WE’RE DOOOOOOOOOOMED!

At the beginning of the summer, a bunch of Canadian newspapers seemed to be forecasting doom and destruction for boats and oil rigs off Newfoundland as a giant ice island drifted down from Greenland. “Pffft,” we thought. “There’s a lot of other stuff waiting to destroy us all.”

Because it’s summer and we know you can handle it, we decided to take a look at some of the terrible, terrible possibilities.

CATASTROPHIC OIL SPILL

Possibility Rating: 2-out-of-5 skulls
Catastrophe Rating: 4-out-of-5 skulls

How Likely Is It?

It’s all in the unknowns.

“The BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico was not the world’s last oil spill,” says Brad DeYoung, MUN professor of Physical Oceanography. “Oil spills will continue. They’re not probable here, but they’re not probable anywhere. And though significant efforts are made to minimize their probability, when spills have occurred, they’ve largely occurred because of things that nobody’s anticipated.”

What’s the Worst-Case Scenario?

A deep water spill will kill lots of birds and fish, but it will also burst up to the surface in a large plume and disperse, allowing oil-eating bacteria to get at it, DeYoung says. It’s the shallow water and close-to-shore accidents that’ll do us in. If the wind is right, a tanker running aground or a leak in the shallow Hibernia field will have oil coating the coastline onshore in no time.

Another concern is ice and horrible conditions at sea, neither of which are rare in Newfoundland. Oil trapped under an iced-over area stays that way until the ice melts and clean-up crews can get to it.

Are We All Going to Die?

Poisoned fish stocks, hundreds of thousands of dead birds, polluted coastlines, belly-flopping tourism, and widespread illness due to exposure to oil and chemical dispersant for all those who come close? Utter and complete mayhem.

Or maybe not. “The bottom line is that oil spills are not the worst possible things that can happen,” says DeYoung. “Oil is actually a natural compound and bacteria are adapted to eat oil. So in the Gulf of Mexico the impact is surprisingly less than most people expected, given the scale of the release.”

What Might it Be Like?

“[The seabirds] die a horrible death,” says Stan Tobin. “The oil mats the feathers and kills their insulation so that they’re not waterproof anymore. They can’t dive for food anymore, so they’re starving to death, and they’re freezing to death.”

“They might ingest the oil,” he adds, “and mercifully, that might kill them quicker.”

Tobin has been tabulating the numbers of dead, oil-drenched sea birds that wash up on the beaches of the southern Avalon for over twenty years. As a consultant for the provincial government, he’s also been shipped all over to witness the immediate aftermath of many of the world’s oil spill disasters, including the Exxon Valdez spill along the coast of Alaska.

“You don’t ever want to see that,” he says. “Ever. In those situations, you see hundreds of volunteers on the beaches with buckets, and you can’t walk. It’s ankle-deep in oil. And then you’ve got the oiled birds to, let’s say, compliment the scene.”

With five oil fields burbling away offshore, three of them tapped and flowing, oil spills make easy candidates for destruction. The largest spill we’ve had so far oozed out of the Terra Nova field after a mechanical failure on the rig in November, 2004. It resulted in a 12 kilometer-wide slick and the loss of about 10,000 seabirds. Rough seas delayed clean-up efforts and, in the end, only a small percentage of the slick was sopped up.

“You just have to stand on Signal Hill on any given day and think about trying to take a little skim of oil from the surface of that water,” says Brad DeYoung. “It’s not going to be very effective.”

MEGA HURRICANE

Possibility Rating: 2-out-of-5 skulls
Catastrophe Rating: 4-out-of-5 skulls

How Likely Is It?

As confirmed by the near-almighty Ryan Snoddon, CBC’s weather expert and hurricane connoisseur, Hurricane Igor was a freak storm. “The Canadian Hurricane Centre was quoted as saying that Igor was a ‘once in a 100 years’ storm,” he says. “Could we get another one? Totally. But the likelihood of that is low. The way everything came together for Igor—it really was the perfect storm.”

That being said, Snoddon says this year’s hurricane season, which typically runs from late August into mid-September, is looking active. We can expect anywhere from 12 to 18 tropical storms and six to ten hurricanes out in the Atlantic this year, Snoddon says. “But that doesn’t mean that they’ll make it onshore.”

