standard Exploring The Dynamics of Disaster with Prof Sue Kieffer

Eruption of Mt St Helens in Washington, USA in 1980.

IHRR was very pleased to welcome Prof Sue Kieffer from the University of Illinois At Urbana-Champaign as a COFUND Senior Research Fellow.  During her time in the Institute, Sue researched highly energetic geologic events, particularly comparing and contrasting the behaviour of torrential river floods with that of large landslides.  Sue is one of the world’s leading authorities on geological fluid dynamics that addresses dynamic surface processes, such as movement of water and wind and the dynamics of volcanic eruptions and meteorite impacts.  Her work has made a large impact on the geosciences, especially understanding the geologic processes that lead to different kinds of hazards, such as floods and landslides.  Sue’s research spans terrestrial as well as extraterrestrial environments as her geyser theory developed early in her academic career was applied to the study of volcanoes on Io, one of Jupiter’s moons.  Also, her shock wave theory was used to study the historic eruption of Mt St Helens and the massive flood on the Colorado River in 1983.

Like many of the brilliant scientists I have been fortunate enough to have a conversation with, Sue shared some of her wisdom about the geological context of how hazards occur, including a great analogy for understanding how the flow of a river or the eruption of a volcano comes down to the physics of flow through ‘geologic nozzles’.  Say you’re driving along a four-lane motorway and suddenly it narrows down to a two-lane bridge, if there isn’t much traffic nothing unusual happens because the cars can fit through the two lanes.  But if the density of traffic grows large enough it clogs the nozzle and constricts the flow on the motorway, you see red lights coming toward you and in a volcano or river shock waves propagate back because the flow is constricted. The constriction controls the flow on that entire segment of the highway and the same thing happens with geysers, volcanic eruptions, river floods and other geologic events that can become hazards.

During her time in the Institute I also had the opportunity to speak with Sue about her new upcoming book The Dynamics of Disaster and her insights into both natural and ‘stealth’ disasters.

What is your new book The Dynamics of Disaster about?

I’m a geologist, and I wanted to convey a sense of the science behind disasters and create a sense of unity because I’ve found that if people are aware of disasters in one region, for example, near their home, they still might not understand or even be aware of disasters in other regions.  Since the number of federal dollars for disaster recovery and mitigation is limited, I believe that it is important that people, especially policy and decision makers, understand the full scope of disasters.  In the book I try to unify the science of disasters in this word “dynamics.”  Scientifically, I’m using that word to encapsulate that a disaster occurs when something in nature changes state.

In the book, I talk about disasters such as landslides, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, rogue waves, tsunamis, droughts and floods.  In detail the science for each hazard is quite different — what do droughts and volcanic eruptions have in common?  For every one of these hazards energy changes from one form to another, what I call a ‘change of state’.  So for example, when the earth moves in a landslide, energy stored in it in the form of potential energy, because it’s high up on a hillslope, gets transformed into kinetic energy of motion.  In a volcanic eruption chemical energy stored in dissolved gases, like a soda pop bottle, gets transformed into kinetic energy as the gases nucleate and expand.

What would you like people to learn from your book?

At the level of individual readers, I would like people to be aware of what the planet does and how it might impact them, their neighbors and communities.  A good way to begin (for people in the US) is to contact their state geological surveys or the US Geological Survey.  Similar agencies exist in Britain (such as the BGS) and many other countries.  On a bigger level, I would like policy makers to understand enough about the science of these processes to help them in decision-making processes.

In the book and in papers that I’ve published, I’ve distinguished between natural disasters that basically result from the physical processes of the Earth, and disasters that I call ‘stealth disasters.’  These result from, and can even be caused by, humans and their interaction with the Earth.  Compaction and poisoning of the soil, acidification of the oceans, and climate change are examples of stealth disasters.

Why do you call them ‘stealth disasters’?

Generally, a natural disaster has a fairly rapid onset — boom — an earthquake happens or a volcano starts erupting.  Sometimes there are no precursors, other times there are some warning signs, but the actual onset of the disaster tends to be rather quick. In contrast, stealth disasters or human-induced disasters have a fairly slow onset so they tend not to be noticed because they “creep up” on us, like a stealthy predator.  There were indications a hundred years ago about climate change but the signs were fairly subtle, and we didn’t have the instrumentation or the global awareness to follow-up on it.

You’ve talked about disasters within disasters in your previous work (see Risk Management and the Wisdom of Aldo Leopold). How do you define ‘disaster within a disaster’?

I think Hurricane Katrina in the US is a good example.  The natural disaster was the hurricane, the disaster within that disaster was the (mis)management of the evacuation.  Even within that disaster there’s another one.  The more impoverished people lived in the lowest, and thus, the most hard-hit areas and were thus disproportionately affected by the hurricane and evacuation. Although the event—the hurricane—was geologic, the disasters within the disasters were something human-related.  Again in the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami you had two natural disasters.  The disaster within the disaster is that the Japanese had built on the deposits from a previous tsunami so they were living in an exposed area.  Seeing what the Japanese do as they rebuild is going to be fascinating.  They’ve got very limited livable and tillable land, this is very valuable so can’t just be abandoned.  There are mountains nearby and I’ve seen sketches where they’re going to have people live up in the mountains, for safety, but that’s really hard on the fishermen who need to live near the coastline for practical reasons.  I think as we move toward a population of 9 billion on the planet projected for 2050, there’s going to be a lot of pressure to live in hazardous places and the Japanese will be pioneering problems that many nations will eventually face: how to live in equilibrium with natural hazards.

What are the disasters that we’re not talking about right now that we should be?

I think it’s more the stealth disasters than the natural disasters because stealth disasters don’t grab newspaper headlines.  They also require a longer attention span than a typical short election cycle, so many governments like the US and Britain just don’t have much capacity for the required long-term attention to stealth disasters.  For natural disasters the biggest problem is the rare event.  We don’t even know what the precursors for an event that occurs only every thousand years look like.  I think that is where geology is a very powerful science, and a very relevant science today, because if we’re going to get clues about rare events it’s going to be through the geologic record.

For more geological insights from Sue visit her blog Geology in Motion.  Her book The Dynamics of Disaster published by W.W. Norton & Company is available for pre-order.


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