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Climate change poses seemingly insurmountable obstacles for the human species, not to mention all other species on the planet. It is not the only environmental pressure that humans are putting on planet Earth, but seems to be intricately tied to all others including the shrinking availability of natural resources necessary for survival.

Whatever you may think of TED, these talks help define the climate conundrum people are in at the moment and speak about ways of cultivating resilience by preparing for environmental change, such as extreme weather events.

The speakers talk about climate change in terms of ecological systems as well as personal impacts to homes and livelihoods. Relating the big picture of ongoing environmental disasters like climate change to the small, individual lives of communities seems one of the best ways to communicate its impacts and to encourage people to ready themselves for when they occur.


Ground crack induced by fault reactivation during the 2010 earthquake near Santiago. © Sergio Sepulveda

Dr Sergio Sepulveda from the University of Chile is visiting Durham University as a Cofund Senior Research Fellow through the Institute of Advanced Study, to work with the International Landslide Centre at IHRR that is led by Professor Dave Petley and Dr Nick Rosser from the Department of Geography. Sepulveda is from Chile, one of the most seismically active parts of the world that regularly experiences earthquakes, landslides, debris flows, volcanic eruptions and other geohazards.

Sepulveda is a leading researcher on landslides in South America and is well-known in the field. Most of the fatalities caused by natural hazards in South America are from earthquakes, floods and landslides that affect both urban and rural communities. Sepulveda is working closely with colleagues in IHRR to identify the vulnerability of populations in Latin America and the Caribbean to landslides, in order to acquire a better understanding that would lead to developing measures to help reduce fatalities, and is testing a number of volcanic soils from Chile to understand the role they play in landslides and other hazards.

Research at Durham

Working with Prof Dave Petley, Sepulveda is studying records of fatal landslides that have occurred in Latin America and the Caribbean using the Durham Fatal Landslide Database, a global record of landslide- induced fatalities from the past 10 years. The database is a useful tool for identifying vulnerability to landslide hazards, ‘…there is a very strong correlation between population density and fatal landslides, and most of them are induced by heavy rainfall’, said Sepulveda. Along with this research Sepulveda is also studying the geomechanics of landslides themselves with Prof Dave Petley and Dr Matthew Brain. Read the rest of this entry »

earth at night

Earth at night. (NOAA)

Similar to other geohazards, floods are unpredictable and complex. This makes preparing for them challenging especially for communities that deal with unexpected or unforeseen flood events that may occur. Flooding is an interesting case study for understanding how geohazards and society interact which can have disastrous consequences if little preparation is made in advance. As far as floods in society are concerned they are usually understood in terms of risk, such as the likelihood that someone’s home or business may be flooded.

If the flood risk is low perhaps little is done to mitigate flooding. In some situations insurance can be purchased to cover extreme events if they should happen, but little is done overall. If the risk is perceived as high or of concern to an individual, community, county or nation, then usually flood mitigation efforts, including research, should be prioritised. If flood risk is high it begs the question why is this the case? This comes down to exposure and vulnerability.

If property or people themselves are exposed to the flood hazard, with little to no flood protection, they are at risk of losing their home, business, livelihood, way of life or even their lives. But better ways of identifying flood vulnerability are needed to help make communities resilient to flood hazards.

Professor Alberto Montanari from the University of Bologna visited IHRR recently to give a seminar on the damages and fatalities caused by flooding that has been increasing in countries throughout the world. As a hydrologist, a scientist who studies the movement, distribution and quality of water, he presented some of his recent work in identifying areas of flood vulnerability in Italy. He said ‘that flood vulnerability and frequency are intimately connected’, which includes the effects of climate change and other factors that affect flooding, such as land use. Read the rest of this entry »

brownfield flickr russelljsmith 300

Brownfield or previously used land often has levels of contamination that make it unsuitable for development. It also has known risks for the physical health of people and the environment. In some cases it may not even be highly contaminated but because it requires remediation, little is done with it. But what effects does brownfield have on people’s health outside of people coming into close physical contact with environmental contaminants? Does the mere presence of brownfield lead to poorer health outcomes?

