Humanity has an extraordinary talent for causing catastrophes; we are even likely, as many have suggested over the past century — to be responsible for the coming apocalypse. But really, we are second-rate. Take a look at the images of cataclysm at the American Museum of Natural History’s exhibition opening on Saturday — “Nature’s Fury: The Science of Natural Disasters” — and see how immense the forces are that nature wields, how impossible it is to control them, how difficult it has been to predict their effects.
The exhibition examines just four phenomena — earthquakes (and associated tsunamis), volcanoes, tornadoes and hurricanes. All draw on primal forces. There is no avoiding them. They well up from beneath the ground or disrupt the barrier between earth and sky. They turn the human inconsequential. And they thrust into play extreme aspects of nature that the ancients considered fundamental elements: earth, air, fire and water.
Their destructive power is stunning. Look at the 2004 photo of vacationers in Thailand racing from a wall of water, a tsunami set off by a 9.3 magnitude earthquake that split a gash in the sea floor the length of California. Along the coasts of the Indian Ocean, it left some 230,000 dead.
Or look at a display of ordinary artifacts that melted together when the entire city of St.-Pierre on Martinique was destroyed in 1902: 27,000 people were killed in two minutes as a cloud of hot gases and volcanic ash descended from an erupting volcano — a mild version of what Mount Vesuvius did in the year 79, when it buried Pompeii and Herculaneum.
And these are not even the most cataclysmic examples. The deadliest earthquake on record, in China in 1556, killed about 830,000 people, many of whom lived in soft stone caves that collapsed. The worst natural disaster in the United States was a 1900 hurricane that killed 8,000 people in Galveston, Tex., while a notorious 1970 cyclone in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) left 500,000 dead.
Thus in one interactive exhibit you are asked to “build your own volcano” — only here the ingredients do not include the baking soda familiar from generations of elementary-school science-fair volcanoes. Here, we learn, two main variables affect a volcano’s character and shape: gas (which is dissolved in magma and creates the pressure of the eruption) and silica (or “goo,” as the museum puts it, which makes the magma viscous). Change the gas or goo levels and a large video screen shows that virtual volcano erupt, while also providing information about four volcano types (including an oozing “lava dome,” like Mount Merapi in Indonesia, or a more classic “stratovolcano,” like Mount St. Helens in Washington State, which spewed 520 million tons of ash in 1980).
This simulation might seem to give volcanoes a manageable, manipulable character, but we also learn about Krakatoa, which erupted in 1883, blowing its Indonesian island to bits with a blast that could be heard 3,000 miles away, and causing 130-foot-high tsunamis that killed more than 36,000 people. That eruption sent a column of gas and ash 30 miles into the sky, cooling Earth’s climate for four years (leading to summer snows in New England). It also colored northern skies red, which the exhibition suggests may account for the eerily colored sky in Edvard Munch’s 1893 painting “The Scream.”
Earthquakes are far more dangerous and more difficult to anticipate. We know regions where earthquakes are more likely. (A video mapping 20th-century quakes shows how they take place on the boundaries of the planet’s tectonic plates.) But there have also been earthquakes nowhere near plate boundaries. In 1811-12, for example, a series of rare “intraplate” earthquakes destroyed New Madrid, Mo., and caused damage over a region of 230,000 square miles in the center of the United States.
So how are we to react in the face of such variable risk, the exhibition asks? People live along the slopes of Vesuvius. Los Angeles straddles the San Andreas fault. Yellowstone National Park sits in the midst of a filled-in 35-mile-wide crater of an active supervolcano that last erupted 640,000 years ago, killing everything within hundreds of miles, and which continues to announce its vigor in the park’s bubbling mud pots, fumaroles and hot springs. With volcanoes there is usually enough advance warning to avoid calamity. But not always: In September, the sudden eruption of Mount Ontake in Japan killed more than 50 people.
Hurricanes and tornadoes might seem a bit more on a human scale because they are manifestations of weather, rather than of Earth’s roiling innards. That’s an illusion. At least with tornadoes it is possible to avoid them: Owing to a confluence of continental wind movements, 75 percent of the world’s tornadoes — an average of 1,300 a year — take place in Tornado Alley, which spans Kansas and seven other states.
In one display we are surrounded with filmed images of an Iowa tornado approaching and passing over us — a sequence captured by cameras in a conic-shaped probe we see here, designed by the storm researcher Tim Samaras, to stay planted in the tornado’s path. The speed of the spinning debris (here, up to 125 m.p.h.) gives an idea of the tornado’s winds. Unfortunately, Mr. Samaras, his son, and a colleague were killed by a storm they were trying to record in 2013.
But disasters are not completely in nature’s hands. When it comes to hurricanes, the exhibition suggests, humans bear some responsibility for poor planning (New Orleans and Katrina) or lack of communication (as in the Galveston disaster).
There is also a touch-screen table map here of New York City demonstrating the effects of Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Here was a storm that was expected, planned for — and it ultimately brought less than an inch of rain. Yet it was a disaster. Partly this was because of New York’s 520-mile-long coastline — longer than the coasts of Miami, Boston, Los Angeles and San Francisco combined. But it was also because in some of the most damaged areas, an usually high tide coincided with a storm surge leading to extensive flooding.
Coincidence, inadequate anticipation, complacent protection — such are the burdens of all these natural disasters. But the undropped shoe in the hurricane discussion, which is often invoked in the aftermath of such disasters, is human-caused climate change. No summary of data appears here, and in an introductory video, Mr. Mathez suggests that we don’t know how much will change or what effects there will be; he says that uncertainty is itself a risk. A single panel addresses the issue, suggesting that because of rising sea levels and temperatures, “most climate models now project hurricane strength and number to increase by the end of the century.”
It is, at any rate, helpful to be reminded of nature’s powers; it can make us more realistic about our own. One discussion here also reminds us how many variations natural catastrophes can have. It is possible for storms to create a “waterspout,” a “vortex reaching from a thunderstorm cloud to the surface of a large body of water, drawing water up into the air.” Such a waterspout could lead to “a rare and bizarre phenomenon: raining animals.” We see a reproduction of a 1555 French engraving in which fish descend from a storm.
Yet, presumably, most of us carelessly laughed during the recent “Sharknado” films in which chomping sharks are propelled onto city streets by such waterspouts. Had I seen this exhibition first, I might have paid closer attention to a viewer’s tweet that scrolled across the screen as I watched: The danger in making fun of a sharknado is that when a real one comes along, we won’t take it seriously.
Featured Image: A stop sign destroyed in a tornado in Greensburg, Kan. CreditAgaton Strom for The New York Times