts on Mt. St. Helens and the geyser eruptions of Old Faithful.
Kieffer noted that traditional "natural disasters" such as floods also have become deadly in recent years--simply because the planet's population has expanded to the point where there are more people living in areas primed for disaster.
The devastation of the 2004 Sumatran earthquake and tsunami, which killed more than 300,000 people, could be equaled by massive mud flows in Seattle or a major quake in Istanbul in the next few decades, she said.
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