Many communities live near brownfield spaces (there are 62,000 acres of brownfield land in England alone), which may have serious consequences for their health according to a new study from Regeneration Brownfield Land Using Sustainable Technologies (ROBUST) project based at IHRR and in collaboration with the Wolfson Research Institute. Research led by Professor Clare Bambra, Dr Karen Johnson and Dr Steve Robertson finds that people who live close to brownfields have worse health compared to those that do not, or only live near small amounts of brownfield.

Professor Clare Bambra, lead author of the study said:  “Our study shows that local authorities and central government need to prioritise the remediation and regeneration of brownfield land to protect the health of communities.”

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Split-second shot

Does this picture make flying seem more or less risky?

Sometimes the risks that receive the most attention in hindsight are actually less likely than what we realise. But there are important reasons for finding effective ways to respond to high-profile risks. Thinking through risk and taking a rational approach to mitigating it, or becoming more resilient to it, may mean looking at risk in terms of applying regulations that reduce threats of harm from the start (as in the case of reducing risk through positive reinforcement), or better understanding how populations respond to risky behaviours like smoking.

Instead of analysing the risk, people often respond to the emotion or feeling a particular risk will incite. Risk of a large earthquake, nuclear meltdown, or lung cancer from smoking cigarettes are all risks that may produce emotional responses, what Professor Paul Slovic, a leader in psychological research of risk perception has called ‘the feeling of risk’, also known in psychology as the affect heuristic – the positive or negative feelings we associate with experience. Affect is used as a kind of mental shortcut in order for people to make decisions or solve problems quickly, it is also better known as ‘gut feeling’. Read the rest of this entry »

There seems to be a paradox in how some risks are mitigated. For instance, there is a tendency to believe that implementing safety regulations will in effect reduce the risk of harm. While implementing safety regulations helps reduce the levels of risk people are exposed to they can also redistribute the risk, eliminating some risks, but increasing others by decreasing the level of perceived risk. This has been given several names by researchers including ‘risk homeostasis’, ‘risk compensation’ and ‘offset hypothesis’ and there are good reasons to think that it could help to better inform policies and regulations for making people’s lives safer, but it is also controversial amongst scientists and practitioners working in public safety.


Do air bags make driving riskier?

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A satellite view of the floods at Somerset Levels as heavy rains earlier this month brought severe flooding to South West England. This comes at a time when extreme weather events have become more frequent throughout the world, particularly rainfall. In order to prepare for such events finding ways to adapt built infrastructure and coordinate services across the public and private sectors is vital.

While there is no ‘quick fix‘ for mitigating floods, long-term plans can be made to help mitigate flood hazards. Read the rest of this entry »

Australia has experienced severe heatwaves recently with temperatures reaching over 40C (104F). 2013 is currently the hottest year on record, but if trends continue 2014 could be not far behind.

The extreme heat has led to fire alerts throughout the country making people evacuate some areas. According to the BBC, lightning strikes in Victoria caused more than 250 fires on Tuesday night alone. Some matches at the Australian Open have come to a halt due to the heat wave, with some players suffering serious health effects from the intense heat. This year parts of Queensland and New South Wales have set new heat records.

This is a satellite image of land surface temperature in Australia taken by NASA’s MODIS satellite:

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A few interesting press conferences on hazards worth checking out from the 2013 American Geophysical Union Meeting. Topics include tornadoes, improved warnings for earthquakes and lightning phenomena during volcanic eruptions.

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From humanitarian aid to disaster risk reduction the word ‘resilience’ is involved in nearly every aspect of people’s ability to recover and adapt after a catastrophic event. Many researchers from various fields along with emergency practitioners, who are depended on during times of disaster throughout the world, use resilience in their everyday language, and even incorporate it into their operations in the field. Although its meaning remains elusive, researchers and practitioners have opportunities to learn from each other about resilience.

There is no one way of defining resilience yet this does not seem to have prevented it from growing in popularity (See The rise of the word resilience). On the contrary, it may have allowed it to spread far and wide in the first place. Within the context of disaster resilience reminds us that even the most damaging, traumatic experiences may reveal how vulnerable communities are able to adapt to unusual situations or environments. In recent academic and practitioner literature resilience is continually evolving.

resilience usage

Usage of resilience in English books over the years. (Google Ngrams)

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Hazard Risk Resilience Magazine Issue 2 Out Now!

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