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natural disasters

A better framework for disasters

A better framework for disasters

The end of the Northern hemisphere summer tends to be a good time to regroup from natural hazards, as the frequency and intensity of storms, as well as the incidence of wildfires, tends to trail off. At the time of writing, however, Hurricane Willa had just crashed into Mexico, while Typhoon Yutu has just hit the Northern Mariana Islands so hard that any equipment designed to record wind-speed had been swept away. Both storms rapidly strengthened, and the latter was described by the US National Weather Service as ‘likely [to] become the new yard stick by which future storms will be judged.’

Super Typhoon Yutu (24 October 2018) making its way towards the Northern Mariana Islands, a territory of the United States. (Photo: Joshua Stevens/NASA Earth Observatory)

What if we changed the way we think about such events, though? What if, instead of focusing on the wind-speed of a typhoon or the magnitude of an earthquake, the first points of discussion were about the human aspect and impact associated with a specific event. How would this summer’s events be framed? It’s a crucial distinction; natural disaster is in some ways a paradox in terms – although the hazard, or physical manifestation, of a hurricane or earthquake is natural, the impacts, and thus the disaster, are entirely a result of human exposure and vulnerability. Let’s first explore some of the most dramatic themes from this summer’s disasters, and then try and put them in this new human context.

What links this summer’s events?

The recent Hurricanes – Yutu, Willa, Florence and Michael – encapsulate well the intensity and frequency at which we’ve seen disasters come over the last few months. Earthquakes, storms, droughts and wildfires have all caused havoc in a hugely diverse spectrum of locations, and while the specter of natural hazards is always present in many parts of the world, there seems to be something more intense and urgent with respect to this summer’s catastrophes, especially in the media coverage.

The availability of smartphones and the proliferation of social media use means we can see ever more easily from the safety of our homes what others experience in terror during disasters; who could forget the scarring imagery from the earthquake and tsunami in Lombok in September, as houses were tossed about like toys as the ground turned to liquid.

Elsewhere, Japan experienced a plethora of hazards as flooding, typhoons, landslides, earthquakes and drought brought a whole range of challenging conditions which caused a large number of fatalities, despite Japan’s status as one of the best prepared countries in the world for natural hazards.

Much of the media discussion related to disasters has focused on the links between hazards and climate change, and whether the severity of events like Hurricane Florence can be attributed in part to anthropogenic emissions. While it has historically proven difficult to attribute the strength of different storms to climate change, this summer marked the first time scientists attempted it in earnest while an event was taking place – some researchers argued that the rainfall forecast for Hurricane Florence was 50% higher than it would otherwise have been, although such estimates are still in their infancy. What is clearer from scientific predictions of future climate change is that storms will likely be stronger, wetter and slower moving, suggesting similar intense storms could become more normal.

Beyond tropical storms, records were broken by other catastrophes. The Northern hemisphere wildfire season was among the worst we’ve ever experienced on record, at least in terms of acreage burned. Californian fires were so intense that smoke was noticeable on the East Coast, while the extent of fire in western Canada was second only to the cataclysmic fires last year. Abnormally warm temperatures in Scandinavia prompted wildfires to break out north of the Arctic circle, an extremely rare and concerning occurrence.

A different way to think about catastrophes

While it’s interesting and important to discuss the potential for increased storm severity as a result of climate change, it seems that this should only form a part of the larger discussion: how will trends in climate co-evolve with trends in human exposure and vulnerability to hazards? Similarly, why focus on the numbers associated with a disaster – the earthquake magnitude, the depth of flooding, acres of forest burned – when we could instead look at who has been impacted, and how to prevent this in the future.

It’s especially important to frame the ‘cost’ of a given event in this context. Often, we think of cost in either loss-of-life or financial terms, but it’s worth considering those as functions of exposure and vulnerability. For example, Hurricane Florence, which recently made landfall on the US eastern seaboard, is likely to cost  40-50 billion US dollars. Compare this to Hurricane Maria, which devastated Puerto Rico in 2017; some estimates for the cost of the storm were around 100 billion US dollars. While Hurricane Maria cost roughly twice as much as Florence, the relative impact on Puerto Rico was far greater than that value would imply. The vulnerability of the economy of Puerto Rico to a disaster of that scale was far higher than the mainland US; with a GDP of over 10 trillion US dollars, the US economy can absorb shocks like Florence, but the GDP of Puerto Rico declined by a massive 8% in the aftermath of Maria. It is worth noting that Puerto Rico is in fact a territory of the US, and received federal funding to assist with recovery – so the economic impact might even have been more severe without it.

