Geology for Global Development

Disaster Management

Climate migration needs to be predicted and planned now. Geoengineering can slow down sea level rise but could also lead to international conflicts. CO2 as a natural resource. All in Jesse Zondervan’s Mar 8 – Apr 4 2018

Climate migration needs to be predicted and planned now. Geoengineering can slow down sea level rise but could also lead to international conflicts. CO2 as a natural resource. All in Jesse Zondervan’s Mar 8  – Apr 4 2018

Each month, Jesse Zondervan picks his favourite posts from geoscience and development blogs/news which cover the geology for global development interest. Here’s a round-up of Jesse’s selections for the last month:

Imagine 140 million people across sub-Saharan Africa, south Asia and Latin America migrating in response to climate change effect, by 2050. This is what a recent World Bank report claims, by projecting current internal migration patterns due to effects, like coastal land loss and crop failure, into the future using climate models.

Climate migration will tend to be mostly internal to countries and can foster inequality as well as economic loss. Since it’s inevitable, we will need to plan for it.

We cannot prevent climate migration, but geoengineering will be a very powerful way to combat unnecessary increases in damage from climate change. With this power comes responsibility through. What will happen if one country decides to spray aerosols to decrease temperature, and inadvertently changes things for the worse for another region?

So yes, we need laws on geoengineering to prevent battles over well-meant geoengineering failures. Interestingly, I found a lot of research articles with new geoengineering proposals, so it’s really coming soon, and we need to think about regulation now.

Geoengineering can be costly. Pumping carbon dioxide from the atmosphere may prevent crop failures due to elevated temperatures, but it is still expensive. But what if we could use CO2 as a natural resource? A team of US and Canadian scientists say it will be possible to use captured CO2 for feedstock, biofuels, pharmaceuticals, or renewable fuels.

This month you will find an article under the section ‘career’, which you should have a look at if you’re doing or thinking of doing a PhD and you want to consider working outside academia. You will find a lot of articles under the usual headings too, so go ahead!


Once we can capture CO2 emissions, here’s what we could do with it at ScienceDaily by Sarah Fecht at State of the Planet

Preventing hurricanes using air bubbles at ScienceDaily

Geoengineering polar glaciers to slow sea-level rise at ScienceDaily

Mekong River dams could disrupt lives, environment at ScienceDaily

Climate Migration

Wave of Climate Migration Looms, but It “Doesn’t Have to Be a Crisis” by Andrea Thompson at Scientific American

Addressing Climate Migration Within Borders Helps Countries Plan, Mitigate Effects by Alex de Sherbinin at State of the Planet

Having an impact as a development economist outside of a research university: Interview with Alix Zwane by David McKenzie at Development Impact


Structuring collaboration between municipalities and academics: testing a model for transdisciplinary sustainability projects at Lund University

To Sustain Peace, UN Should Embrace Complexity and Be UN-Heroic by Peter Coleman at State of the Planet

Climate Change Adaptation

The Rise of Cities in the Battle Against Climate Change by Allison Bridges at State of the Planet

A City’s Challenge of Dealing with Sea Level Rise at AGU’s Eos

The absence of ants: Entomologist confirms first Saharan farming 10,000 years ago at ScienceDaily

Turning cities into sponges: how Chinese ancient wisdom is taking on climate change by Brigid Delaney at The Guardian

Risk of sea-level rise: high stakes for East Asia & Pacific region countries by Susmita Dasgupta at East Asia & Pacific on the Rise

National Flood Insurance Is Underwater Because of Outdated Science by Jen Schwartz at Scientific American

Disaster Risk

Mobile phones and AI vie to update early disaster warning systems by Nick Fildes at The Financial Times

7 years after tsunami, Japanese live uneasily with seawalls by Megumi Lim at Japan Today

Volcanic risk

GeoTalk: How will large Icelandic eruptions affect us and our environment? By Olivia Trani at EGU’s GeoLog

Earthquake risk

The Wicked Problem of Earthquake Hazard in Developing Countries at AGU’s Eos

External Opportunities

Summer 2018 Internship Opportunities at the Earth Institute

Check back next month for more picks!

