Mother Nature—the Ultimate Adversary

by | Sep 24, 2019 | KJ Howe, On writing | 3 comments

Countless adversaries ratchet up the tension in thrillers, TV shows, and films these days. Spies, serial killers, mafioso, drug cartels, terrorists, neighbors, spouses, super-secret organizations, governments; the list goes on and on. We use real-life villains to create authenticity in our fiction. But when it comes to being unstoppable, none of them can compete with Mother Nature. Unpredictable, with an endless bag of tricks, she delivers death and destruction with unrivaled force and ferocity. When you’re writing your next book, perhaps a Man vs. Mother Nature theme might create compelling drama in your story…as it is heart-wrenching to see what the devastating impact they have in real life. It’s also heartwarming to witness people coming together, just like the outpouring of love and support we’ve seen with Hurricane Dorian.

When it comes to raw destructive power, it’s challenging to compete with the profound energy unleashed by an earthquake. While they usually occur in areas with specific geological plate tensions, earthquakes can also be triggered by volcanoes or meteor strikes. Quakes have killed at least 13 million people in recorded history. How? By releasing extraordinary amounts of energy.
And how do we measure earthquakes? The Richter scale is a logarithmic scale where an increase of .2 means a doubling of energy released and a full point increase marks an increase of 31.6 times the previous number. A 4.0 quake is the equivalent of 600 tons of TNT exploding and can be detected by instruments around the world.  A 5.0 earthquake involves energies comparable to 200 tons of TNT, a 6.0 results in 6,270 tons, 7.0 creates 199,000 tons, 8.0 is 6,270,000 tons, and 9.0 is 99,000,000 tons of TNT. For perspective, the bomb dropped on Hiroshima produced the equivalent energy of 15,000 tons of TNT. 
And it’s not the shaking ground that causes most casualties. Rather, it’s failure of buildings and natural structures that cause the harm. Most buildings can sustain up to 6.0 quakes without substantial structural failure, but after that, gas pipes break and ignite, structures collapse, power lines are severed, dams fail, creating landslides and mudslides. If the quake happens under or near the ocean, tsunamis are often triggered.   

I was in a 6.4 earthquake in Huatulco, Mexico, and that experience will forever be in my memories of  traumatic moments. It felt like a loud train was barreling towards me, shaking everything in sight. And the aftershocks were unsettling as well, especially on the tarmac of the airport while leaving.

Hurricanes and Tropical Storms

A hurricane is a tropical cyclone that sustains winds of 74 miles per hour or more. 

Hurricanes and tropical storms are rated via categories, ranging from 1 to 5, with some experts saying a category 6 should also be included. 

The categories are described as follows:
Sustained Winds
Types of Damage Due to Hurricane Winds
74-95 mph
64-82 kt
119-153 km/h
Very dangerous winds will produce some damage: Well-constructed frame homes could have damage to roof, shingles, vinyl siding and gutters. Large branches of trees will snap and shallowly rooted trees may be toppled. Extensive damage to power lines and poles likely will result in power outages that could last a few to several days.
96-110 mph
83-95 kt
154-177 km/h
Extremely dangerous winds will cause extensive damage: Well-constructed frame homes could sustain major roof and siding damage. Many shallowly rooted trees will be snapped or uprooted and block numerous roads. Near-total power loss is expected with outages that could last from several days to weeks.

111-129 mph
96-112 kt
178-208 km/h
Devastating damage will occur: Well-built framed homes may incur major damage or removal of roof decking and gable ends. Many trees will be snapped or uprooted, blocking numerous roads. Electricity and water will be unavailable for several days to weeks after the storm passes.

130-156 mph
113-136 kt
209-251 km/h
Catastrophic damage will occur: Well-built framed homes can sustain severe damage with loss of most of the roof structure and/or some exterior walls. Most trees will be snapped or uprooted and power poles downed. Fallen trees and power poles will isolate residential areas. Power outages will last weeks to possibly months. Most of the area will be uninhabitable for weeks or months.

157 mph or higher
137 kt or higher
252 km/h or higher
Catastrophic damage will occur: A high percentage of framed homes will be destroyed, with total roof failure and wall collapse. Fallen trees and power poles will isolate residential areas. Power outages will last for weeks to possibly months. Most of the area will be uninhabitable for weeks or months.
Hurricanes cause significant property damage, break down communications, halt air, land, and sea travel, hamper law and enforcement and rescue operations, contaminate water and food supplies, and hamstring medical services. Several severe hurricanes have each wreaked well over 100 billion dollars in damage. Imagine the tension of being trapped in a hurricane—we often watch news reports during storms, in shock and awe of the power of these antagonists. Inserting an event into a fictional setting would create enormous duress for your protagonist.

Just the Tip of the (Proverbial) Iceberg
There are many other natural events that can turn up the proverbial heat for your characters. For example, sandstorms, blizzards (a Canadian specialty), floods, windstorms, tsunamis, and even torrential rain can turn a standard search into a race against time. While we spend much time and effort crafting rich adversaries for our protagonists, we need to remember that natural forces are also lurking, waiting to forever alter the world we all live in. 

Have you ever experienced any of these natural disasters?
Don’t Miss a Thing!



  1. Rogue Women Writers

    Terrific summary of storm and quakes that could certainly be used by authors writing thrillers! I recall that great Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall film "Key Largo" about people trapped in a house during a hurricane! Having lived in Florida and California means I've experienced both storms and earthquakes – you've given me food for thought now to include the fear, tension and, as you said, the outpouring of help and sympathy for victims in a new novel. Great piece, Kim – thanks!…Karna Small Bodman

  2. Lisa Black

    So far I’ve always set my books in Cleveland, and the reason my husband insisted we move was the weather—unpredictable, uncooperative, and vrooming to the extremes of each and every season. I make sure it becomes a factor in every book.

  3. Larry Sheps

    I am in awe of Mother Nature. Her sheer force is hard to fully imagine, yet when used in a good plot you can be swept away for chapters and hours on end. Not a huge big screen fan though you lose detail and imagination. . Thanks for sharing.