U.S. Customs & Border Protection & FEMA personnel deliver food and water to isolated Puerto Rico residents after their bridge was destroyed by Hurricane Maria in the mountains around Utuado, Puerto Rico (Photo: U.S. Air Force/Master Sgt. Joshua L. DeMotts via FEMA)

We can build the same framing for loss of lives; countries with well-developed disaster response and recovery mechanisms suffer significantly fewer fatalities in the face of a similar magnitude event to a poorly equipped country, all things being equal. This kind of social vulnerability to disaster is difficult to quantify, and encompasses a range of aspects including cultural awareness of natural hazards and healthcare expenditure, but it has to be considered alongside the trends in hazard intensity.

I would argue that coverage of (and research related to) disasters needs to shift away from the headline numbers, like skyrocketing costs or the increasing intensity of storms and wildfires, and instead discuss whether disasters are hitting harder in places that are more vulnerable, or whether the relative economic or human exposure to a given type of disaster is worsening or not. While it’s fascinating to see images of multiple hurricanes over a single basin, it’s an incomplete picture unless the risk is incorporated.

Flash flood impacts in Peru after torrential rain in 2013 (Photo: Galeria del Ministerio de Defensa del Perú via Flickr)

Reframing our vision of disasters would put the focus squarely on where inequality and climate change interact; if more vulnerable developing countries or regions are expected to be more exposed to disasters under a changing climate, then there is real potential for inequalities to be exacerbated – and this is indeed what the UN anticipates will occur. More fundamentally, reframing would help us shift away from a coldly analytical perspective of ‘disasters by the numbers’ and instead consider where the worst impacts would be, and who the people at risk are. While trends in the developed world indicate fewer and fewer deaths from disasters over the last 100 years, many countries don’t have the same capacity to absorb shocks.

The human tendency to dwell on the extraordinary, and the ephemeral nature of modern news coverage certainly encourages reporting to focus on the records broken by a given event. Perhaps it’s futile to add another voice to the many that have already asked for more context and temperance from such coverage, but it seems important to highlight that there may be other ways to cover disasters; those affected may benefit greatly, in both the long and short term.

Robert Emberson is a Postdoctoral Fellow at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, and a science writer when possible. He can be contacted either on Twitter (@RobertEmberson) or via his website (https://robertemberson.com/)

Editor’s note: This is a guest blog post that expresses the opinion of its author, whose views may differ from those of the European Geosciences Union. We hope the post can serve to generate discussion and a civilised debate amongst our readers.

Top ten tourist beaches threatened by tsunamis

Top ten tourist beaches threatened by tsunamis

December 2004 saw one of the deadliest natural disasters in recorded history. 228,000 people were killed when an earthquake off the coast of the Indonesian island of Sumatra triggered tsunami waves up to 30 m high. The destruction was extreme as the waves hit 14 different countries around the Indian Ocean. Economic losses totalled over 10 billion US dollars. The tourism industry in particular suffered a significant blow. In Phuket, a province of Thailand, a quarter of the island’s hotels had closed six months after the tsumani.

“The 2004 Sumatra tsunami and some of the recent Pacific Island tsunamis have shown their devastating impact on beaches and beach-related tourism,” says Andreas Schaefer, a researcher from the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT). But where is disaster likely to strike next? And can we be prepared for it?

Schaefer and his colleagues are trying to find out. “We asked the question: can we quantify potential tsunami losses to tourism industries along beaches?” he says. The number of tourists visiting the most exotic locations in the world, places such as Thailand, Indonesia, Colombia and Costa Rica, are rising twice as fast as the global average. In some cases, visitor numbers are growing by as much as 11 percent each year.

This rise in tourism in tsunami-prone locations is potentially a cause for real concern. “We compiled the first ever global loss index for the tourism industry [associated with beaches],” continues Schaefer. His findings were presented last month at the European Geosciences Union General Assembly in Vienna .

Beaches can be affected by tsunamis in a variety of ways. As well as the immediate threat to human life, a tsunami wave can leave behind piles of debris or offshore sand that can damage a beach environment. Alternatively, large swathes of beach sand might be removed by erosion. And in cases where an earthquake is very close to the shore, the beach itself may be down-thrust or uplifted during the event, leaving it either permanently submerged underwater or high and dry.

To quantify the locations in the world that are most at risk, Schaefer and his colleagues used two large datasets: tourist information and earthquake statistics.

Tourism-derived GDP per capita across the world. (Image credit: Andreas Schaefer)

To calculate the human exposure, “we compiled a global tourism destination database,” he explains. This database includes over 200 countries, at least 10,000 tourist destinations, more than 24,000 beaches, and almost a million hotels from all around the globe.

