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Preparing for improbable, high-impact events

By Hans-Peter Plag and Stuart Marsh, Geohazards Community of Practice

  Population escaping from the vapour coming out from the still hot lava

Population escaping from the vapour coming out from the still hot lava where they are passing through after the January 2002 eruption of Mount Nyiragongo. Photo: Dario Tedesco.

The European Science Foundation (ESF)/Cooperation in Science and Technology (COST) conference on Understanding Extreme Geohazards: The Science of the Disaster Risk Management Cycle reviewed our knowledge of extreme geohazards and identified the scientific and societal challenges posed by high-impact geohazards. It also analyzed the key factors leading to the increasing numbers and extent of disasters caused by geohazards as well as the key steps for improving disaster risk management.

Held from 28 November to 1 December 2011 in Sant Feliu de Guixols, Spain (near Barcelona), the conference was organized under the lead of the two co-chairs of GEO’s Geohazards Community of Practice (GHCP). It was cosponsored by GEO, the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the International Council for Science (ICSU) and the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA).

The conference was attended by 52 experts from four continents, many of them scientists in an early stage of their career. The participants included geoscientists, social scientists, economists, architects, lawyers, and insurance experts working at universities, research institutes, governmental authorities, scientific unions, private companies, non-governmental organizations, and United Nations agencies. The broad range of disciplines and the variety of organizations represented at the conference were key to achieving the conference objectives.

Reducing vulnerability

Geohazards such as earthquakes, landslides, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, and floods are causing a large and increasing loss of lives and properties. Most of these losses occur during high-impact, extreme events. The global and long-lasting societal and economic impacts of recent extreme events illustrate the scale of disasters that can be caused by geohazards.

At the same time, the recent major geohazards are dwarfed by the largest geohazards that have occurred over the last few millennia. If such mega-hazards would occur today, the resulting disaster impact would be unparalleled. The potential impact on our civilization of any such rare events tends to be ignored in our planning of land use and infrastructure. To increase global resilience and reduce the disasters induced by extreme hazards at an acceptable economic cost will require a solid scientific understanding of the hazards.

Major research has been undertaken to understand the causes and processes of geohazards, and important advances in our knowledge have been achieved. Many measures required to prepare for, and to adapt to, hazards have been developed. Several international programmes exist to inform governments, decision makers, and the general public about disaster risks and ways to reduce these risks.

Nevertheless, the loss of lives and properties through natural hazards, particularly geohazards, is rapidly increasing due to growing populations in hazardous areas. The direct and indirect consequences of extreme events will likely increase as more people and infrastructures are put in harm's way and the interconnectivity of global society increases. The conference underlined that we have few options to reduce and mitigate geohazards, but that we can reduce vulnerability by properly choosing where to build and how, and by adapting existing buildings to potential hazards.

The proper planning of the built environment, particularly in rapidly growing urban areas, is key to disaster risk reduction. Knowledge of the probability and nature of the hazards to be expected in a given location is a key ingredient for adaptation. Disaster-risk reduction rarely happens in communities suffering from poverty, high levels of corruption, or opaque decision making. Adaptation to geohazards is often hampered by a biased and uninformed perception of the risks and a lack of publicly available, and easy to understand, information.

The role of GEOSS

Participants of the Conference  

Participants of the Conference. The attractive venue and the excellent support of the COST/ESF staff made the conference a special experience for all participants.


The participants agreed on a conference declaration identifying specific actions for addressing the identified scientific and societal challenges. Among others, a focused interdisciplinary research effort is needed to increase our understanding of the nature of the hazards and to improve our knowledge of potential locations, intensities, and recurrences of extreme geohazards events globally. A sustained geohazard monitoring system is required to provide observations for extreme-geohazards research; the detection of hazardous events; and disaster prevention, response and recovery.

The important role of GEOSS was emphasized in this context, as was the need for free data sharing in support of geohazard research and disaster-risk reduction. A process for an integrated assessment of disaster risks due to geohazards and an authoritative scientific body (comparable to the IPCC) to communicate the results of the assessment were considered necessary in order to better inform decision makers. Research programmes integrating natural and social sciences need to address all phases of the disaster-risk management cycle.

Developing a dedicated outreach and education programme should also be a priority in order to support a change in the perception of citizens and authorities of the risks associated with major geohazards. Disseminating information on geohazards to relevant governmental bodies and citizens would allow for transparent decisions on where, what and how to build, and where to reduce the vulnerability of existing buildings to future hazards.

State-of-the-art products that are actionable for policy makers are needed to support the development of legislation for risk reduction and planning for a safely built environment. Preparedness and mitigation measures need to be tailored to the specific local vulnerabilities, available resources, and social, cultural and religious constraints. Fostering international collaboration with local experts would help regions with poorly developed governance mitigate the disaster risks. Particularly in developing countries, improvements of low-technology response and rescue capabilities would ensure that disaster-impacted population could be reached more rapidly.

As an immediate step, a high-level community-based white paper on the scientific and societal challenges posed by geohazards, particularly to the resilience and sustainable development of rapidly growing urban areas, including megacities in hazardous regions, will be prepared. It will then be distributed to scientific funding agencies as well as governments and intergovernmental organizations.

There are many organizations focusing on disaster-risk research and disaster-risk reduction related to geohazards. The building of networks bringing together individuals, institutions and organizations has to have a high priority in order to utilize the many synergies of the relevant programs. The Road Map developed by GEO’s Geohazards Community of Practice (GHCP) specifies the steps for implementing the building blocks required to better inform decision makers in all phases of the disaster risk management cycle. The implementation of this Road Map will benefit from the networking with these organizations. Most of the participants at the conference who were formerly not actively involved in the GHCP requested be added to its mailing list.  A follow-on meeting is being planned for 25 April 2012. co-located with the annual meeting of the European Geosciences Union in Vienna, Austria.