Tag Archives: natural disaster

Disaster and the Importance of Place

By Stacey Balsdon

Tropical Storm Katrina on August 24 2005 by NASA image courtesy Jeff Schmaltz, MODIS Land Rapid Response Team at NASA GSFC [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Hurricane Katrina hit ground in New Orleans in 2005, yet its magnitude and the devastation it caused has resulted in its continued discussion today. Over 7 years since the event it still seems poignant in many people’s memories. An interesting BBC article titled ‘Saving Lives from Space’ reinvestigates Hurricane Katrina alongside other disaster events.

Using satellite imagery, Dr Alice Bunn comments on the ways this imagery has and will be used to save lives using Hurricane Katrina as one of the examples. Interestingly, when discussing Hurricane Katrina, the importance of place is expressed as she notes the capture of the devastation involved a Nigerian satellite that happened to be overlooking the hurricane at the time it hit land.

Stephanie Morrice (2012), in her paper entitled Heartache and Hurricane Katrina: recognising the influence of emotion in post-disaster return decisions explores the way those affected by Hurricane Katrina decide whether to return ‘home’ or not and how these processes are driven by emotion. This interesting paper presents an alternate side to the focus in the media and global news of the continuing devastation to the built environment by investigating the impact on residents displaced by the event. Morrice  (2012) notes the way imaginations of place and ‘home’ are important in decisions linked to returning after a disaster.

Both pieces demonstrate the need to consider the after effects of a disaster, noting that whilst the event itself may be over the impact it has on the local area and the people living there can continue for some time. Geographical insights into disasters such as this can provide different perspectives and enable the importance of place to be clearly seen.

Saving Lives from space, BBC News

Stephanie Morrice, 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

A physical hazard and human problem

Hurricane Irene viewed from space, August 2011

I-Hsien Porter

This year’s hurricane season is drawing to a close, with the east coast of the USA receiving its fair share of damage. Hurricane Irene, in late August, caused the deaths of 40 people and led President Barack Obama to approve a $1.5bn relief fund. The following week, Tropical Storm Lee caused one death and left 16,000 people without power.

In a recent paper in Geography Compass, Jason Senkbeil and others argue that the USA’s hurricane problem is caused by a complex, interconnected series of physical and human processes.

Much of the damage that resulted from Hurricane Irene was not caused by the high winds on their own. Storm surges, tornadoes, heavy rain and flooding are all associated with hurricanes and tropical storms. The physical processes that cause harm to human lives, buildings and infrastructure are a complex mix. They include the main, or primary, event (in this case, the hurricane) and the resulting secondary hazards (such as heavy rain causing flooding, then leading to a landslide, for example).

We wouldn’t be particularly concerned about all this, however, if there weren’t also people living in the path of the hurricane. There may be many complex processes that draw people to live in particular places. Different people are affected in different ways and also have different capacities to respond to a hazard. For example, ordering residents to evacuate from an area is not particularly productive if those people have no mode of transport with which they can do so. In a post on this blog last month, Kelly Wakefield discussed how we understand natural hazards and some of the societal implications of this.

Senkbeil et al. argue that all these factors must be understood for our response to natural hazards to be effective. That, say the authors, is something that an interdisciplinary subject such as geography, is well placed to deliver.

The Guardian (6 September 2011) Hurricane Irene relief fund estimated at $1.5bn

Senkbeil, J. C., Brommer, D. M. and Comstock, I. J. (2011) Tropical Cyclone Hazards in the USA. Geography Compass 5 (8): 544-563

Meaning of Disaster

By Kelly Wakefield

Hurrican Irene, the tropical storm which this week hit the headlines due to its path along the USA’s east coast has to date killed 21 people.  The media has been reporting on the devastation that the ‘historic floods’ have caused as 5 million homes have lost power in the USA  and is currently moving along the north east of Canada.  However, it is the state of Vermont which was hit with the worst flooding it had witnessed in  almost 100 years.  Earlier in the year, tornado strikes were reported in Joplin, Missouri, USA and are relatively frequent according to a University of Minnesota geographer, Kenny Blumenfield.  The academic stressed the need for emergency planners to prepare for the worst as there have been 300 urban tornadoes since 1990 and twisters occuring at an unusually high rate this year.