What’s the Worst-Case Scenario?

A lot has to come together to make an Igor-grade storm. First, we’ll need a good cluster of thunderstorms blowing in off the coast of West Africa, into the semi-permanent area of high pressure off Bermuda. That will spin them west towards Newfoundland. If the winds in the upper atmosphere aren’t strong enough to knock the tops off the storms and the water temperature stays warm enough, Igor 2.0 could be on its way.

Are We All Going to Die?

As it made its way up the coast, Igor did kill two people in the Caribean and one person in the U.S., via storm swells. Then it arrived on Newfoundland’s shores and took the life of a Random Island man. Fatalities aside, Igor washed out houses and roads, leaving almost 150 communities stranded. The total tally for the damage is estimated to be at $200 million.

Way back in 1775, there was the so-called Independence Hurricane, is believed to have killed 4,000 people, most of whom were British and Irish fishermen at sea.

What Might it Be Like?

“I was upstairs, looking at my wood pile, and it started to lift up and float up the path! I was living with my dad, who was 88,” says Loretta Weeks, in Duntara. “I told him we had to get out, but he wouldn’t leave ‘til he had a cup of tea. So I ran around and put our wallets and his medication together, and we left.”

Her road had already washed out by then, so they went up the back, to the main road. “A friend of mine next door had a stable, and the wind took out one of these walls, in one piece. It started coming down through the air, right at us,” she says. “You never seen anything like it in your life.”

“We had to go up over a hill and across two big gardens against the wind,” she said. “The rain was like someone driving sharp needles into you.”

The main road washed out and Duntara was cut off from the rest of the island, and had to rely on rations delivered by boat and helicopter. Weeks’ house was entirely flooded and her shed was picked up and spun around by the floodwaters.

“I was out of my house for two months,” she says. “I felt really isolated. It sure made me think hard about living in rural Newfoundland.”

She’s moving from Duntara in September.

DRAMATIC EROSION

Possibility Rating: 5-out-of-5 skulls
Catastrophe Rating: 2-out-of-5 skulls

How Likely Is It?

Remember those videos on the news showing houses in Daniel’s Harbour sliding into the ocean? That’s the work of the ongoing, unstoppable force of coastal erosion, happening right now at your nearest low-sloping, sandy coastline.

According to Norm Catto, a MUN Geographer who’s helping the provincial government identify communities that need shoring up, climate change is causing the erosion process to speed up. With less ice cover in the winter, the waves pound the shore all year round, and rising sea levels expose more land to those waves and more intense storms mean that the waves are even worse than before.

What’s the Worst-Case Scenario?

The biggest concern, says Catto, is fast, dramatic erosion that could occur during a violent storm, like a hurricane. As the coast crumbles, the waves will push further inland and could cause flooding and take out houses, roads, and whatever else lies in their way.

Are We All Going to Die?

If the storm-based worst-case scenario happens then, yes, things could get ugly. But chances are, in a storm that big, things are already pretty ugly.

A less obvious reason but still terrifying threat comes in the form of contaminated drinking water. Sea water can seep up disintegrating shores and render groundwater sources irreversibly poisoned.

What Might it Be Like?

“The waves came right in over the houses, hitting from both sides,” says Leo Moriarty, Mayor of Ferryland, of a storm that washed out the road to the Ferryland lighthouse and Colony of Avalon archaeological site in December of 2009. “It was a spectacular thing to see. You just can’t go out there in the height of the storm like that, it’s impossible. Anyone who’s out there is out there, and anyone who’s not is not.”

That road is a hotspot for erosion. As its flanking land slides into the water, storm swells crash up through the breakwaters and wash the road away. The continued repair costs are hefty: Moriarty says that they’re about to spend $900,000 to reinforce it; ten percent of which has to come from the Town of Ferryland. This comes after a $20,000 rock barrier didn’t work.

“This is getting to the limit of the town’s resources now,” says Moriarty. “The provincial and federal governments will have to decide whether the site is an important enough part of the heritage [for the road] to be saved.”

This January, the town of Beaches was evacuated after a storm caused massive flooding. Ice coverage along their shores has been declining, thus allowing for more erosion and heavier consequences when storms hit. As reported in the Western Star on January 12, 2011, some residents believe that the community’s only option is resettlement.

