Natural Hazards

Luigi Lombardo

My name is Luigi Lombardo and I am a Post-Doctoral fellow at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology since March 2016. I completed my Ph.D. in 2015 in a co-tutelle programme between the Universities of Palermo (Italy) and Tübingen (Germany). My research interests lies in the area of spatial predictive modeling ranging from primary applications in geomorphology to soils science and hydrology. I joined the EGU early career scientists of the Natural Hazard division (NhET) in 2016. Since then I contributed to the activities of the group and now, together with part of the team we will manage the Natural Hazard blog of the EGU. It goes without saying it, but being Italian, I love cooking and has also worked as a sous chef in my youth.

International Research Projects: what can we learn from CHANGES?

International Research Projects: what can we learn from CHANGES?

Today I have the pleasure to post an interview on International Research Projects. The interviewee, Dr. Cees van Westen, does not need any introduction for those who work in the field on Natural Hazards. Today, he will “speak” as the coordinator of the CHANGES project and further information can be asked directly to him if this interview will stimulate your curiosity (e-mail: c.j.vanwesten@utwente.nl, tel: +31534874263).

 Dr. Cees van Westen obtained MSc in Physical Geography from the University of Amsterdam in 1988. He joined the Division of Applied Geomorphology of ITC in 1988, and specialized in the use of Remote Sensing and Geographic Information Systems for natural hazard and risk assessment. He obtained his PhD in Engineering Geology from the Technical University of Delft in 1993, with a research on “Geographic Information Systems for Landslide Hazard Zonation”.  He is working in the Department of Earth Systems Analysis, and contributes to the research theme 4D-Earth, specifically to Natural Hazards and Disaster Risk Management. Dr. Van Westen has worked on research projects, training courses and consulting projects related to natural hazard and risk assessment in many different countries. From 2005- 2015 he was Director of the United Nations University – ITC Centre on Geoinformation for Disaster Risk Management. From 2010 to 2015 he was Project coordinator of the EU FP7 Marie Curie Initial Training Network “CHANGES” 


1. What can you tell about the CHANGES project? (please click here to navigate to the website)

The name CHANGES stands for “Changing Hydro-meteorological Risks – as Analyzed by a New Generation of European Scientists”. This EU Marie Curie Initial Training Network project, which was running from 2011 to 2015, aimed to develop an advanced understanding of how global changes (related to environmental and climate change as well as socio-economical change) will affect the temporal and spatial patterns of hydro-meteorological hazards and associated risks in Europe; how these changes can be assessed, modelled, and incorporated in sustainable risk management strategies, focusing on spatial planning, emergency preparedness and risk communication.

2. What are the complexities in coordinating such an international project?

First of all the development of a good international consortium is a major challenge. The consortium had to consist of partners from academic and private sector, and should cover certain strategic regions in Europe. The network was very international, and consisted of 11 full partners from the Netherlands, Germany, France, Switzerland, Austria, Poland, Romania and Italy and 6 associate partners of which 5 private companies, from the UK, Spain, Netherlands, Germany, and Italy. The next complicating aspect, after the project was awarded, was to find suitable candidates that fulfilled the criteria established by the MSCA programme. Eventually the network employed a total of 17 young researchers, of which 13 were female and 4 male. They came from all over the world: New Zealand, Germany, Belgium, Slovenia, Romania, Netherlands, Italy, Myanmar, Colombia, USA, Switzerland, Macedonia, China, Iran, Moldova and Argentina. Twelve young researchers were hired for a period of 36 months, and carried out PhD research, whereas the other five were hired for 18 months and worked on the development of a web-based spatial decision support system for the analysis of changing risk. All young researchers have spent a considerable amount of time with other partners in secondments.

The large mobility of the project made it very complex to handle. The young researchers stayed generally with at least two partners for a period of time. Some of the partners were not Universities and for them also other academic partners were involved where the actual PhD defence took place. The contracts with the young researchers was for a period of 3 years, whereas in most of the cases the PhD takes more time, so it was also complex to find follow-up contracts so that all could complete their PhD, which they almost all did. Another complicating issue was the active stakeholders’ participation which required the involvement of organisations that were not partners, and who’s involvement could not be easily controlled.