Follow Jesse Zondervan @JesseZondervan. Follow us @Geo_Dev& Facebook.

How do you monitor an internationally disruptive volcanic eruption? How can you communicate SDGs in an Earth Science class? Jesse Zondervan’s Nov 13 – Dec 13 2017 #GfGDpicks #SciComm

Each month, Jesse Zondervan picks his favourite posts from geoscience and development blogs/news, relevant to the work and interests of  Geology for Global Development . Here’s a round-up of Jesse’s selections for the past four weeks:

Bali’s Mount Angung started erupting ash this month, and a post on the Pacific Disaster Center’s website gives you an insight into the workings of Indonesia’s early warning and decision support system. How do you monitor an internationally disruptive volcanic eruption?

In Japan, eruptions in 2016 were preceded by large earthquakes (MW 7.0). A team of researchers used Japan’s high resolution seismic network to investigate the underground effects of earthquakes and volcanoes. How does an earthquake affect a volcano’s activity?

Next to plenty of disaster risk stories – including the simple question: why can’t we predict earthquakes? -, this month brings you a computer simulation tool to predict flood hazards on coral-reef-lined coasts and some thoughts on how to communicate SDGs in an earth science classroom.

Have a look!


The UN Sustainable Development Goals – what they are, why they exist by Laura Guertin at AGU’s GeoEd Trek blog

GeoTalk: How an EGU Public Engagement Grant contributed to video lessons on earthquake education by Laura Roberts-Artla at the EGU’s GeoTalk blog

Credit: Michael W. Ishak, used under CC BY-SA 4.0 license

Disaster Risk

Disaster Geology: 2017’s Most Deadly Earthquake by Dana Hunter at Scientific American

Can the rubble of history help shape today’s resilient cities? By David Sislen at Sustainable Cities

The underground effects of earthquakes and volcanoes at

Why Can’t We Predict Earthquakes? By David Bressan at Forbes

Detecting landslide precursors from space by Dave Petley at the AGU Landslide Blog

Ocean Sediments Off Pacific Coast May Feed Tsunami Danger by Kevin Krajick at State of the Planet

Life-saving technology provides alert as Bali’s Mount Agung spews ash, raises alarm at Pacific Disaster Center

Climate Change Adaptation

Scientists counter threat of flooding on coral reef coasts by Olivia Trani at AGU’s GeoSpace blog

Check back next month for more picks!

Follow Jesse Zondervan @JesseZondervan. Follow us @Geo_Dev & Facebook.

Heather Britton: Can Animals be Used to Predict Earthquakes?

One of the most common questions faced by the disaster risk reduction community relates to earthquake prediction (see this Geological Society briefing on prediction vs. forecasting). The disaster risk reduction community, however, would perhaps argue that improved buildings, reduction in poverty, and improved governance are a greater priority than predicting earthquakes. Even so, there are still many members of the international community focused on trying to identify ways to predict earthquakes, including through the study of animal behaviours.

Our understanding of where earthquakes are most likely to occur is improving, but our ability to predict when an earthquake will strike is lacking, often limited to the decadal scale at best. We also lack information on what the magnitude or size of an earthquake would be at that given point in time. If such a feat were possible, and an orderly evacuation could take place, lives could be saved. Many seismologists are of the opinion that the vast majority of earthquakes do not display early warning signals prior to the first p-waves reaching the surface, therefore earthquakes are likely to always remain stubbornly unpredictable. This does not mean that we will be unable to improve earthquake forecast, through probabilistic hazard assessment. It also does not mean that the disasters arising from earthquake are inevitable. We can still take significant steps to reduce exposure and vulnerability and reduce the impacts of earthquakes.

