The Dynamics of Disaster, by Susan W. Kieffer

Alison Stokes on natural catastrophes and the need to use collective wisdom to cope with them

November 28, 2013

“Civilization”, observed the historian Will Durant, “exists by geological consent, subject to change without notice.” Nature can wreak devastation in an instant, yet mankind persists in rebuilding communities where disaster has struck. Focusing on the intersection between fundamental geological processes and the presence of humans, Susan Kieffer uses The Dynamics of Disaster as a platform to explore what is now arguably humanity’s greatest challenge: how to live safely on an overpopulated planet at constant risk of disaster.

The word “disaster” typically brings to mind landscapes and communities devastated by earthquakes, flooded by tsunamis or flattened by passing tornadoes. But even seemingly small-scale events, such as the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull in Iceland in 2010, have the potential to significantly disrupt lives and economies. By stripping back the underlying geological processes behind natural disasters to their most fundamental components - changes in the distribution of Earth’s energy and changes in the state of matter - Kieffer demonstrates the innate interconnectedness of natural disasters affecting the global population, and shows that the processes ultimately responsible for wreaking widespread destruction are not always what we expect.

The Dynamics of Disaster packs a lot of complex science into a relatively short book, but the clarity of Kieffer’s writing, coupled with her careful choice of supporting graphics, makes the content engaging and accessible to a wide readership. The opening chapters prepare the ground for the main substance of the book, exploring the notion of “disaster”, the scientific concepts that underpin natural processes and, most importantly, the challenges faced by scientists and the public alike in understanding and evaluating the risks presented by natural hazards. Subsequent chapters then shift focus, exploring the main categories of disaster in terms of their causes, defining characteristics and their linkages to other potential disasters via transformations in energy and matter.

It is in these chapters that Kieffer’s expertise as a scientist and a communicator comes to the fore. As a geologist, she cannot resist doing some fieldwork, structuring each chapter around a “virtual field trip” where readers are invited to visit scenes of past disasters, contemplate the impacts on physical and human systems, and explore the processes that link seemingly unrelated events. Each excursion is brought to life through the voices of those who have experienced disasters firsthand as eyewitnesses or survivors, or via Kieffer’s accounts of her own personal and professional experiences. These voices enhance the text’s comprehensive range of referenced sources, which extend from peer-reviewed scientific papers to amateur video footage of seldom-seen natural phenomena.

The final chapter is perhaps the most thought-provoking, drawing together the threads of preceding discussions about the importance of knowledge-sharing and communication in understanding and mitigating risks from natural hazards, and contemplating the role of scientists and other experts in safeguarding society from the impacts of future disasters. What geologists can contribute is the ability to view the world through a “bifocal lens”: to see things at different physical and temporal scales, and to seek out clues from the geological record about the causes and consequences of large-scale geologic processes. But geological expertise alone is not enough, and The Dynamics of Disaster concludes with a call to arms for experts from across many sectors - scientists, engineers, financiers, educators - to work together to construct the framework of knowledge needed to deal effectively with natural disasters, and to ensure that their collective wisdom is used wisely for the benefit of us all.

The Dynamics of Disaster

By Susan W. Kieffer
W. W. Norton, 256pp, £18.99
ISBN 9780393080957
Published 19 November 2013

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