ICEQUAKE TSUNAMI

Possibility Rating: 1-out-of-5 skulls
Catastrophe Rating: 5-out-of-5 skulls

How Likely Is It?

Well, NASA thinks we could be in trouble.

Tony Song of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Labratory, is quoted in a 2009 Rueters article, as saying that Newfoundland is a “low-probability, high-risk” zone for tsunamis caused by something called “icequakes.”

Pierre Rouleau, an earthquake specialist at Grenfell, agrees with him. “When these chunks of ice detach themselves from the glacier, there’s a connection with the bed of the iceberg and the actual solid portion of the earth, so there’s a kind of scraping that causes the earthquake or icequake.”

Definitely low-probability, says Rouleau—“to get a humongous sea wave you need a huge chunk of ice to come off, and we don’t expect that at all,” he says—but definitely high-risk. “Anything is possible,” he says. “It’s a hypothesis, but it’s a workable hypothesis. It’s worth looking into that we could have tsunami here.”

What’s the Worst-Case Scenario?

“You would have to have an enormous chunk of ice falling off of Greenland,” says Rouleau. “If you matched that with a seven magnitude earthquake right next to the coast, you could imagine one of these big splashes here.”

The 1929 tsunami that took out villages from Point May to Port au Bras, along the Burin Penninsula, caused damage all the way into Nova Scotia. If conditions were right, a tsunami from Greenland could definitely level the east coast of Labrador and Newfoundland. It might even make it up Prescott Street in one sploosh.

Are We All Going to Die?

The death toll for the Burin Tsunami was 28. “That was mostly women and children,” says Maura Hanrahan, author of Tsunami: The Newfoundland Tidal Wave Disaster. “The men were in the woods because it was November, or at sea. A lot of them returned to find their entire families killed.”

On the other side of the world, over 20,000 people died in the earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan this March.

What Might it Be Like?

“My uncle Vince, he was eight at the time,” says Maura Hanrahan. “Before the wave hit, the harbour drained completely—all the water got sucked out. He remembers scrambling with his uncles to get the boats and the dories on land, because they were sitting on the bottom of the harbour.”

“I remember my grandmother, Angela Hanrahan,” she continues, “she always talked about holding the baby, my father, and the floor of the house starting to shake. She’s quite British, a stiff upper lip type of person, and she said, ‘Oh, there’ll be weather tonight’.”

GREAT FIRE

Possibility Rating: 2-out-of-5 skulls
Catastrophe Rating: 5-out-of-5 skulls

How Likely Is It?

Ever live in Rabbittown? Where backyard fireworks in the middle of a dense cluster of rickety, century-old houses are de rigueur on any night that’s not freezing? If so, you’ve probably given the threat of fire some thought.

But Mike Dwyer, Director of Regional Fire Services for the City of St. John’s, isn’t worried about another great fire. Though there seems to be a devastating fire once every fifty years at the top of Long’s Hill —The Great Fire of 1892, the Knights of Columbus Hostel fire in 1942, and the Harvey Road fire in 1992—Dwyer’s not too worried about 2042, or any other year for that matter.

“Every city has had their great fires and every city has its area of high risk,” he says. “The downtown area is obviously one of our higher risk areas, but a lot of the buildings, even the older buildings, are sprinklered. Our technology and equipment is state of the art, and a lot of pre-planning goes into areas of high risk. For example, we have a plan in place for George Street.”

What’s the Worst-Case Scenario?

It’s a dry, windy evening in 2042, in the middle of a drought and a city-wide water shortage. Rabbittown is ablaze with drunken backyard fireworks, everyone living in a heritage home has just knocked over a lit candle, every deep fryer in the city is spattering, and kids are setting dumpster fires from Shea Heights to the Avalon Mall. And the dumpsters were full of gasoline. Gasoline and paint thinner.

If the resulting fires were powerful enough to overwhelm the city’s firefighting resources—“We operate from seven stations, running with 40 firefighters on at any given time, and for every 40 people that we’ve got on staff, we’ve got another 120 that aren’t working,” says Dwyer—then maybe, just maybe, the entire city would be engulfed in flames.

Are We All Going to Die?