3. I assume it is difficult to foresee the results of such a complex project when you first apply for a grant. Do you think you have reached the expectations you envisioned when you first applied for CHANGES? If yes, what are the main goals the project has reached in your view? If no, how could have it been improved?

Yes, this was indeed difficult to foresee in terms of the scientific results, but more easily in terms of the expected project results: helping young researchers to develop the right skills in order to become experienced researchers. As the funding in this project all went to the young researchers, and not to the salaries of the existing scientific staff, the scientific results were also obtained through the work of the young researchers. The scientific focus of the project was on a number of topics organized in five themes (work packages). The first objective was to analyse the changes in hydro-meteorological hazards that are expected as a result of environmental changes. Regional and local scale probabilistic hazard assessments for floods, landslides and debris flows were developed for four case study sites (Barcelonnette / Ubaye Valley in France; Buzau County in Romania; Fella River in Italy; and Wieprzówka catchment in Poland). The second objective was to evaluate environmental changes, triggered by global change (including climate change) and interacting with economic development, leading to changes in exposed elements at risk. The third objective was to integrate the techniques for hazard assessment with the results of the exposure and vulnerability analysis, into a platform for Quantitative Risk Assessment (QRA) using multi-hazard risk assessment techniques. The fourth objective focused sustainable risk management strategies, related to spatial planning and emergency preparedness, response and rescue activities. The outcomes were used for risk communication purposes, achieved by designing specific risk visualization and communication tools, aimed at local authorities, planning agencies, civil protection organizations, and also with a component directed to the general public. Most of the objectives that were stated in the proposal were addressed in the PhD research of the young researchers. One of the main challenges in this project was that some researchers were highly depending on the outcomes of others, and as all started at the same time, this caused difficulties for some that were further in the risk assessment and management chain.

4. CHANGES is clearly a rare if not unique project as it involved collaboration, coordination and focus across many different institutions and topics. How does this impact the development of a young researcher?

As the aim of the programme was to support the scientific development of young researchers, the network organized a large series of training events in which also participants from outside of the network were invited. This resulted in a total of 6 professional skill courses, 6 technical skills courses and 5 topical workshops. The project partners and young researchers actively collaborated with other Universities, research projects, NGOs and international organisations. Scientific output of the project was in the form of peer reviewed journal articles and numerous conference papers and abstracts. One of the main outputs of the project was the development of an internet-based Spatial Decision Support System called RiskChanges with the aim to analyse the effect of risk reduction planning alternatives and possible future scenarios related to climate change and landuse changes on reducing the risk now and in the future, and support decision makers in selecting the best alternatives. The project partners and young researchers actively collaborated with other Universities, research projects, NGOs and international organisations. The results of the project were all made available through the project website (http://www.changes-itn.eu/). At the end of the project the International Conference on the Analysis and Management of Changing Risk for Natural Hazards was organized to present and discuss research results in the above mentioned fields. The conference was held on 18 and 19 November, in Padua, Italy.

5. How frequent are this type of projects? Are you planning for applying for something similar in the near future?   

Such large EU networks are certainly not frequent, but are also not impossible to obtain. The competition for such projects is very large though. We were told that there is less than 2% change for such a proposal to get funded. This is also due to the fact that there are no specific thematic call. It is possible to submit a proposal on many different topics, but the selection procedure is very tough. The programme is now called Marie Skłodowska-Curie Innovative Training Networks. It has regular calls, generally once a year. The proposed research training or doctoral programme should respond to well-identified multi- and interdisciplinary needs in scientific and technological research areas, expose the researcher to different sectors, and offer a comprehensive set of transferable skills (such as entrepreneurship and communication). The private sector involvement has to be very significant. Before the CHANGES project most of the partners were also collaborating within a previous network, called Mountain Risk, which was coordinated by Jean-Philippe Malet of the University of Strasbourg. After the Changes project we also tried to get a follow-up project with another partner taken the lead, but this was not funded. I am personally not considering to submit a new proposal in the coming years, as it is a lot of work to coordinate it.

