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‘Nova’ Takes a Look at Disastrous Weather
October 25, 2017  | By David Hinckley

PBS’s Nova series has decided that the way to make us feel better about this year’s catastrophic weather events is to point out that at some point over the last 20,000 years, extreme weather has been worse.

Thanks, Nova. I guess.

Nova has assembled the subtly titled trio of Killer Volcanoes, Killer Hurricanes, and Killer Floods, which will run consecutive Wednesdays beginning this week, 9 p.m. ET (check local listings).

In keeping with PBS and Nova standards, the three shows are meticulously researched and packed with scientific data. Collectively, they answer the question we might not even want to ask, which is whether nature could get more destructive than it got this year with hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, or it got a few years back when Mount St. Helens erupted.

The answer is yes, which shouldn’t come as any surprise when you think about it. If we’re dealing with a span of 10,000 or 20,000 years, odds are fairly slim that the worst events would all have occurred within the hundred years of our living memory.

What’s mildly mitigating is that we can look on long-ago disasters with some detachment, simply as awesome displays of natural power. Since none of us knows any of the people who were wiped out, there’s less of an emotional connection, which turns the volcano that buried Pompeii into something more like spectacular special effects in a disaster movie.

Except, of course, Pompeii really happened, and people really died, and in the case of volcanoes and hurricanes, the sobering punchline in this Killer trilogy is that yes, it could happen again.

The situation is a little less ominous with floods, it turns out. Devastating as the floods from hurricanes Harvey or Katrina were for Houston and New Orleans, the long-ago floods in these specials were the kind that severed present-day Britain from Europe by carving out the English channel.

Closer to our U.S. home, long-ago floods in what’s now Washington state carved out the massive Scablands. It’s all dry land today, but when the water came through, it created waterfalls that dwarf Niagara Falls.

We won’t get floods on that scale again, it’s explained here, until the next Ice Age rolls around. That will happen, if geological history is any guide, but not in any of our lifetimes.

Massive hurricanes are another story. Serious as this year’s storms have been, historical records of a 1780 hurricane that leveled Barbados suggest that we may not have seen the worst.

Our saving grace, which isn’t the focus of the Nova series, lies in preparation. The Category 4 hurricane that ruined Galveston in 1900 (right), or the 1935 hurricane that tore up the Florida Keys, led to many more deaths simply because fewer warnings left vulnerable people taking fewer precautions.

Killer volcanoes may be the biggest wild card. The most fascinating scientific treasure hunt in this series uncovers details of a volcano that blew in 1257 in Indonesia with such power that its ash and sulphuric acid dimmed the entire Earth for at least a year thereafter.

This led to widespread crop failure, famine and starvation in places as remote as Britain – and undoubtedly in other places where no one was writing anything down.

The Nova series isn’t a Tornado Chasers kind of show. There’s footage of recent catastrophic disasters, but more footage of the rock formations and pumice deposits that provided the clues with which scientists were able to file reports on weather than dates back a millennium. Or 10.

The Killer series also quietly reminds us that in geological terms, we’re only here for the blink of an eye. But that’s another show.

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