Natural hazards: Are we being responsible?

Last month the hurricane Sandy hit the east coast of the United States full force. The evacuation plans set up by the authorities have with all certainty spared many lives, but the devastation to infrastructure, homes and business will take a long time to repair.

If anything, hurricane Sandy demonstrates the vulnerability of our society to natural hazards. Are we being responsible when we plan and build our communities? Are we considering the risks not only for our own generation but for those to come when we develope land areas in risk zones?

Some natural hazards are unpredictable, but many are regularly occurring events. We should have learned from our history by now. 

The 79 AD destruction of the Roman cities of Herculaneum and Pompeji by the eruption of the stratovolcano Mount Vesuvius is estimated to have caused the death of 16.000 people due to hydrothermal pyroclastic flows. During the last 400 years Vesuvius has had 23 fairly severe eruptions, with the last one occurring in March 1944 when several villages in the area were destroyed. Vesuvius is considered one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world with some 3 million people live in the city of Naples and surrounding areas.  Evacuation plans exist but the question is if they are effective enough considering that Naples experiences traffic jams on a daily basis?

This Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer (ASTER) image of Mt. Vesuvius, Italy was acquired September 26, 2000. The full-size false-color image covers an area of 36 by 45 km. Vesuvius overlooks the city of Naples and the Bay of Naples in central Italy. In 79 AD, Vesuvius erupted cataclysmically, burying all of the surrounding cites with up to 30 m of ash. Picture and text borrowed from NASA Earth Observatory. Click the photo to go to that webpage.

Mount Vesuvius is not the only active stratovolcano situated in a densely populated area, other examples are Mount Fuji in Japan and Popocatepetl in Mexico.

Today we can monitor volcanic activity (see e.g. USGS volcano hazards program), which can help to prevent loss of life and property damage. But while hurricanes and volcanic activity can be monitored, earthquakes are more difficult to predict even with continuous monitoring. The United Nations Global Seismic Hazard Assessment Program have provided a global map depicting the threat of earthquakes:

Global seismic activity map provided by the UN.

Most of the tectonically active zones are also densely populated: e.g. western US, the Mediterranean, the Middle East, Indonesia, Japan. So I ask again:

Are we being responsible when we plan and build our communities? Are we considering the risks not only for our own generation but for those to come when we develope land areas in risk zones?

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