“Twenty or more Leagues Under the Sea”: A journey to understand submarine canyons

“Twenty or more Leagues Under the Sea”: A journey to understand submarine canyons

As NhET, we have the pleasure to have Mauro Agate as our guest and interviewee today. We discuss about submarine canyons and related geo-hazards. Further details will be available at: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0967064513002488  for a scientific-oriented audience;

or https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCwWErQNoZYpJhhkxPa82x5g for a broader audience.


Dr. Mauro Agate is a marine geologist and a stratigrapher working at Earth and Marine Sciences Department of Palermo University (Italy) where he teaches Marine Geology and Sedimentology. He has taken part in more than 25 oceanographic cruises in the central Mediterranean Sea. He focuses on: i) effects of sea level change on sedimentary dynamics of shelf-to-slope systems; ii) geomorphological and geological mapping of seafloor; iii) origin and evolution of submarine canyon systems; iv) tectono-sedimentary evolution of continental margins.

He has contributed to several research projects: VECTOR (Vulnerability of Italian marine coasts and ecosystems to climatic change); CARG (Geological mapping); MAGIC (Marine geohazards along the Italian coasts); EMODNet (European marine observation and data network).




1) Which is the main topic of the research we are going to discuss today?

I will focus on submarine canyons as they are one of the most widespread morphologies shaping the ocean floor. These erosional features may extend seawards across continental margins for hundreds of kilometres (> 400 km) and occasionally have canyon wall heights of up to 5 km, from canyon floor to canyon rim. Submarine canyons play a key role in the framework of oceanographic and sedimentary processes, acting as conduits for the transfer of sediment from mainland to the deep sea, and controlling meso-scale oceanographic circulation as well as controlling the functioning of specific benthic habitats.

2) How do submarine canyons originate?

For years, the origins of submarine canyons have been the subject of debate among investigators, and various ideas have been proposed. As already suggested by Shepard in a famous paper dated 1981, multiple causes may contribute to the origin of a canyon. Canyons are fundamentally erosive features, yet some of them show a very complex evolution characterized by alternating erosive and depositional stages.

It is important to separate two main types of submarine canyons, because the origin, evolution and quality of related ecosystems are very different: a) shelf-indenting, sediment fed canyons and b) slope-confined, retrograding canyons. Marine geological and geophysical research documented as slope-confined canyons can retrogressively develop up to the shelf edge, and recent studies, also based on numerical modelling, suggested that these canyons formerly originated from downslope-eroding sediment flows. Some shelf-indenting canyons may cross the continental shelf in its entirety and link to current fluvial networks. Submarine canyons display many similarities with exposed river systems, but also relevant differences.

3) Why it is important to understand submarine canyon origins and evolution?

The unravelling of submarine canyon dynamics has been driven by the need to plan safe routes along which to place cables and pipelines across the seafloor. Often, at the down-slope end of the canyon, sedimentary submarine fans may occur. These represent modern analogues for ancient deposits of economic significance (hydrocarbon source-rock and reservoir). Moreover, oceanographic implication of canyon activity, by mixing of shallow water with upwelling of deep water can also enhance local primary productivity: consequently, commercially relevant fisheries are commonly located at the heads of submarine canyons.

Further on, among deep ocean geomorphic features, the heads of some shelf-incising submarine canyons have been identified as supporting ecosystems (e.g. cold-water coral communities). These are especially vulnerable to human activities, mostly as consequence of water acidification caused by anthropogenic climate change and bottom trawl fisheries. In particular, the trawling practise could have an enormous impact on canyon dynamics by altering deep-sea sediment transport pathways and ecosystems.

Ultimately, a more complete understanding of the canyon activity may help us in preventing some natural and anthropogenic hazards.

4) What types of hazards are related to the underwater canyons?

Two main types of hazards are associated with the presence of submarine canyons and their related processes: landslides and dispersion of pollutants.