“It was important to get the latest and best tourism and hotel information,” says James Daniell, another member of the KIT research team. “Tourism contributes over 6 trillion [US] dollars directly and indirectly to the global economy every year.”

The research team then calculated tsunami probabilities all around the world using earthquake statistics and tectonic modelling. Chile, central America, Indonesia and Japan are the main countries that frequently experience large tsunamis.

Over longer time periods, the Caribbean and Mediterranean are also likely to be affected by rarer events. To put the numbers in perspective, if you spend a day on the coast of Mexico you have a one in 60,000 chance of seeing a tsunami; in Crete, this decreases to one in 600,000.

To model the tsunamis, it is also important to have a good understanding of the shape of the seafloor in the vicinity of the tourist sites. In the deep ocean, big tsunamis can have gaps between waves of as much as 200 km and wave heights as small as 1 m; ships are often unable to feel them passing. But as they approach the shore, the water shallows, causing the waves to slow down and pile up. The wave spacing decreases to less than 20 km, whilst the wave heights can grow to tens of metres. Hence, what looks like an innocuous fluctuation at sea can cause major damage when it reaches land. The depth of the adjacent seafloor plays a major role in this.

Simulated tsunamis across the world showing maximum potential wave heights. (Image credit: Andreas Schaefer)

Given the large number of variables at play, tsunami modelling involves many calculations and typically requires the use of a supercomputer. But in a paper published last year, Schaefer helped to develop a new simulation framework called TsuPy, which allows for quick modelling of tsunamis on personal computers. With this in place, he could rapidly simulate more than 10,000 tsunamis all around the world, calculate the expected wave heights at the tourist sites in his database, and estimate the likely economic losses.

The researchers estimate 250 million US dollars in global annual loss to the tourism industry from tsunami waves. Furthermore, every 10 years they expect a single $1 billion event.

Of all the tourist destinations, “Hawaii is the number one,” says Schaefer. This is “because of all the potential tsunamis that come from around the Pacific Ring of Fire,” he explains. “There are so many [tsunami] sources all around, that, even though they are far away, they have an effect.”

The last major tsunami to strike Hawaii was as a result of the biggest earthquake ever recorded: the 1960 magnitude 9.6 Valdivia earthquake on the coast of Chile. 60 people on Hawaii were killed and the damage amounted to 500 million US dollars in today’s terms.

Top ten locations on the global risk index for beach tourist destinations threatened by tsunamis. (Image credit: Andreas Schaefer)

Other notable locations on the top ten list include Valparaiso (Chile), Bali (Indonesia), and Phuket (Thailand). “Locations that are known for their tourism are at the top of the list because there is a lot [of existing infrastructure] that could be damaged,” explains Schaefer.

Slightly surprisingly, southwest Turkey is also high on the list. Furthermore, places like Tonga and Vanuatu are particularly at risk. They have rapidly developing tourist industries and large projected losses per dollar of tourism-related business, so they feature highly on Schaefer’s list. “They are mostly small island nations with a significant need for tourist dollars,” explains Daniell.

For many parts of the world, the results are not necessarily good news. But they are a first step inasmuch as they highlight the locations that are currently thought to be at greatest risk. “We hope, with these results, to raise awareness among tourists. But they do not need to be afraid,” says Schaefer. With adequate preparation and evacuation planning, it is hoped that future disaster on the scale of the 2004 event might be averted.

By Tim Middleton, EGU 2018 General Assembly Press Assistant

References

Schaefer, A., Daniell, J., and Wenzel, F. Beach Tsunami Risk Modelling – A probabilistic assessment of tsunami risk for the world’s most prominent beaches. Geophysical Research Abstracts, Vol. 20, EGU2018-11955, 2018, EGU General Assembly 2018 (conference abstract)

Schaefer, A. and Wenzel, F. TsuPy: Computational robustness in Tsunami hazard modelling. Computers & Geosciences, 102, 148-157, 2017

Geosciences Column: Extreme snowfall potentially worsened Nepal’s 2015 earthquake-triggered avalanche

Geosciences Column: Extreme snowfall potentially worsened Nepal’s 2015 earthquake-triggered avalanche

Three years ago, an earthquake-induced avalanche and rockfalls buried an entire Nepalese village in ice, stone, and snow. Researchers now think the region’s heavy snowfall from the preceding winter may have intensified the avalanche’s disastrous effect.

The Langtang village, just 70 kilometres from Nepal’s capital Kathmandu, is nestled within a valley under the shadow of the Himalayas. The town was popular amongst trekking tourists, as the surrounding mountains offer breathtaking hiking opportunities.

