News Archive

posted 06/06/01

New CEI Center Will Use Scientific Advances to Protect Societies Facing Disaster
By Danielle Bizzarro

Global losses from natural hazards continue to rise rapidly, despite significant scientific and engineering advances. With the establishment of the Center for Hazards and Risk Research, the newest addition to Columbia's Earth Institute, researchers hope to revolutionize the ways in which hazards are defined and analyzed and to help communities around the world protect against hazards.

New research at the Hazards Center will concentrate on natural processes with the potential to produce catastrophic events, such as earthquakes, floods, landslides, and extreme weather, and on environmental hazards, such as air and water pollution and climate change.

Drawing upon the long history of earth science research at Columbia's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, the new Center will unite basic earth scientists with sociologists and economists, who will, for the first time, work together to produce newly integrated and effective assessments of hazards risk.

Predictability plays a critical role in mitigating the harmful effects of disasters. However, "massive investments in scientific research, regulatory mechanisms, and financial risk management tools, have failed up until now to substantially reduce losses," says Arthur Lerner-Lam, Associate Director for Geophysics and Geology at Lamont and the Center's interim director.

Poor communication plays a large part in hampering those efforts. Disadvantaged populations (both nationally and internationally) are often most affected by disasters because policy-makers and urban planners, especially those in developing countries, are unaware of the latest available knowledge or do not have the local resources to use it effectively.

Dangerous Development

The recent 1999 floods and landslides in northern Venezuela are one good example. After three days of torrential rains, the ensuing flash floods and associated mudslides killed almost 30,000 and left another 600,000 homeless.

According to several earth scientists at Lamont studying Venezuela's northern coast, the long, high mountain range close to the sea and the short steep rivers to the sea, make it a particularly unsafe place to build. Nevertheless, the coast was heavily developed for recreation, and housing was built on the steep, hilly slopes leading to the sea. "Well-informed decision-making and proper land use and planning would have greatly reduced the magnitude of the disaster," notes Lerner-Lam.

Graduate students from Columbia's Urban Planning Program and Earth Science students from Lamont will present results from the "Caracas Studio," to Venezuelan agencies. Their plan provides for a safer, revitalized, and less divided greater Caracas.

Another factor is the public's general lack of interest in disastrous events despite repeated scientific warnings, when such events are too far in future. "Most people, including many politicians and policy-makers, tend to ignore what might happen 100, or even 20, years down the road," explains Lerner-Lam.

Using an integrated research model similar to that which has proven so successful in El Niño predictions by scientists at Columbia's International Research Institute for Climate Prediction (IRI), the Hazards Center's researchers also will attempt to show how long-term predictions concerning solid earth processes - such as continental drift, which eventually results in earthquakes - could be used to build more resilient societies.

In fact, one of the first projects on the Center's agenda will be the design of a Multi-Hazard Vulnerability Index, a composite measure of disaster risk. This index, researchers believe, will be a useful tool in focusing necessary attention on slowly developing hazards, such as the massive earthquake scientists now predict will topple Istanbul in thirty years.

"There is enough exciting new science to suggest that important aspects of potentially disastrous events are predictable on human time scales," says Lerner-Lam. "Equipped with the latest findings, our Center is currently directing an urgent call for preventive measures, now rather than later, to the appropriate government, community, and academic agencies in Turkey and has begun to help them devise more effective strategies."

In July 2001, under the auspices of the new Center, collaborators from Columbia, Italy, Greece, and Turkey will be meeting in Greece to better characterize the North Anatolian Fault and to discuss strategies and collaborations that help Istanbul cope with this predicted event.

Global scope

Natural and environmental disasters consume lives, property, and commercial assets and obstruct economic and political progress, regardless of national boundaries or human goals.

The Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and the School of Engineering have been performing hazards-related research globally for decades, and will provide a tremendous foundation for further integrated and applied research programs initiated by the Hazards Center.

Understanding the human dimensions of hazards on a global scale will also require expertise in such social sciences as economics, political science and history, and Columbia's School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) will be called upon to provide such analyses.

Columbia's Center for Science Policy Outcomes (CSPO), which is currently involved in addressing design issues in US hazards research policy, could easily broaden its scope to encompass international policy.

The recently formed Center for Decision Sciences (CDS), which is already involved in the IRI's forecasting activities, is also expected to play a critical role in highlighting problems in hazards knowledge integration and use.

In a similar fashion, Columbia's Center for International Earth Science Information Networks (CIESIN), a global expert in data integration research and information technology with a world-class spatial data management facility, will play a pivotal role in monitoring hazards and hazards policy worldwide.

A virtual center, the Center for Hazards and Risk Research will easily combine the talents of several Columbia schools, institutes and centers, as well as those of collaborators around the world. The Center is also in a unique position to form strategic partnerships with other outside academic, government, and international institutions and agencies, whenever and wherever necessary.

More information about Columbia's new Center for Hazards and Risk Research can be found at: http://www.ldeo.columbia.edu/chrr/

Founded in 1949, The Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory is the only research center in the world examining the planet from its core to its atmosphere. This multi-disciplinary approach by more than 200 researchers cuts across every continent and ocean, revolutionizing our understanding of the planet's origin, history and, increasingly, its future.

About The Earth Institute
The Earth Institute at Columbia University is the world's leading academic center for the integrated study of Earth, its environment and society. The Earth Institute builds upon excellence in the core disciplines — earth sciences, biological sciences, engineering sciences, social sciences and health sciences — and stresses cross-disciplinary approaches to complex problems. Through research, training and global partnerships, it mobilizes science and technology to advance sustainable development, while placing special emphasis on the needs of the world's poor. For more information, visit www.earth.columbia.edu.