Submarine slides can be generated by the failure of canyon wall and head-scarp. Usually mass wasting phenomena occurring inside the canyon are not very large in size. However, they can be dangerous for cables and pipelines. Moreover, in some canyons, the headward erosion driven by downslope-cutting sediment flows and the following landward shift of the canyon head may come to threaten harbor facilities or other anthropic settlements located along the coast. In 1979 a landslide in the head of the Var Canyon in the Gulf of Lions, involved a volume of about 9 million m3 of material and caused a tsunami wave of about three meters that damaged part of the work to extend the airport of Nice and killed 10 people. Similarly, in southern Italy, along the Tyrrhenian coast of Calabria, in 1977 a submarine landslide in the head of Gioia Tauro canyon mobilized about 5 million m3 of material generating a tsunami and a turbidity current which caused serious damage to the port and the break of submarine cables. Even away from settled regions, the retreat of the canyon heads can cause extensive damage such as the sudden disappearance of entire stretches of sandy coastline.

If the canyon walls and head were stable, however, the same morphology of a submarine canyon could represent a threat in case of earthquakes or tsunamigenic landslides because the bathymetric pattern of the canyon can amplify (or simply not mitigate) a possible tsunami wave. Such different effects of sea floor bathymetry on tsunami characteristics have been documented. Examples are the tsunami in 1998 affecting the island of Papa New Guinea and the Indian Ocean tsunami on 26 December 2004 affecting on the Bangladesh coast.

As concerns dispersion of pollutants, at present not many studies have been carried out. However, there is growing evidence that sediment transport along the canyon can contribute to contamination of pelagic sediments by industrial waste and chemical pollutants coming from coastal areas and subsequent accumulation in deep-sea fauna.

5) What are the most advanced methodologies for the investigation of submarine canyons and what further discoveries do you expect from the upcoming research?

During the past two decades, the wide-spread use of the Multibeam echo-sounder devices in underwater geological surveys have provided wonderful images of the seabed. This allowed for quantitative morphometric analysis of submerged geomorphological features, among which the submarine canyons. We currently know very well the shape, morphologies and sizes of these fascinating features. Probably further advances in understanding the mechanisms of the canyon function can only come from multidisciplinary research that integrates geophysical, sedimentological, oceanographic and biological analyses. A multidisciplinary approach, such as the one followed in the ISLAND Project (ExplorIng SiciLian CAnyoN Dynamics) recently promoted by the European program EUROFLEETS (www.eurofleets.eu), is now essential not only to better understand the sedimentary dynamics and evolutionary mode of submarine canyons,  but also to assess the impact of canyon activity in generating natural hazards and controlling benthic ecosystems stability.


Our first Interview is ready!

Our first Interview is ready!

Today we are happy to post our first interview and to thank our first interviewee, Paola Crippa for her contribution. The topic focuses on mortality from high concentration of particulate matter generated from widespread wildfires. This topic wants to be just the starting point to address another and broader theme: dealing with lack-of-data for research purposes in developing countries.

This will be inspired by one of the most recent researches published by Paola: “Population exposure to hazardous air quality due to the 2015 fires in Equatorial Asia” http://www.nature.com/articles/srep37074


1. Which problem did you address in your research?

Vegetation and peatland fires occur frequently across Equatorial Asia, as they are used to manage the land, clear vegetation and to prepare and maintain land for agriculture. Wildfires emit pollutants that can cause poor regional air quality and are extremely harmful to human health. As a result, each year thousands of premature deaths occur across Equatorial Asia. In fall 2015, these fires burned out of control in Indonesia as a result of the extremely dry landscape caused by strong El Nino conditions. In our study, we use a state-of-the-art air quality model (the Weather Research and Forecasting model with Chemistry, WRF-Chem) at high spatial-temporal resolution to quantify the impact of these fires on air quality and human health. We found that 69 million people were persistently exposed to unhealthy air quality conditions caused by fire emissions and that this pollution may have caused 11,880 (6,153–17,270) excess mortalities. Our results emphasize the need of a coordinated effort between scientists and policymakers to assess the impact of land use changes and human-driven deforestation on fire frequency, to possibly mitigate the impacts of these hazardous events on human lives.