So, with this information in mind, one always thinks about the human cost to these natural disasters, as well as the environmental and material costs associated with the damage.  Furedi (2007) discusses  how adverse events such as diasters are interpreted through a system of meaning provided by culture and that historically research into society’s response to disaster provides examples of community resilience.  However, since the 1980s, numerous researchers have challenged this account that such incidents result in long term damage to the community.  One only has to look at Hurrican Katrina in 2005 and the damage that it caused to all of the communities that it hit, with the costliest in lives in Louisiana.  The resilience of the people affected cannot be measured on any scale as news stories pop up from time to time about the effects that Katrina is still having on those that were in her path six years ago. Furedi (2007) argues that community response to a disaster is far more likely to be defined by its vulnerability than its resilience suggesting that the shift from the expectation of resilience to that of vulnerability is best understood as an outcome of a changing cultural conceptualisation of adversity.

However we explain our adversity and response to the natural disasters that can define an area’s history such as in the case of Hurricane Katrina, the need to prepare for the worst is always the case because we are vulnerable.

Furedi, F (2007) “The Changing Meaning of Disaster”. Area, vol. 39, issue 4, pp 482–489.

 BBC. “Irene: Vermont in flood as US counts storm cost“.

 Cathy Wurzer and Paul Huttner. ” Is tornado activity increasing in Minnesota?” MPR News

New seismic fault found in Idaho, USA



The well known San Andreas Fault, California, USA


By Richard Gravelle

As Haiti continues to suffer following the January 2010 earthquake, and Christchurch, New Zealand is rebuilt, the world has become more and more familiar with the devastation that these events can cause.

It will concern many therefore that scientists in Idaho State University have mapped a new fault in the Rocky Mountains of Idaho that is capable of producing a 7.5 magnitude earthquake, possibly within the next few decades.

Although not the most populated state in the USA (around 1.5 million residents; 0.5% of the population of the US), an earthquake could still cause tremors and aftershocks all the way to the state capital Boise.  The fault extends for 40 miles and is believed to have caused two earthquakes in the past 10,000 years: one occurring 7,000 years ago and the other 4,000 years ago.

John Ebel, professor of geophysics at Boston College, says that uncovering a fault of this magnitude should not necessarily serve as an “alarm that something is imminent”.  However, given the unpredictability of faults, Prof. Ebel suggested that people who live near the fault should familiarize themselves with earthquake procedures and prepare themselves in case an earthquake does occur.

This advice is supported by findings of Crozier et al. (2006) who suggest that the extent to which people’s views on the causes and preventability of earthquake damage can be influenced by their degree of exposure to hazard, as well as what information they have been given about the hazard.

Let’s hope than that people who live in proximity to the fault will be prepared in the event of an earthquake and that major damage and loss of life can be avoided.

BBC News, 18th November 2010. Scientists find new seismic fault in Rocky Mountains

Crozier, M., McClure, J., Vercoe, J., & Wilson, M., 2006. The effects of hazard zone information on judgements about earthquake damage. Area 38 (2), 143-152

Can we ‘prove’ climate change?

I-Hsien Porter

A view of flooding in Pakistan, taken from a helicopter near Ghazi, August 2010.

Referring to the ongoing heatwave in Russia and floods in Pakistan, a broadsheet newspaper recently printed an article with the headline “Disasters ‘prove that global warming is happening’.” The article was reproduced on the internet, with the more cautious title “global warming could be the cause.”

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) agrees that extreme events like these are consistent with climate trends. However, global warming refers to long term climatic trends over periods of decades. Heatwaves and flooding, however extreme, are short term weather events. They do no more to ‘prove’ global warming than heavy snowfall across the UK in January ‘disproves’ it.

Extreme events have always happened. What we’re concerned about are long term trends in climate, which might make these sorts of events more common. But we can’t wait around for these trends to play out over decades before concluding that we have observed ‘proof’: by then it will be far too late to mitigate any damage already caused. So what constitutes scientific proof?