But in April 2015, a 7.8-magnitude earthquake, also known as the Gorkha earthquake, triggered a massive avalanche and landslides, engulfing the village in debris.

Scientists estimate that the force of the avalanche was half as powerful the Hiroshima atomic bomb. The blast of air generated from the avalanche rushed through the site at more than 300 kilometres per hour, blowing down buildings and uprooting forests.

By the time the debris and wind had settled, only one village structure was left standing. The disaster claimed the lives of 350 people, with more than 100 bodies never located.

Before-and-after photographs of Nepal’s Langtang Valley showing the near-complete destruction of Langtang village. Photos from 2012 (pre-quake) and 2015 (post-quake) by David Breashears/GlacierWorks. Distributed via NASA Goddard on Flickr.

Since then, scientists have been trying to reconstruct the disaster’s timeline and determine what factors contributed to the village’s tragic demise.

Recently, researchers discovered that the region’s unusually heavy winter snowfall could have amplified the avalanche’s devastation. The research team, made up of scientists from Japan, Nepal, the Netherlands, Canada and the US, published their findings last year in the EGU’s open access journal Natural Hazards and Earth System Sciences.

To reach their conclusions, the team drew from various observational sources. For example, the researchers created three-dimensional models and orthomosaic maps, showing the region both before it was hit by the coseismic events and afterwards. The models and maps were pieced together using data collected before the earthquake and aerial images of the affected area taken by helicopter and drones in the months following the avalanche.

They also interviewed 20 villagers local to the Langtang valley, questioning each person on where he or she was during the earthquake and how much time had passed between the earthquake and the first avalanche event. In addition, the researchers asked the village residents to describe the ice, snow and rock that blanketed Langtang, including details on the colour, wetness, and surface condition of the debris.  

Based on their own visual ice cliff observations by the Langtang river and the villager interviews, the scientists believe that the earthquake-triggered avalanche hit Langtang first, followed then by multiple rockfalls, which were possibly triggered by the earthquake’s aftershocks.

A three-dimensional view of the Langtang mountain and village surveyed in this study. Image: K. Fujita et al.

According to the researchers’ models, the primary avalanche event unleashed 6,810,000 cubic metres of ice and snow onto the village and the surrounding area, a frozen flood about two and a half times greater in volume than the Egyptian Great Pyramid of Giza. The following rockfalls then contributed 840,000 cubic metres of debris.  

The researchers discovered that the avalanche was made up mostly of snow, and furthermore realized that there was an unusually large amount of snow. They estimated that the average snow depth of the avalanche’s mountainous source was about 1.82 metres, which was similar to snow depth found on a neighboring glacier (1.28-1.52 metres).

A deeper analysis of the area’s long-term meteorological data revealed that the winter snowfall preceding the avalanche was an extreme event, likely only to occur once every 100 to 500 years. This uncommonly massive amount of snow accumulated from four major snowfall events in mid-October, mid-December, early January and early March.

From these lines of evidence, the team concluded that the region’s anomalous snowfall may have worsened the earthquake’s destructive impact on the village.

The researchers believe their results could help improve future avalanche dynamics models. According to the study, they also plan to provide the Langtang community with a avalanche hazard map based on their research findings.  

Further reading

Qiu, J. When mountains collapse… Geolog (2016).

Roberts Artal, L. Geosciences Column: An international effort to understand the hazard risk posed by Nepal’s 2015 Gorkha earthquake. Geolog (2016).

September GeoRoundUp: the best of the Earth sciences from around the web

September GeoRoundUp: the best of the Earth sciences from around the web

Drawing inspiration from popular stories on our social media channels, as well as unique and quirky research news, this monthly column aims to bring you the best of the Earth and planetary sciences from around the web.

Major story and what you might have missed

This month has been an onslaught of  Earth and space science news; the majority focusing on natural hazards. Hurricanes, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions have been dominating headlines, but here we also highlight some other natural disasters which have attracted far fewer reports. Quickly recap on an action-packed month with our overview, complete with links:

Hurricanes

Thought the Atlantic hurricane season is far from over, 2017 has already shattered records: since 1st June 13 storms have been named, of which seven have gone onto become hurricanes and two registered as a category 5 storm on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale. In September, Hurricanes Irma, Katia and Jose batter Caribbean islands, Mexico and the Southern U.S.; hot on the heels of the hugely destructive Hurricane Harvey which made landfall in Texas and Louisiana at the end of August. Images captured by NASA’s Operational Land Imager (OLI) on the Landsat 8 satellite show the scale of the damage caused by Hurricane Irma; while photos reveal the dire situation unfolding in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria.  OCHA, the United Nations Office for the coordinate of Human Affairs, released an infographic showing the impact the 2017 hurricane season has had on Caribbean islands (correct of 22nd September).