2. Do mortality estimates from simulations actually agree with the corresponding real data?

We evaluated our model simulations relative to both ground- and satellite-based observations of aerosol properties and we are confident that our simulated results provide a realistic representation of the 2015 wildfires, and hence can be used to infer the impact on air quality and human health. We integrated our hourly maps of pollutant concentrations with population density data and estimated the number of people persistently exposed to unhealthy and hazardous air quality conditions during fall 2015 with respect to World Health Organization and Pollutant Standards Index guidelines. While these metrics gave us confidence in our assessment of population exposure, it was unfortunately not possible to validate our mortality estimates since no local hospitalization data were available for the period of interest.

3. No real data were available? This is certainly a strong limitation for the research community but also for those that deal with risk management. What is your position in this regard?

In order to estimate the number of premature deaths occurred as a result of exposure to degraded air quality conditions, epidemiological evidence to link pollutant concentrations and hospitalizations and mortality data are needed. Unfortunately, in Equatorial Asia, as well as in most developing countries, these cohort studies have never been performed, or at least those data are not available to scientists. In our work, we used exposure-response functions developed from studies conducted in Europe and United States where pollutant concentrations are much lower than those registered during the events we studied. Therefore, our mortality estimates are likely conservative. This is indeed a big limitation not only for scientists but also for policymakers when trying to reduce the negative impacts of natural hazards since no robust evidence of the magnitude of those events is available. If local governments would be able to collect, organize and release these data, this would allow scientists to better serve the community by providing better mitigation strategies.

4. Do other countries invest more in data collection allowing for a better coupling between simulations and ground-truth data?

In Europe and United States, epidemiological studies linking exposure to mortality and, most importantly, hospitalization data are easier to access. While still not as easily accessible as most publicly funded satellite and climate model repositories, we hope that Western governments would implement a standardized national or international database that can be used to produce considerably more reliable exposure maps. This would allow a better assessment of mortality in polluted areas such as London, but the level of exposure in less developed countries is on a different level of magnitude, with millions of human lives at risk, including children and elderly citizens. Since any extrapolation of Western data in these areas is problematic, the international community must invest in the development of local studies and data collection.

5. Do you think that simulations like yours can be useful not only in a post-disaster phase but as a risk prevention tool? 

One of the great advantages of using numerical models such as WRF-Chem is that they can be also used in forecasting mode, meaning that they can be used to predict where and how fast pollution would be transported from emission sources and consequently provide information for reducing population exposure. They can be also used to make projections as a function of emission scenarios. This is particularly important in regions subject to rapid land use change and human-driven deforestation, such as Equatorial Asia or South America. An example of successful integration of numerical model forecasts with mitigation strategies can be found in Santiago de Chile, where the government declares alert days based on numerical weather model forecasts of unhealthy pollution. This is the result of a close and constructive collaboration between scientists and policymakers.


The risk of a Natural Hazard blog is now real, be prepared!

The risk of a Natural Hazard blog is now real, be prepared!

Hello and welcome to the blog of the Natural Hazards division! Starting from today we will try to enrich your readings every two weeks on Monday morning with a new blog post!

Our division encompasses and intersects various topics in geoscience. For this reason, we will aim to diversify the content from post to post, each time focusing on a different aspect of the complex natural hazard world.

We have structured our blog to feature either the Interview of the month or the Paper of the month. The former will give you the chance to dive into the perspectives of both young and established scientists regarding research activities and state of the art applications for managing/understanding natural hazards. The latter will be a review of important articles that have significantly contributed to the hazard science. Due to the wide breath of the division, we will balance the posts to keep the scientific content and make it clear to a wide readership.

Updates regarding natural hazard activities for ECSs (technical trainings, courses, summer schools and much more) will also be posted on a regular basis giving you the chance to stay up to date with our division.

Similarly, we aim at giving you the chance to check job offers and career opportunity though our page.

If you would like to receive a notification whenever we post something new, feel free to “Subscribe to blog” us by adding your email clicking on the right.

We belong to a huge division and being few we may overlook some topics of your interest. In such case, feel free to suggest any discussion alongside with any other suggestion you may have to improve our blog. If your interest goes even beyond, you are welcome to contribute with a blog post. In both cases, you can contact us at

  1. our email: nhecsteam@gmail.com
  2. our google group: https://groups.google.com/forum/#!forum/nhet


Once again, welcome to our blog and we hope you enjoy readings!

The Natural Hazards Early Career Scientist Team (NhET).