Other scientists disagree,  on the point of earthquake prediction, pointing to the anecdotal evidence which stretches back through historical archives around the world of animals predicting earthquakes far before modern technology would have us believe any indication of an earthquake existed. Is there any substance to these tales, and if so can it be used to support earthquake prediction?

Although devoid of substantial scientific evidence, the claim that early warning signs don’t exist fails to acknowledge the stories of animals abandoning their homes up to a month before an earthquake strikes. For centuries there have been reports of unusual animal activity prior to earthquakes: In 373 BC Greece it is documented that rats, weasels, snakes and centipedes abandoned their homes a month before a destructive earthquake struck, and in Italy toads disappeared from a pond where scientists were analysing their breeding patterns just days before a magnitude 5.9 earthquake killed over 300 people in 2009. Perhaps these animal behaviours can be used to predict the occurrence of earthquakes, but without knowing the nature of the signals which trigger their response it has limited applications in disaster risk reduction.

Figure 1- Frogs on logs. It has been suggested that aquatic organisms such as these may be able to predict earthquakes from changes in groundwater chemistry. (Source:

The problem with focusing so much on anecdotal evidence is that the stories are often augmented by the human imagination, an effect often seen in the game ‘Chinese Whispers’.  The result is that the unusual behaviour apparently displayed by the animals before earthquakes occur can become exaggerated and, in many cases, the reports only appear after the earthquake has struck. It is very well announcing a pet’s unusual behaviour after the disaster, but had the earthquake not occurred would the behaviour still have stood out as being so strikingly abnormal?

Animal behaviour is extremely complex and using this as a metric for earthquake prediction is not considered to be feasible because of the inconsistency of animal responses. This has not prevented at least one Chinese city from installing 24-hour surveillance on a snake farm with the intention of detecting unusual behaviour for the purposes of earthquake prediction. In 1975 officials successfully evacuated a city of one million people just before a 7.3 magnitude earthquake in Haicheng, China, purportedly based on abnormal animal behaviour. However, this has been rejected as substantial evidence for the power of animal foresight as this earthquake was one which was preceded by a number of low magnitude foreshocks which are thought to have given the governing body of Haicheng the confidence to evacuate the city, under the impression that a larger earthquake was on its way.

Figure 2 – Aftermath of an earthquake in 1971, San Fernando, California. Source:  USGS
Denver Library Photographic Collection.

As is almost always the case, the evidence from a number of different studies is contradictory and inconclusive, implying that the predictive signals, if present, may vary between earthquakes. Evidence for the ability of animals to predict earthquakes was found in a study in Peru – no animal movement was recorded by camera traps on the rainforest floor (an extremely unusual observation) five out of the seven days leading up to the magnitude seven Contamana earthquake that affected the area in 2011. Other studies, however, such as those performed in the 1970s by USGS, have found no correlation between earthquakes and the agitation of animals.

The evidence is patchy, but if there truly is a relationship between animal behaviour and earthquakes the identity of the signal that the animals are responding to remains a mystery. A paper released in 2011 describes a mechanism by which stressed rocks could release charged particles. These particles could then react with groundwater, producing chemical signatures which may be detected by aquatic and burrowing life. Other suggestions of potential signals include ground tilting, although this would have to be present only at miniscule levels not to be detected by current technology, or variations in the Earth’s magnetic field.

Currently research into the use of animals in earthquake detection is being led by Japan and China, two countries regularly affected by earthquakes and where a plethora of anecdotes relating to the powers of earthquake prediction by animals have originated. While earthquake prediction could help to reduce the impact of earthquakes on society, there are far more effective and immediate things that we can do. Ensuring properly constructed buildings and enforcing building codes, tackling the underlying social vulnerability (e.g., poverty, inequality) and improving governance structures and earthquake education are some examples.

Read more about disaster risk reduction in the UN Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction.

Guest Blog: Could agroforestry do more to protect Rwandans from hazardous landslides?

