In her new book, The Dynamics of Disaster, geologist Susan Kieffer writes that, despite the sophistication of modern civilized societies, human beings on the whole remain “remarkably unprepared” for cataclysmic natural events like earthquakes, floods, and wildfire.
“We may not be able to prevent disasters, but we can prepare for and remediate them,” she writes. “Such efforts require that the private and public sectors, individuals, and governments work well together. Such cooperation, in turn, requires that individual citizens understand, and modify, dangerous practices and behavior.” That effort, she concludes, “is critical both to our personal survival and to the survival of civilized societies.”
The process she describes sounds a lot like the codes and standards development process used by NFPA and similar organizations, which suggests that standards developers may serve as a model for the kind of large-scale cooperation Kieffer urges. At the same time, safety professionals of all stripes would do well to read Kieffer’s fascinating, big-picture survey of some of the hazards that rumble across our churning, chaotic planet. The book provides an engaging earth sciences underpinning to a host of disasters, from tsunamis to landslides to volcanic eruptions, while never losing sight of the more immediate concerns of preparation and remediation.
Kieffer is professor emerita of geology at the University of Illinois. She is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, and in 1995, she received a MacArthur Foundation grant. She lives on Whidbey Island, Washington.
Why this particular book right now?
It wasn’t a very short “now” — it took me three years to write. Over the decades of my career, I became more and more aware how badly we need to communicate science to the public, and in a way that told a story and didn’t use jargon. One of the things I tried to do in the book was make it relevant, no matter what kind of disaster strikes next.
If I’m creating policy or standards around disaster preparation, why should I read it?
By looking at the broad variety of disasters, and knowing that different disasters require different responses, I think that some of those responses may be transferrable to your particular area of interest. I see the setting of standards as being very much along the lines of preparation for hazards. The more preparation we can do, the more we’re going to minimize the impact these disasters have on us, and the less remediation we’ll have to do.
You write that it isn’t necessarily the biggest natural events that have the greatest impact.
It was a rather small eruption, by volcanic standards, at Eyjafjallajokull in Iceland a couple years ago that completely tied up European air traffic. One of the pictures I tried to draw with that example is that it’s not always just the primary disaster that’s important — you have to think down the line about the chain reactions that a disaster might cause, which is part of what you do at NFPA.
What’s a bigger example of those chain reactions?
In my book I talk about the Laki eruption in 1783. Laki was basically a big crack in the ground in Iceland that opened up, erupted for eight months, and put out an enormous amount of sulfur dioxide and fluorine. I’m not sure anyone died in the lava flows from the eruption, but something like a quarter of the population of Iceland died because their cattle and sheep were poisoned by the fluorine that was deposited on the grasses they ate. The cloud of sulfur dioxide went east over Europe, and eventually circled and came into North America through Canada. There were tens of thousands of deaths in Great Britain from people breathing the sulfur dioxide — basically acid rain. It got into their lungs and they choked to death. There were famines in Europe because of the effects there. There’s even some speculation that the poverty that ensued because of that eruption contributed to the French Revolution a couple years later.
So the Revolution was the result of sulfur dioxide, not the Age of Enlightenment?
That’s speculation, of course, but the basis is that if the world is stressed and you pour another stress on it like a natural disaster, a lot of unexpected things can happen.
Do you see our world becoming any less stressed in coming decades?
The big driver for stress on the planet is population. We now populate all inhabitable, and a lot of fairly uninhabitable, parts of the planet. And we’re highly interconnected, so if something happens in one place, there tends to be a propagation of that event globally. We certainly see it with the possibility of pandemics. The United States is very rich in its ability to produce food, but not all areas of the world are. If we throw in some possible effects of natural disaster, like cooling after a volcanic eruption, it could stress the food supplies, for example.
Which leads to other problems.
That’s right. A lot of unhealthy people, or people fighting over resources.
What interests you as an earth scientist?
I basically study things that move very fast, by geologic standards. I’ve studied explosive volcanism, meteorite impacts, big floods on the Colorado River, those sorts of things. The unifying theme is a particular type of fluid mechanics and mathematical physics, tools that I can apply to those processes.
How has our overall approach to disasters changed during your career?
The global connectivity we have now, compared to even a decade ago, is enormous. A colleague of mine, a volcanologist, was instrumental in starting a program called Cities on Volcanoes, which holds meetings roughly every four years, typically in a town that’s directly exposed to a volcanic hazard, like Quito, Ecuador. Scientists present research, but the events are really geared toward the local mayors, educators, and emergency responders as a practical effort to deal with public safety. I don’t think that kind of organization would have existed 50 years ago. There’s much more global awareness.
Can groups like this serve as models for new efforts around the world?
I hope so. I lived through times when both Russia and China were closed societies — we simply could not access the science or scientists there. I was working at Mount St. Helens when it erupted in 1980, and very few of us knew that there had been an almost identical lateral blast in 1956 out of a volcano called Bezymianny in Russia. But it was in Kamchatka, near a lot of Russian submarine bases, and during the Cold War nobody could do field trips there to study it. The opening up of the world is, in general, a very good thing for dealing with disasters.
Most of the events you write about are hard to predict. How does that affect preparedness?
An example I talk about in the book is how California has developed its codes for earthquake preparation and mitigation. The thing that the earthquake people have to deal with is that all of their predictions are basically in statistics and probability. So they struggle with conveying to the public how important it is to prepare for an event that they can only describe in terms of the probability of its happening.
And that’s led to problems, especially in Italy.
There are six seismologists on trial for manslaughter, because they were charged with failing to properly convey information to the public in advance of the L’Aquila earthquake in central Italy in 2009. They were convicted and handed jail terms and huge fines. It’s in the appeals process now. I actually know one of the scientists involved, a very reputable scientist and person. The whole thing has been a tragedy, both for the people of L’Aquila and the scientific community. It has definitely had a chilling effect on people who communicate hazards to the public, whether it’s in weather forecasting or earthquake prediction. In general, communicating with the public, and finding the right ways to do it, are ongoing challenges for scientists and the various agencies they represent.
In your book you propose the creation of a Center for Disaster Control, modeled after the Centers for Disease Control. How would that work?
I want to stress that it’s not about creating a physical body like the United Nations — it’s a hypothetical global body. Scientists understand an awful lot about how the world works, but we share some frustration over seeing our contributions as being limited when it comes to the total solution of a problem. We wanted to lay out a way for the best science to be turned into policy and practice, and learn from what people are doing around the world. The concept of a Center is a way to think about that happening, and to communicate it to the global community.
The idea of communication is clearly an important one for you.
What’s happening in L’Aquila shows how important that idea is. If you’re a safety organization or agency, who’s best able to communicate? Who has the credibility of a scientist but the skills of a real communicator? Some scientists are fantastic at communicating, others less so. In large-scale disaster scenarios, we need to have a spectrum of people communicating with different stakeholders. Groups like NFPA have figured out how to do that.
Maybe we should start thinking of your CDC idea not just hypothetically but in reality, too.
That would be nice, in an ideal world. I guess I’m a little wary when politics gets involved. But we have to start doing better. We have more and more people living in vulnerable places, so even if the number of disasters doesn’t increase, the number of people affected by them will.