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Landslide losses in the USA

The two dramatic landslides of the last few weeks in the USA has undoubtedly raised the profile of this natural hazard.  The Oso landslide in Washington State remains high on the news agenda, and was even visited by the President earlier this week.  Meanwhile, the fascinating East Gros Ventre Butte landslide in Jackson Hole continues to creep, with devastating impacts on the family who owned the house at the crest of the slide.

These two events have suddenly driven a new level of interest in landslide losses in the USA, which may be a good outcome from these tragic events.  National Geographic has produced a fantastic graphic illustrating the distribution of landslides across the USA since 2007:

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Air pollution caused by industry and other human-made sources is a determinant of health that continues to be largely overlooked despite its disastrous consequences. In 2012 the World Health Organization estimates that seven million people died as a result of pollutants in the air people breathe, this includes both indoor and outdoor air quality.

While many countries have banned smoking in public places it is less likely to see a similar ban on toxic emissions from cars or coal-fired power plants, although there have been attempts in limiting them. Many outdoor air pollution deaths are linked to heart disease and stroke. Health risks from air pollution is a major problem in urban areas throughout the world, but especially in cities in developing countries such as Kathmandu, Dhaka and Beijing.

Both Nepal and Bangladesh rank at the bottom of the air quality ranking from the Environmental Performance Index. China is just above Nepal and its air pollution problems have been well publicised as much could be done to mitigate the problems caused by poor air quality.

This satellite image taken January 2013 shows the extent of air pollution in China:

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The Oso (Steelhead) landslide – mechanisms of movement

The desperate search for the up to 90 missing people at Oso has continued (see my earlier post on the landslide). Survival rates for landslide victims are very short, so this is not a rescue operation any longer. During this time some very interesting information has emerged about the landslide in the form of a seismic record of the slide.  There is an excellent blog post from Kate Allstadt about this seismic signal on the PNSN blog – their understanding of this data is much better than is mine, so I won’t try to replicate it here.  For me the most interesting aspect is the double seismic signal generated by the landslide, which indicates two major movement phases (followed by lots of small slips, which we would expect):

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The start of the two movement events were about 4.5 minutes apart; the first lasted about 2.5 minutes, the second was somewhat shorter and less energetic (i.e. the movement rate was probably slower).

So what does this tell us about the landslide?  We need to compare this with an image of the landslide after the failure – this Wikipedia image remains the best that I have seen for getting an overview of the whole landslide: Read the rest of this entry »

The Durham Energy Institute hosted a visit from Professor Susan Christopherson, Department of City and Regional Planning at Cornell University, whose research focuses on political-economic policy. Sam Almond from DEI reviews Susan’s talk entitled: ‘A Distinctive US Approach to Shale Gas Development? Local Responses to Complex Risks’, that examined how communities react to and prioritise perceived risks from hydraulic fracturing operations. The talk was organised and hosted by Durham Energy Institute, Department of Earth Sciences and the Institute of Hazard, Risk and Resilience.

Shale gas exploitation (or ‘fracking‘) has revolutionised the US energy market over the last decade, with the country as a whole experiencing lower gas prices and increased energy independence. Some gas-rich regions have seen booms in their economy with reduced unemployment and large financial rewards for landowners and certain local businesses.

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Production of natural gas from shale in the United States has expanded rapidly in the last ten years, and is projected to continue through 2040 (EIA 2013a).

However, many local residents have opposed such developments and are concerned regarding issues such as safety, industry regulation, and disruption to their way of life. With shale gas exploitation becoming ever more likely in the UK, it is important to learn from the US experience to understand how communities react to the industry, and how best to regulate the industry to alleviate public concern and to mitigate any negative impacts of the shale gas industry.

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By Tom McLeish, Durham University; Phil Macnaghten, Durham University, and Susana Carro-Ripalda, Durham University

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The UK Council for Science and Technology recently called on prime minister David Cameron to reassess EU rules on GM crops. Two days later the Observer published an editorial bluntly declaring: “There’s no choice; we must grow GM crops now”. There is a high risk that a new round of the shouting match that mired the debate 15 years ago will begin again, with little real progress.

But research since the first failure of the debate on GM crops in the EU suggests there is a better way. Our GM-Futuros project has recently explored the GM debates in depth at national and local levels in India, Mexico and Brazil – highlighting some stark lessons for the EU and UK. Quality engagement with the public is key.

Both of the recent UK publications call for a positive move towards GM agricultural technology. Ostensibly this is driven by forecasts of global population increases and a shortfall in food supply from current agricultural land by 2050. The Council for Science and Technology letter also appeals to the current loss of economic opportunity in the UK from present over-restrictive EU regulations. The Observer piece is dismissive of objections: “Thirty years ago, it could be argued that we should proceed cautiously because of potential health dangers. That argument is no longer acceptable.” Read the rest of this entry »

Brownfield or previously developed land is everywhere. Nearly everyone has visited or lived near an area that was once used for industrial purposes, making it unsuitable for redevelopment. Besides being an eye sore, brownfield is also known to be detrimental to the health and wellbeing of communities who live near it, but often the financial costs are too great for it to be restored and developed.

As the global population rises and land for agriculture and housing increases in demand, redeveloping brownfield may hold a solution to some of these challenges, but how do we do it? Some technologies are available, while others are in the making, but how can they be used sustainably? Read the rest of this entry »

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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.

airbag

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 »

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