Megan Jamer is a geoscientist from Canada, and an avid cyclist and explorer. Megan is currently travelling around East Africa on bicycle, taking in some remarkable sites and observing first hand the relationship between geoscience and sustainable development. Today Megan makes her debut on the GfGD blog site, writing on the relationship between agroforestry, landslides, and disaster risk reduction.

Some landslide interventions are hard to miss along Rwanda’s highways. There are gabions, and concrete drainage pathways, kept unclogged by women and men in fluorescent vests. Other strategies are more subtle. Where cassava or bean plots are mixed with banana trees or ringed within a hedge, this may also reduce the damage caused by landslides in this central African nation. Rwandan agroforestry is getting attention. The strategy, which combines trees and crops in the same area, is being used to work towards the 2020 goal of trees covering thirty percent of Rwanda’s total surface area. In 2014, more than half of new seedlings distributed by the government were agroforestry or fruit varieties. Food and land scarcity pressure Rwanda’s slopes, and agroforestry is one way to address the root causes of these shortages, protecting against landslides in the process.

A rural dwelling in the hills of northern Rwanda, excavated into the slope (author’s own).

The Problem of Landslides

At least sixty-seven people were killed last year by landslides and mudslides in the north and west, and in the capital, Kigali. Deadly or not, they cause wide-ranging infrastructure damage, harming public infrastructure and trading patterns, as well as hillside settlements and agriculture. Landslides here disproportionately affect the poor, who pursue subsistence agriculture on steep slopes or live in vulnerable urban areas because they have few alternatives.

In the ‘land of a thousand hills’, slopes are made more vulnerable by rainfall patterns that some say are difficult to manage. In The New Times last year, coffee grower Pierre Munyura said that in western Rwanda“we receive about the same amount of rainfall as ever, but the rain comes in heavier and more destructive bursts.” Rainstorms are considered to be the main trigger of landslides in Rwanda, but human activities prepare the slopes for failure. They are cleared and levelled for walking pathways, homes, latrines, small plots and gardens. Other areas are hollowed out for small-scale mining. The result of these activities is a complex pattern of slope disturbance and deforestation.

Hillside communities cultivate in a manner that reflects traditional knowledge, regulations, and the resources available to them (author’s own)

Similar environmental and human conditions come together on the slopes of Mount Elgon in Uganda, where the causal factors of landslides were investigated. The researchers’ prognosis was bleak: “The growing population density not only increases the risk of damage, but hampers the search for solutions for the landslide problem as well.”  Understanding occurrence is the first step in managing rainfall-induced landslides, says Dave Petley of The Landslide Blog, and here Rwanda has made big strides. Its Ministry of Disaster Management and Refugee Affairs (MIDMAR) published a National Risk Atlas in 2015, an analysis of the earthquakes, landslides, windstorms, droughts and floods that challenge Rwanda’s resiliency. The Atlas inventories hazardous landslides, estimates slope susceptibility, and shows maps of properties that affect landslide incidence, including rainfall, slope angle, ground cover and soil characteristics.

MIDMAR’s analyses estimated that nearly half of Rwanda’s population lives in areas with moderate or high slope susceptibility to landslides. These hazards are commonly small and localized, requiring community action, but “knowledge at the citizen level [about landslides] is still low,” says Dr. Aime Tsinda, a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Policy Analysis and Research-Rwanda. Translating information in studies like the National Risk Atlas into local knowledge is a slow process. While it’s underway, communities are motivated to adopt agroforestry because of a hazard they are already familiar with: poor quality soil.

More Trees!

Agroforestry is the ‘intentional integration of trees and shrubs into crop and animal farming systems to create environmental, economic and social benefits’. On cultivated slopes where agroforestry isn’t practiced, small plots drape over them, resembling smooth patchwork blankets. Like blankets, their soils can more easily wash away, creep or slide catastrophically. This is what happened last year, says J.M.V. Senyanzobe, a Forestry Lecturer at the University of Rwanda. “If you observe the concerned areas,” he says, “they were empty of trees, just grasses which are not strong enough to stop the soil from being eroded.”

