Bill McGuire: Prophet of doom

It's Bill McGuire's job to predict catastrophes. But Helen Brown found him surprisingly cheerful for a man who stares disaster in the face
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The Independent Online

A dollop of water scores a direct hit on my eyeball and I blink down, regaining focus on an ant whose desperate struggle is breaking the surface tension of a puddle. Scooping the insect to safety, I reflect on humanity's proximity to disaster. We may start the day like this ant, only to be struck down by flood, fire, rocks from space or the cosmically insignificant trembling of our little planet.

This isn't a thought I have on a regular basis, but I'm here to meet Professor Bill McGuire, who will be delivering the museum's annual science lecture, a talk called "Global Catastrophes: A Punter's Guide". McGuire, Benfield Professor of Geophysical Hazards at University College London, will talk his audience through the question: "Volcanic super-eruption, asteroid impact, mega-tsunami, cataclysmic earthquake... what's next?"

A friendly figure in a blue denim shirt and crumpled trousers, McGuire tells me how many people he keeps briefed on global geophysical events, or "geegees". There's the insurance folk in the City, the Government, the academics and the public - and "taxi drivers always want to know about 'that mega-tsunami that's meant to wipe out New York'".

In 2000, McGuire helped to make a BBC documentary about the Cumbre Vieja volcano on the island of La Palma, in the western Canary Islands, which could cause a land mass the size of the Isle of Man to tumble into the ocean, sending a wall of water racing across the Atlantic to devastate the east coast of the US. In his latest book, Surviving Armageddon: Solutions for a Threatened Planet, my interviewee describes the inevitable landslide as "a Damoclean sword" poised over the North Atlantic.

Is he keeping an eye on it, then? He shrugs. "By 2007," he says, "they will have this Atlantic tsunami warning system in place, based on four buoys down the East Coast and one stuck out in the Atlantic. But that's not going to give very much warning. If we monitor the Cumbre Vieja we might have a few days' notice, which would make a huge difference. We could get it done for about £50,000 per year."

That's not much, given the wealth of the vulnerable cities. "You'd think so, wouldn't you?" says McGuire. He seems resigned to the fact that things move slowly in the natural hazard awareness business, if at all. "I have to be resigned, don't I? Or I'd have a heart attack. I guess I use humour to cope."

It was a bit of a fluke that McGuire, 50, became a vulcanologist. "Initially I was drawn to astronomy, but my maths wasn't good enough. I wanted to do a planetary geology PhD but there was nothing around. Then the chance came up to map a large hole on Etna. It was too good to be true. Etna's the biggest volcano on the continental crust, nearly 11,000 feet tall."

McGuire remembers the first time he looked out over the Valle del Bove. "The cliffs were 1km high. There were scree slopes of ash at a 45-degree angle you had to run down; the whole thing moved with you. It was a bit disconcerting, but fantastic fun. I worked there for three years - horrendous!"

McGuire first witnessed the lethal potential of his specialisation in 1979. "While we were there, nine tourists were killed near Bocca Nuova." He is matter-of-fact about this, as he is about the number of his contemporaries who have died on volcanoes. "Scientists can be the worst. They think they're immune. A group of us drafted a code about how to behave on a site, and then a few months later there these same guys were, peering down into the chasms... Actually, I thought I'd had it myself while observing the Montserrat eruption from a chopper in 1996."

I ask McGuire about the Benfield Hazard Research centre, which I imagine as a Bond-villain HQ with a map with blinking lights on the risky spots. "We do have a map," he laughs, "but we haven't got round to marking things on it. If you came in, you might see people doing experiments on how rock behaves at high temperatures. But most people are on computers doing statistics on hurricane numbers and frequency. All the groups do their own thing.

"The Meteorological Hazards Group are based in an old house in Surrey, where they're developing things such as a storm tracker. We get on very well in the Hazard Research Centre, but there's a feeling in the Earth Sciences Centre that we're a bit too glamorous for our own good. They think they're serious scientists and we're not."

I suppose that must be down to all the TV, the swanky City lunches and being a member of the Government's Natural Hazard Working Group. "Well," admits McGuire, "I didn't even own a suit until Benfield began sponsoring us. Most of the people I deal with in the City are actually scientists, and lots of our Masters students go on to do catastrophe modelling for insurance companies."

And the Government? "All pretty good, really. They seem to be listening. Since the Asian tsunami, there's a sense that we in the UK might not be insulated from these big catastrophes. Something that happens half a world away can affect us. We're seeing that with bird flu. And politicians have contacted me about risk to the south coast if La Palma collapses. Next month I'm going to a parliamentary working group Disasters Day."

What might those disasters be? "Miami's bound to get it from a hurricane some time soon. We knew New Orleans would. Tokyo; there's just been a magnitude 5.1 quake, and the city is not well enough prepared for a big one. Their defence is based on prediction, and nobody has ever accurately predicted an earthquake there. There are many buildings that will collapse and the total cost of that is estimated to be $3.3 trillion and 60,000 dead. There are still a million wooden buildings there, which will burn. There are systems in place to cut off gas supply, but there are all sorts of other causes of fire, so that will be a massive disaster when it happens.

"The other huge earthquake waiting to happen is all the way along the US West Coast. That last happened in 1700, sending tsunamis that killed people in Japan. The stress has been accumulating ever since. A major earthquake will happen there in the next few hundred years, and there's no way of knowing when. There's an average frequency of every 500 years, but that doesn't stop it going in 300. There are tsunami warning signs along the West Coast, but they had a magnitude seven quake off the coast of California a couple of months ago and issued all the warnings, and hardly anyone took any notice. So that doesn't help much."

We haven't even touched on asteroids, and I'm starting to feel like the bartender in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy who, on learning that the world is about to end, considers lying down with a paper bag over his head. I have "the heebie-geegees". McGuire says: "That's understandable. One of my colleagues at the Geological Society told me that after our TV programme on super-eruptions, he kept getting letters from an old woman locked in her basement with large stacks of baked-bean tins, asking if it was all right for her to come out yet."

Professor Bill McGuire delivers the Natural History Museum's annual science lecture on "Global Catastrophes: A Punter's Guide" at the museum in London SW7 on Monday at 7.30pm (020-7942 5000; www.nhm.ac.uk)

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