Book review: ‘The Dynamics of Disaster,’ by Susan W. Kieffer

Karina Wetherbee
Special to the Weekly
“The Dynamics of Disaster," by Susan W. Kieffer.
Special to the Weekly |

Disasters are not new to the planet, nor are they a novelty to the unfortunate life-forms that find themselves in the crosshairs of an impending calamitous event. Modern culture, with its 24-hour news cycle and its power to let us observe events around the world on the phones in our hands, also makes our collective awareness of disasters a burdensome business at times. But how much do we really understand about the forces that shape our planet? Author and professor emerita of geology Susan W. Kieffer thinks it is time we all had a refresher course, and she provides just that in her recent book, “The Dynamics of Disaster.”

With population growth on an unsustainable trajectory, Kieffer postulates that there will be fewer corners of the world where a disaster can’t reach at least a small pocket of humanity. Understanding the geological events that drive the engine of this very volatile planet of ours will help us adjust to the inevitable changes they will have on our lives as we increasingly bump shoulders.

While Kieffer’s main focus is on the disasters that occur naturally — earthquakes, hurricanes and volcanic eruptions, for example — she also seeks to draw attention to what she calls “stealth disasters,” events such as climate change, ocean acidification and invasive species, which have an arguably human origin. These surreptitious disasters, she points out, can, in turn, influence natural disasters. An example would be stronger and more frequent hurricanes due to the warming of the planet.

She is quick to point out that humans have adapted well to nature’s extremes before, and we have even willingly embraced them; we have conquered Everest, traveled deep in the ocean and explored the reaches of space. It is partly this adaptability, she says, that makes us foolishly rebuild in hazard zones, where repeat incidents are likely.

Kieffer draws attention to “stealth disasters,” events such as climate change, ocean acidification and invasive species, which have an arguably human origin.

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Diminished amount of Aid money

Because so many people now inhabit areas of the world where natural disasters — primarily volcanoes, earthquakes and storm activities — predominately take place, funding for disaster relief is woefully inadequate, which means there is even less money for infrastructure maintenance. Thus, when the next disaster hits, the people are even more vulnerable, and the cycle continues.

Because the cycle is ongoing and infrastructure cannot always be recovered in a timely manner, “unnatural disasters’” often stem from our poor reactions and hasty adjustments after a natural disaster. As examples, Kieffer uses the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, with the Fukushima nuclear calamity that followed in their wake. For a country like Japan, renowned for its disaster preparedness, the trifecta of the three disasters in succession illustrates her point that even the best prepared can be surprised.

She borrows Donald Rumsfeld’s famous words to make a point. There are “known knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns.” The knowns and unknowns vary around the world, she says, and known unknowns only become known knowns after they happen. The main question is, what might be some of the unknown unknowns?

In spite of the giggle-inducing, convoluted jargon of that analogy, the book reads like a geology class for the layperson, with plenty of maps, drawings and graphs. It is akin to a very clear and well-paced college lecture on the subjects of physics, geology, meteorology and physical science. Her academic leanings shine through, and though some of the information is grade-school science review, she makes it relevant by tying it to examples from recent events.

It is like a “Magic School Bus” outing for adults, with Kieffer acting as Ms. Frizzle, guiding the reader around the world to disaster hot spots, where she analyzes and breaks down the physical characteristics that contribute to events in those areas. The reader is left with a clear and simple message: Individuals need to participate in the future of this planet, as all beings and systems are interconnected. Our best protection against disasters are the scientists at the forefront of their fields, with us, the global community, at their backs making common-sense choices in times of trouble. Reading “The Dynamics of Disaster” is a good first step in preparing for that changing world.

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