Last weeek's tragic earthquake in Haiti, which measured 7.0 on the Richter scale and left at least 100,000 dead according to the most recent reports, was by no means an isolated event. Over the past five years, epic natural disasters have struck the United States, Pakistan, Myanmar and China, indicating that once-in-lifetime events of massive death and destruction have become more common than we think.
How can science play a more effective role both in understanding and predicting these events and in devising measures, including the creation of space-based monitoring networks and early warning systems, which will help curb their impact?
These questions first captured the attention of the InterAcademy Panel on International Issues (IAP) following the tsunami that struck the coast of the Indonesian island of Sumatra in December 2004. The earthquake and tidal wave, triggered by a deep-ocean earthquake that measured 9.3 on the Richter scale, resulted in 300,000 fatalities.
What happened in Sumatra prompted IAP to launch a major natural disaster research mitigation programme in February 2005, less than three months after the disaster. The activity, led by the Chinese Academy of Sciences, now includes participation from 11 member academies.
"Our efforts," notes Guo Huadong, director general of the Center for Earth Observation and Digital Earth of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, "have focused on the role that science and technology can play in addressing critical issues related to the management of natural disasters. Specifically, we have examined the current state of science and technology in understanding and predicting earthquakes, tsunamis and other natural disasters." At times, as Guo explains, his fellow researchers have also offered constructive science-based recommendations to address disaster management issues.
A 2009 IAP report, Natural Disaster Mitigation – A Scientific and Practical Approach, stated that natural disasters were responsible for nearly two million deaths and economic losses totalling more than USD1 trillion over the past 60 years.
The report also showed that certain kinds of disasters have had a greater impact than others. For example, storms and earthquakes have been responsible for more than 90% of the world's disaster-related deaths. The situation is similar when it comes to economic losses. Just four types of disasters – storms, earthquakes, floods and droughts – are responsible for more than 90% of disaster-related economic losses.
At the same time, natural disasters have not been evenly distributed across the globe. Indeed IAP studies have shown that more than 70% of all natural disasters since 1950 have taken place in Asia. Not surprisingly, more than 70% of the adverse economic impacts have taken place there as well. Overall, 95% of deaths caused by natural disasters have occurred in the developing world.
In its examination of broad trends in the occurrence and impact of natural resource disasters, IAP has determined that compared to the previous decade, economic losses resulting from storm surges and cyclones doubled during the first five years of this century, totalling some USD275 between 2000–2005. The good news is that the number of deaths due to flood has declined significantly.
Both of these trends, says Guo, "show that human behaviour often plays a part – in fact, a large part – in the impact of a natural disaster. The rising costs of storm surges and cyclones are due, in no small measure, to the dramatic growth in population in coastal areas. At the same time, the declining number of deaths caused by flooding is due, in no small measure, to improvements in emergency management."
On the science and technology front, Guo notes, the development of more sophisticated earthquake monitoring networks and tsunami early warning systems have improved our ability to respond to pending natural disasters.
At the same, Guo cautions, scientific understanding of the mechanisms that spur earthquakes and tsunamis remains inadequate. "Thanks to science we have much better understanding of the forces that set the conditions for earthquake-caused natural disasters. Yet, we still do not have sufficient knowledge to predict when they will occur. And, as the recent events in Haiti show, not knowing when can have tragic consequences."
"Emergency response and relief is what is most needed in Haiti in the aftermath of this terrible disaster," say Guo. Science can help by providing detailed satellite images of the devastation that has taken place, which will undoubtedly serve as an important tool in the relief efforts.
But, as Guo also notes, "science can play an even more prominent role in the future by helping to improve monitoring and detection technologies, and by devising better ways to integrate scientific observations and data to allow us to create better models for forecasting the impacts of the natural disasters that will inevitably take place."