Thursday, February 14, 2008

U of I professor Susan Kieffer’s work on mega disasters

U of I professor Susan Kieffer’s work on mega disasters

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In order to prepare for the ups and downs of life, most people occasionally look ahead to anticipate what they would do if something really bad were to happen.

Susan Kieffer, a University of Illinois professor of geology and Resident Associate at the Center for Advanced Study, does something similar to that, but on a much larger scale. In cooperation with colleagues from a group known as the Critical Issues Caucus of the Geological Society of America, Kieffer studies the causes and consequences of “mega disasters,” events that result directly in large numbers of human deaths and severely disrupt life for many others.

In her work, Kieffer distinguishes between two types of mega disasters, “natural” and “stealth.” Natural disasters—including things like volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, and tsunamis—have occurred intermittently over time and will continue to do so. Natural disasters generally occur quickly, and many of the problems they cause can be resolved within a span of years.

Kieffer notes that the effects of large-scale natural disasters have already been amplified by increasing population densities, and that the trend is likely to accelerate. For example, she points out that the current population of the area devastated by the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 is now more than 17 times greater than it was then. An earthquake of similar size today would likely kill many more people than in 1906, even in spite of advances in earthquake engineering. Similar, or even larger events, will certainly occur in the future in the Seattle area.

Human population growth and the ever-increasing demand for resources associated with modernization combine to cause the large-scale disruptions that Kieffer labels stealth disasters. Stealth disasters develop over longer periods of time than natural disasters and include worldwide problems such as global warming, the loss of productive soil, pollution of the oceans and atmosphere, and the ongoing destruction of entire ecosystems for human development.

Unlike natural disasters, the effects of stealth disasters often are not subject to remediation on time scales that are relevant to us. For example, soil that is lost from a landscape through deforestation or poor agricultural practices is effectively gone for good, since it can take thousands of years for new soil to form.

Of course human populations have caused the kinds of problems that create stealth disasters before, but never on a scale affecting the entire planet. Kieffer emphasizes that the resources needed to sustain human life on earth are finite, and likens our situation to that of life on an island, one that cannot continue to accommodate more people using more resources indefinitely. She also emphasizes that whereas humans can not control natural disasters, they can change their own behavior and, hence, the unfolding of stealth disasters.

To stave off the worst consequences of the stealth mega disasters, Kieffer and her colleagues call for action on a global scale. From their perspective, science needs to play a much larger role in the formation of public policy than it does now, and stronger international frameworks are needed to promote truly sustainable modes of living.