Earthquakes

At the same time, two powerful earthquakes shook Mexico in the space of 12 days causing chaos, building collapse and hundreds of fatalities.

Rumbling volcanoes

In the meantime, all eyes on the Indonesian island of Bali have been on Mount Agung which has already forced the evacuation of almost 100,000 people as the volcano threatens to erupt for the first time in 54 years. Unprecedented seismic activity around the volcano has been increasing, though no eruptive activity has been recorded yet.

Further south, the government of Vanuatu, a South Pacific Ocean nation, declared a state of emergency and ordered the evacuation of all 11,000 residents of Ambae island, as activity of its volcano, Manaro, increased. The New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) sent an aircraft to fly over the volcano on Tuesday and discovered plumes of smoke, ash and volcanic rocks erupting from the crater.

Map of volcanic hazards for Ambae in Vanuatu. Credit: Vanatu Meteorology & Geo-hazard Department (vmgd).

The rainy season floods

The summer months mark the onset of the rainy season in regions of Sub-Saharan Africa which experience a savanna climate. Across the Arabian Sea, including the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia, also sees the onset of the monsoon.

Since June, widespread flooding brought on by heavy rainfall has left 56 dead and more than 185,000 homeless in Niger, one of the world’s poorest countries. But the crisis is not restricted to Niger, throughout the summer floods (and associated land and mudslides) in Africa are thought to have claimed 25 times more lives than Hurricane Harvey did.

Meanwhile Mumbai struggled when the heaviest rainfall since 2005 was recorded on 29th August, with most of Northern India experiencing widespread flooding. So far, the UN estimates that 1,200 people have lost their lives across Nepal, India and Bangladesh as a result of the rains. The Red Cross estimates that at least 41 million people have been affected by the flooding and causing the onset of a humanitarian crisis.

Record breaking temperatures and fires

Australia’s record-breaking spring heat (Birdsville, in Queensland’s outback, broke a weather record as temperatures hit 42.5C and Sydney recorded its hottest ever September day) combined with an unusually dry winter means the country is bracing itself for a particularly destructive bushfire season. Already fires rage, uncontrolled (at the time of writing), in New South Wales.

The western United States and Canada suffered one of its worst wildfire seasons to date. Earlier this month, NASA released a satellite image which showed much of the region covered in smoke. High-altitude aerosols from those fires were swept up by prevailing winds and carried across the east of the continent. By 7th September the particles were detected over Ireland, the U.K and northern France, including Paris.

Europe’s forest fire has been hugely devastating too. Much of the Mediterranean and the region North of the Black Sea continues to be in high danger of forest fires following a dry and hot summer. Fires are active in the Iberian Peninsula, Greece, and Germany (among others). Over 2,000 hectares were recently scorched by wildfires in the central mountainous area of Tejeda in Gran Canaria.

Links we liked

  • This month saw the end of NASA’s Cassini spacecraft and ESA’s Huygens probe’s spectacular journey to Saturn. After two decades of science, the mission ended on 15th September as the spacecraft crashed into the giant planet.
  • The last day of August marks the end of the Greenland snow melt season, so September was busy for scientists evaluating how the Greenland ice sheet fared in 2017.
  • “Few disciplines in today’s world play such a significant role in how society operates and what we can do to protect our future,” writes Erik Klemetti (Assoc. Prof. at Denison University), in his post on why college students should study geology.
  • The BBC launched The Prequel to its much anticipated Blue Planet II, a natural history progamme about the Earth’s oceans. Narrated by Sir Sir David Attenborough, the series will featured music by Hans Zimmer and Radiohead. The trailer is a true feast for the eyes. Don’t miss it!

The EGU story

Is it an earthquake, a nuclear test or a hurricane? How seismometers help us understand the world we live in.

Although traditionally used to study earthquakes, like the M 8.1 earthquake in Mexico,  seismometers have now become so sophisticated they are able to detect the slightest ground movements; whether they come from deep within the bowels of the planet or are triggered by events at the surface. But how, exactly, do earthquake scientists decipher the signals picked up by seismometers across the world? And more importantly, how do they know whether they are caused by an earthquake, nuclear test or a hurricane?

To find out we asked Neil Wilkins (a PhD student at the University of Bristol) and Stephen Hicks (a seismologist at the University of Southampton) to share some insights with our readers earlier on this month.