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Our unpredictable planet: natural disasters

Our unpredictable planet: natural disasters

Sometimes the Earth bites. Some would say ‘sometimes the Earth bites back,’ with climate change and rising incidents of flooding in mind. But most natural disasters are not man-made. There’s very little we can do at the moment about earthquakes and volcanoes, for example. And hurricanes and typhoons were around long before we started filling the atmosphere with CO2. So studying natural disasters and preparing for them shouldn’t be undertaken with a sense of guilt about self-inflicted damage. It should be done with a simple sense of self-preservation.

At Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana, they have had first-hand experience of the planet’s caprices. The university was closed for four months after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. During the storm its teaching hospital lost power and was evacuated, its Howard-Tilton Memorial Library was flooded and badly damaged with the loss of the majority of its documents, microfilms and recordings, and most of its students had to be relocated to other universities for over a year. So it’s fitting that Tulane University runs a course in natural disasters.

Led by Professor Stephen A. Nelson, it covers the causes and effects of natural disasters and the options available to mitigate them. All the Big Ones are there: volcanic eruptions, landslides, tsunami, subsidence, flooding, severe weather and droughts. It approaches these topics from the viewpoint of the Earth Sciences, with a scientific approach to earth structure, materials, systems and cycles, assessing hazards and risks, river systems and causes of flooding, the ocean-atmosphere system, tornadoes, hurricanes and tropical cyclones. By definition, the course focuses on the negative effects on humans. There would be no natural disasters if it were not for humans. Without humans there would only be natural events.

Cheeringly, part of the course focuses on catastrophic hazards: those that have devastating consequences to huge numbers of people or have a worldwide effect. These include impacts with large space objects, huge volcanic eruptions, worldwide disease epidemics and worldwide droughts. We can probably do something about the last two, but as for collisions with large space objects, well, it’s comforting to know that NASA are looking into that.