More Than Just Physical: Natural Disasters and Human Geography

By Catherine Waite

Many assume that the study of natural hazards is confined to the work of physical geographers, geologists, engineers and so forth. However, it is necessary to look beyond the natural phenomena and consider the implications for society. Whilst academics from a wide variety of disciplines are involved in this task, human geographers have a central role to play and this has been demonstrated in a number of recent publications.

In Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, Cupples (2012) reflected on her personal experience of the Christchurch earthquake that struck New Zealand in February 2011. Whilst focusing on the relationship between natural disasters and spaces of higher education, Cupples concluded that:

“It is clear that we cannot restrict ourselves to a geological (extremely important though that is) understanding of the Christchurch earthquake. Geographers are particularly well positioned to make diverse scholarly responses, particularly if they are able to bring disaster research into dialogue with intellectual developments in economic geography, development geography, feminist geography and cultural geography” (2012:340).

Crowley and Elliott’s (2012) research into earthquakes in the global north, published last month in The Geographical Journal provides further support for this call. The article’s focus on the risks of and community resilience to earthquakes demonstrates how natural hazards only become disasters once they impact upon society. This highlights the importance of society-centred research into natural hazards, which is work that geographers are ideally positioned to undertake.

The diverse potential of human geography for researching natural disasters is also evident in Morrice’s forthcoming publication in Area. This work, discussed below in Stacey Balsdon’s recent post, considers the decisions of New Orleans citizens following Hurricane Katrina as to whether to return following their forced evacuation in 2005. From an emotional geography approach Morrice considers how issues of loss, trauma and nostalgia influence return-migration decisions.

Personal and emotional responses to natural disasters frequently appear in the media. For example, the Guardian’s recent piece on the “Forced Migration in the 21st Century” considered how natural disasters and other factors cause mass population movements and the implications for the individuals and families affected. However, perhaps the most poignant article on the emotional impact of natural disasters recently appeared on the BBC website. The report detailed how debris from the Japanese tsunami has begun to be washed ashore on the United States West Coast. One volunteer debris collector told the BBC reporter

“It’s a reminder of what happened, so it’s not just trash. It was people’s belongings and people’s livelihoods and people’s homes”.

Already remarkable stories are emerging from the debris collection, for example, stories of how a named football and volleyball have been returned from Alaska to their teenager owners in Japan and how a container in which a Harley Davidson motorcycle was transported to British Columbia was traced via its registration plate and returned to its Japanese owner. These stories begin to convey some of the emotional impacts of natural disasters, demonstrating the importance of Cupple’s (2012) call for a diverse geographical understanding of disasters and their consequences.

Cupples, J. 2012 Boundary Crossings and new striations: when disaster hits a neoliberalising campus Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 37:3 337-341

Crowley, K. and Elliott, J.R. 2012 Earthquake disasters and resilience in the global North: lessons from New Zealand and Japan The Geographical Journal 178:3 208-215

Morrice, S. 2012 Heartache and Hurricane Katrina: recognising the influence of emotion in post-disaster return decisions Area DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-4762.2012.01121.x

The tsunami debris washed from Japan to Oregon BBC News Magazine 9th October 2012

Forced migration in the 21st Century: urbanised and unending The Guardian 16th October 2012

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