There is no vaccine for natural hazards

Dr Zoe Mildon, lecturer in earth sciences at the University of Plymouth, on how to improve resilience to natural disasters.

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The G7 meeting will bring together world leaders that represent 2.2 billion people and half the global economy. Many of these are exposed to the threats of natural hazards such as earthquakes, volcanoes, floods and landslides on a daily basis. However, for the past year, these hazards have probably become secondary in their minds, replaced by the more immediate and tangible threat of Covid-19.

Between 1900 and 2019, the total number of deaths due to natural hazards was 23 million, while 2.5 million people have died due to earthquakes in the same period. Notably, the annual global death rate due to most natural hazards (floods, landslides, drought, volcanic activity, wildfire) has reduced drastically over the past century (see Figure 1 below). But the death rate due to earthquakes has not reduced in a similar manner, reflecting that earthquake disaster risk reduction lags behind other hazards.

Figure 1 – Global death rates due to natural disasters over the past century. Most physical hazards have very low rates over the past couple of decades, with the exception of earthquakes. Note that “natural disaster” is a misnomer because disasters are a result of social factors. For comparison, the global death rate since January 2020 due to Covid-19 is 43 per 100,000.

That is somewhat surprising given that half of the world’s megacities are in locations where large earthquakes will occur, including Tokyo, Osaka and Los Angeles. Their development is partially controlled by how earthquakes interact with the landscape. The faults that cause earthquakes generate hills and valleys, and the majority of buildings and infrastructure are located in flat valley regions because these are easier to build on (see Figure 2 below). The rapid global expansion of cities and urban areas in hazardous regions means that it is highly likely that the first million-death earthquake will happen in the near future.

Figure 2 – View to the north-east across the cities of Osaka and Kyoto in Japan, with 3x vertical exaggeration of the topography. The main areas of buildings and infrastructure are located in the flat valleys, which are bounded by active faults (red lines). This area was affected by the 1995 Kobe earthquake.

However, the damage caused by earthquakes cannot be represented by death toll alone, but also through their impacts on infrastructure, livelihoods and health. Lower-income countries are disproportionality affected by earthquakes, with greater reductions in GDP and death rates. One of the visions for the G7 summit is supporting the poorest nations to grow and develop – but if poor resilience to earthquakes is not addressed, then any development will be hampered.

Improving the resilience of a population to earthquakes (or any other natural hazard) takes time. It also requires a wide range of expertise from civil engineers, social scientists, hazard modellers, cultural anthropologists, governments, and geologists. Geologists can usually pinpoint where big earthquakes, volcanic eruptions or landslides will occur at some point in the future because they are trained to read the landscape and identify faults, volcanoes and steep slopes that cause these respective hazards (see Figure 3 below). 

My research aims to develop a better understanding of why, where and when earthquakes occur. Funded through the UK Research and Innovation Future Leaders Fellowships scheme, my work will link geology, physics and computer modelling to develop new ways to calculate and understand earthquake hazards. This funding gives me the breadth and flexibility to work with a range of geologists, modellers, civil protection agencies, risk insurance companies and science communicators, all of whom are essential to make sure that our research will actually help those most affected by earthquakes.

Figure 3 – The fault that caused the earthquakes during the 2016 central Italy earthquake sequence. The white ribbon of rock shows how much the fault moved (the background of the photo moved up, the foreground moved down) during the earthquakes.

Building these links takes time and trust, partly because of the challenges of communicating uncertainty and the kinds of earthquakes or other hazards that are the most or least likely to occur. The development of Covid vaccines in less than a year shows the power and benefits of international scientific collaboration. It also demonstrates the importance of sustained investment in scientific research to respond to pandemic crises. But this doesn’t work for hazard mitigation because reacting to a disaster is far more costly that being proactive about mitigating the risks.

While our attention is on the immediate Covid pandemic, we need to ensure that the research and preparation for other disasters, that may be more unexpected and more damaging, doesn’t disappear entirely. In the UK, current research projects funded by Official Development Assistance have experienced funding cuts of around 50 per cent (£120m).

All of these projects are addressing global challenges and generating opportunities for lower and middle-income countries. And a number of these projects are focused on reducing the risks and impacts of natural hazards (e.g. Tomorrow’s Cities, Moving with Risk).

These budget cuts, implemented with no notice, could seriously undermine trust in UK research and reduce development. And while GDP dropped in all G7 nations during 2020, all the other G7 nations are increasing research funding, especially for scientific research.

The motto of the G7 summit is “build back better”. However, that can only be done by looking beyond the immediate threats and empowering countries to develop themselves through local researchers. There is no vaccine for natural hazards. We can only be “immunised” against them by long-term, transparent and global efforts.

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