In a paper in Area, Greg O’Hare reviewed the uncertainties in climate science, ranging from measurement errors in data collection to simplifications introduced into computer models. The world’s climate system is complex and our knowledge and ability to measure it is incomplete. Scientists can only draw interpretations about climate change from the available evidence, albeit using increasingly sophisticated techniques such as computer models. Linking observations with the process of climate change is, therefore, an uncertain business.

Scientific research is inherently uncertain (if we were sure, there would be no point to research). While scientists can do their best to quantify and reduce uncertainty, the level of uncertainty that we are willing to accept when making decisions is a question for policy makers and wider society.

“Pakistan floods: Climate change experts say global warming could be the cause”, The Daily Telegraph, 10th August 2010.

O’Hare, G. (2000) “Reviewing the uncertainties in climate change science.” Area 32 (4): 357-368

Recent Catastrophic Flooding

By Andy Hacket Pain

This morning I typed “flooding” into Google News and, limiting the results to the last week, found that you get almost 20,000 hits.

By scrolling through the first few pages of results I then discovered that flooding disasters of different scales have affected Southern China, the US, Burma, Singapore, Winnipeg, India and southern France over the last few days, with several hundred reported deaths and many more people still missing. For example, 132 people are now confirmed dead in China, although this figure is likely to rise significantly, and almost a million people have been evacuated.

After reading these reports, and viewing pictures of the devastation, the immediate question of what, or who, is responsible for these disasters obviously springs to mind. Chang and Franczyk (2008) review the causes of floods in an article in Geography Compass, highlighting both the natural and human factors responsible for these events.

While intense or prolonged rainfall is clearly the primary cause of flooding, land-use change and potentially climate change have also played a major role in the reported increase in flood damage over recent decades. Furthermore, the urban development of high risk areas puts increased numbers at risk; in response to this weeks flooding, the UN International Strategy for Disaster Reduction has again called on governments to take flood risk into account in urban planning efforts.

There is also of course the question of whether climate change also has some responsibility for these flooding events. According to Chang and Franczyk (2008) this is not yet clear, but the evidence is building…

Chang and Franczyk (2008), Climate Change, Land-Use Change, and Floods: Toward an Integrated Assessment, Geography Compass, 2(5), 1549-1579

“Floods across southern China take heavy toll” from the BBC News website

Photographs of the flooding in southern France from The Guardian website

The UNISDR calls for governments to take action, reported at webnewswire.com

Satellite images of the weather system over southern China, from the Chinese National Meteorological Centre

Killing U.S. Nurseries

By Georgia Davis Conover

As oil comes ashore on the US Gulf Coast from the British Petroleum drilling accident, the mangrove forests that line the Gulf Coast are in danger of dying.  The potential loss of mangroves presents a problem on a number of levels.  The salt tolerant trees sit at the water’s edge, growing maze-like root systems.  These root systems form nurseries which are crucial for the survival of Gulf of Mexico fisheries and for wading and fish-eating birds.  And, the mangroves serve another important purpose, protecting the fragile coastline.  In the hurricane ravaged Gulf, mangroves help prevent erosion in addition to disrupting storm surge.  Approximately 2,000 kilometers of U.S. mangrove coastline are concentrated in Louisiana, Texas and Southern Florida, the three states most likely to be impacted by the oil spill.  If the regions’ mangrove forests die off, not only are the fisheries and the economy that depends on them damaged, the possibility of storm damage also increases greatly.

Ostling, Butler and Dixon study mangroves around the world, most of which, they argue, are already threatened by anthropogenic practices such as aquaculture, forestry and urban development.  Efforts are underway in some areas to replant mangrove forests but just how successful those efforts will be remains to be seen.   The authors contend that the destruction of mangroves removes both protection from natural hazards and sensitive wildlife habitat.

Read: Ostling, Butler and Dixon. 2009.  The Biogeomorphology of Mangroves and Their Role in Natural Hazards Mitigation.  Geography Compass 3(5): 1607-1624.

Read the AFP article.