Disasters: Searching for Lessons From a Bad Year

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Science  23 Dec 2005:
Vol. 310, Issue 5756, pp. 1883
DOI: 10.1126/science.310.5756.1883

No doubt about it, the 12 months since the last Breakthrough of the Year issue have been an annus horribilis. Three major natural disasters—the 2004 “Christmas tsunami” in the Indian Ocean, Hurricane Katrina on the U.S. Gulf Coast, and the Pakistan earthquake—left nearly 300,000 dead and millions homeless. In Pakistan, the disaster is still unfolding as winter engulfs the devastated communities.

See Web links on disasters

Insurance companies classify such events as “acts of God”: misfortunes for which no one is at fault. But in their aftermath, many scientists are pointing out that natural disasters are anything but natural: Societies can mitigate their impacts by making the right decisions about where and how people live, how information is shared, and what kind of research to invest in. And some are pushing new ideas to make that happen.

For example, Aromar Revi, a New Delhi-based disaster mitigation consultant to the Indian government, envisions “a public database like Google Earth” that would allow researchers around the world to map the “risk landscape down to the ZIP-code level.” Such a system would enable nations with a shared risk to build better warning networks. But there are serious hurdles to going global. For example, India refused to share data for an international tsunami warning system because it could also reveal their nuclear tests (Science, 9 December, p. 1604). Nor will such a network come cheap, but Revi says governments will soon realize that it “is worth every cent of the many hundreds of millions of dollars it would cost to build and maintain.”

A disaster warning system is only as good as the science behind it. For some events, such as hurricanes and volcanoes, science has vastly improved forecasts. But for others, such as earthquakes, decades of research may have illuminated how and where they are likely to strike, but not when.

Don't blame God.

Better planning could make natural disasters much less disastrous, experts say.


Even with greatly enhanced warning systems and infrastructure, natural disasters will continue to wreak enormous damages. Who will pay for it? After the past year's $200 billion in damages from weather-related disasters alone—three times higher than for any previous year—some economists are calling for a radical rethink of disaster relief. Rather than relying on the fickle charity of the international community, countries should invest in a new kind of disaster insurance that transfers the risk to financial markets, says Reinhard Mechler, an economist at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Laxenburg, Austria. Such a plan relies on scientists to create a finer-grained map of the probability of various disasters and the range of their impacts (Science, 12 August, p. 1044).

Science funding could soon feel the effects of the past year of disasters. Two months before Hurricane Katrina struck, the U.S. president's National Science and Technology Council capped a 10-year study by publishing a report called Grand Challenges for Disaster Reduction. The report singled out social sciences as an area deserving a boost, citing the need for strategies to get emergency information to populations that often distrust the authorities. More interdisciplinary science is also needed, says one of the report's co-authors, Priscilla Nelson, a civil engineer at the New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark. Because the causes and impacts of disasters are so broad, she says, we need teams of geophysicists who can talk fluently with epidemiologists, and engineers with psychologists.

One thing is all but certain: Even worse years lie ahead. Vulnerable urban populations of the developing world are set to double by 2030, as are coastal populations everywhere. Meanwhile, changing climate threatens to bring more hurricanes due to warming and chronic coastal flooding due to rising sea levels, among other worrying possibilities. Looking back over 2005, says Nelson, these disasters should be taken as “opportunities to learn.”

Online Extras on Disasters

Papers and Articles

Y. Bhattacharjee, “In Wake of Disaster, Scientists Seek Out Clues to Prevention,” Science 307, 22 (2005)

R. Stone and R. A. Kerr, “Girding for the Next Killer Wave,” Science 310, 1602 (2005)

P. Bagla, “A Dead Spot for the Tsunami Network?” Science 310, 1604 (2005)

R. A. Kerr and P. Bagla, “A Seismic Murmur of What's Ahead for India,” Science 310, 208 (2005)

E. Stokstad, “Louisiana's Wetlands Struggle for Survival,” Science 310, 1264 (2005)

E. Mills, “Insurance in a Climate of Change,” Science 309, 1040 (2005)

B. Hanson and L. Roberts, “Resiliency in the Face of Disaster,” Science 309, 1029 (2005)

The introduction to the 12 August 2005 special issue “Dealing with Disasters.”

M. Turoff and B. van de Walle, “Preface to the Special Issue on Emergency Preparedness and Response Information Systems,” Journal of Information Technology Theory and Application 6:3, iii (2005)

Interesting Web Sites

Hurricanes, Climate, and Katrina

Links to Research, Reviews, and Articles from Science Online.

The Natural Hazards Resources Directory from NOAA's National Geophysical Data Center

The Subcommittee on Disaster Reduction (SDR) of the National Science and Technology Council

The SDR's June 2005 report “Grand Challenges for Disaster Reduction” is available in PDF format.

The Center for Hazards and Risk Research at Columbia University

A section on global risk hotspots is provided.

Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado

A collection of links to hazards and disaster information resources is provided.

Disaster Research Center at the University of Delaware

EQNET (EarthQuake Information NETwork)

International Hurricane Research Center at Florida International University

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