The Great Fire killed just three people, but the thousands left homeless had to camp in Bannerman Park for months. The big institutional fires, like the Knights of Columbus Hostel fire, killed everyone inside the buildings. “We now have plans in place for all the big institutions,” says Mike Dwyer. “Communications plans, escape, point of entry—we lay it all out.”

But sometimes the only way to stop a huge fire is to demolish everything in its path. “If it wasn’t for Dominion being made of brick and not wood, we would have lost our entire block,” says Dave d’Entremont, owner of Long’s Hill Convenience, at the top of Long’s Hill. He was the person who phoned the fire department when the 1992 Harvey Road fire started in the CLB Armoury. “If my block had caught fire, they were going to let everything go down Long’s Hill and they were going to make a stand down at the bottom, just bulldoze everything to the ground to make a fire stand, to stop the fires.”

What Might it Be Like?

“I can still see the firemen coming out of the main door of the CLB armoury,” says d’Entremont. “They walked in and ran out, because the thing imploded inside and a great big rush of flames came out after them.”

Jon Weir was living in an apartment on Tessiers Place the night of the Harvey Road Fire. “We were hunkered down in our apartment for the night, wondering if we were supposed to take all of our stuff and leave,” he says. “We kept expecting the fire department to bang on the door and say, ‘Get out! Everything’s going to catch fire!’ Little bits of buildings that were burning were filtering down and floating through the air, still glowing and burning, landing on rooftops.”

Later, after it seemed to be under control, Weir says he walked up to see what was happening. “It was really hot,” he says, “Even from a good ways away, it was palpable.”

“That fire changed this neighbourhood forever,” says D’Entremont. “Everything was lost; a lot of people’s dreams and aspirations just burned away.”

ICEBERG COLLISION

Possibility Rating: 1-out-of-5 skulls
Catastrophe Rating: 3-out-of-5 skulls

How Likely Is It?

It was looking likely for a while. At least, it was if you were reading the National Post in late June. “Bermudas-sized ‘ice island’ could threaten ships, oil rigs off coast of Newfoundland,” claimed the headline. Auuuugh!

Not likely, says Jim Bruce, the very scientific-sounding Director of Ice Engineering at C-Core, where they study the probability of things like that coming true.

C-Core sent two people out to plunk beacons into the ice island, which began as a 250 square kilometer slab that cracked off Greenland’s Petermann Glacier last August. It’s been slowly breaking into manageable bits—the biggest one as of our mid-July conversation with Bruce was 58 square kilometers and called, affectionately, PII-A—and Bruce expects that it will continue to crumble and melt as it makes its way to the Grand Banks this summer.

What’s the Worst-Case Scenario?

Troublesome icebergs are actually towed, says Bruce. A nightmare berg would have to be too big to tow, and it would have to be heading towards a Gravity-Based Structure, which can’t detach and move out of the way.

So, in this case, they’d blow it up… Right?

“To make any sort of hypothetical situation of a large piece of ice from up north interacting with something further south is not something that would be appropriate to comment on,” says Bruce.

According to an old National Geographic video, Marine Machines, towing vessels have uses water cannons to bust up bergs.

Are We All Going to Die?

Icebergs move pretty slowly—PII-A is travelling at 0.6 kilometers an hour—so the people on the oil rigs could be evacuated, but the ensuing oil spill wouldn’t bode well for our futures.

What Might it Be Like?

See Catastrophic Oil Spill.

Illustrations by Elling Lien.

20 comments

  1. Jimmy · July 13, 2011

    Out of all the doomsday like events listed above, the only one I can see happening is another Great Fire. All it would take is a dry summer with the right wind and a drunken backyard fire pit party or a building have an electrical malfunction and parts of this city would be screwed. And if it ever got to the over abundance of wooded areas we have in the city, well lets just say I can see our fire making Slave Lake look like a weenie roast.

  2. Andrew · July 13, 2011

    “All it would take is a dry summer [in St. John’s]”

    So what you’re basically saying is that you can’t see *any* of these doomsday events happening?

  3. Andrew · July 13, 2011

    “The largest spill we’ve had so far oozed out of the Terra Nova field after a mechanical failure on the rig in November, 2004.”

    I didn’t even know about this …

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