When trees are cut down their roots decay, eventually rendering them ineffective soil binders. The slopes of Mount Elgon demonstrate the difference. Forested areas lacked evidence of landslides, even when they grew on slope angles and in soil types that contributed to slope instability elsewhere in the study area. Deforestation began as early as 3000 BC in what was Rwanda-Urundi! Reforestation and tree cultivation have been encouraged since the 1930s and it’s working: In 1996, an FAO agroforestry study exclaimed that “photographs taken in Rwanda in the early years of this [twentieth] century show landscapes almost devoid of trees, a stark contrast to the present.

Some Rwandans are motivated to plant because of what the trees themselves offer. Bananas are brewed into beer, coffee trees have been called ‘Rwanda’s Second Sunrise’, and eucalyptus and pine provide construction materials. Other trees are valued for their structure, for example marking plot boundaries. And it’s taken some convincing, but more people are trying out types of agroforestry that plant trees and crops together, in an effort to improve soil quality. There are techniques that do more to increase soil stability. This guide recommends mimicking the plant diversity of a natural forest as much as possible, or to plant tree rows within crops along topographic contours. Within Rwanda, living hedges were found to greatly reduce soil erosion, but landslide prevention wasn’t specifically investigated. Senyanzobe recommends a combination of reforestation between cultivated areas, and agroforestry species within crop areas.  Ultimately, “the sustainable solution is to plant trees as much as possible,” he says.

Outside of agroforestry, is there a way to reduce hazardous landslides in Rwanda? Enforcing rules about how people should excavate slopes or use terracing appropriately is difficult, especially in remote areas. Similarly, mass relocation of vulnerable hillside communities is unrealistic in mainland Africa’s most densely populated country. Large-scale agroforestry interventions, by contrast, are already underway. But because they aren’t undertaken to address landslides specifically, their effectiveness is currently limited.

Pieces of the Puzzle

Speaking to the effectiveness of agroforestry for any goal, “it needs to be implemented with sensitivity to people’s needs, priorities and sociocultural and economic conditions,” says the FAO. It’s not yet clear whether many Rwandans choose tree planting specifically for reducing landslide risk—today, selling the tree’s products or increasing soil fertility are more powerful motivators. If this is how communities prioritise, then agroforestry will be pursued to the extent that those benefits are gained. The damage by landslides may be mitigated, but as a by-product.

Obstacles to agroforestry being used for disaster risk reduction overlap with the challenges of agroforestry in general. One major hurdle in Rwanda is the belief that trees can damage crops by shading them, drying them out, or otherwise competing. Unfortunately this is sometimes true. Avocado trees can harm the crops closest to them. Pine and eucalyptus trees are resilient, but also invasive.

Making the most of agroforestry involves more conversations about the risk—and prevention—of landslides. On the heels of its efforts to understand occurrence of its natural hazards, Rwanda is trying to increase public awareness of landslides in a number of ways. In the official guide to primary school construction, choosing a stable slope location is a ‘must,’ and instructions are given to this end. Public radio broadcasts, disaster committees at the district level, and discussions during monthly community service day (umuganda) on topics including disasters are other examples. Currently, about a quarter of disaster-related spending in Rwanda is directed to prevention and mitigation.

Seedling distribution on National Tree Planting Day looks pretty good, but so does a new home. Recently, several high-risk families were relocated to ‘disaster resilient’ homes in collaboration with UN-HABITAT. Both of these events received media coverage, but were largely treated as separate topics.

The collapsed downslope shoulder of a road in southern Rwanda (author’s own)

These conversations in the media and during umuganda need to continue, but hopefully soon when there’s talk of landslides in Rwanda, trees and agroforestry will be a bigger part of the discussion.

Do trees keep you safer from hazards in your environment? Do you think that any tree planting is a good thing when it comes to landslides, or can it bring mixed results?