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10.1.20
Eyes Peeled

This Scientist Spends His Time Predicting the End of the World

July 15th 20__Dan Robitzski__Filed Under: Future Society
Needpix/Victor Tangermann

Planning Ahead

Columbia University’s Jeffrey Schlegelmilch may have one of the coolest jobs in science — or the most depressing, depending on your vantage point.

As director of the university’s National Center for Disaster Preparedness, Schlegelmilch spends a lot of time thinking about the end of the world, as he discussed in a recent university blog. In a cruel twist of irony, he was reviewing proofs for a recent book as the COVID-19 pandemic began, but biological devastation is just one of the five categories of the “megadisasters” he’s trying to prepare the world for.

Pick Your Poison

The problem with planning for these megadisasters is that the world is changing at an increasingly rapid pace. Many of the lessons that society has learned — or refused to learn — may not apply in the future we’re headed toward.

“The disasters we are seeing are already different than in the past,” Schlegelmilch said in the release. “We can see this through more and more billion-dollar weather events, more spending on disaster response and recovery, more lives disrupted.”

Resilient Optimism

Alongside biological disasters like pandemics, Schlegelmilch’s research also focuses on four other categories of megadisasters: nuclear war, infrastructure failure, climate change, and cyber warfare. But amidst all that, he holds out hope that our current pandemic won’t reach that threshold.

“I am reluctant to put it in the same category as these others,” Schlegelmilch said. “We still time to reduce the impacts, if we are holistic in our perspective, and collaborative in our approaches.”

READ MORE: Q&A: Coming soon? A brief guide to 21st-century megadisasters [Columbia University]

More on disaster preparedness: Astronaut: Killer Asteroid Plan Must Be Better Than COVID Response