Floods, earthquakes, and storms. The recent series of large-scale natural disasters around the world poses new challenges for scientists.
Natural disasters: the dismal list of events grows longer by the year, and this past year was no exception.
Haiti, January 2010: two earthquakes devastated the country, causing thousands of casualties.
Pakistan, August 2010: torrential rain flooded two-thirds of the country, leaving millions homeless.
West Africa, summer 2010: the long-lasting drought that struck several Sahelian countries triggered one of the worst famines in the past thirty years.
Closer to home, major storm Xynthia hit the Atlantic coast of France in February 2010, killing more than 50 people and creating €2.5 billion worth of damage. Certain examples remain definitively ingrained in the collective memory.
Who could forget the tsunami that swept through the Indian Ocean in 2004? How could anyone in the United States forget the flooded streets of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina? Even Hurricane Katrina was no isolated disaster. In fact, between 2004 and 2005, seven major hurricanes struck the United States over fifteen months, causing more than $120 billion of insured loss and damage, three times more than the September 11 terrorist attacks in 2001.
Beyond the shocking images, these disasters raise a number of questions. What conclusions should be drawn? Are these disasters the inevitable result of climate change and disorder? Or are they the serious consequences of a growing global population that has become increasingly concentrated in cities and on coasts? How can we bear the costs of destruction?
According to the German reinsurance company, Munich Re, costs related to natural disasters reached $50 billion in 2009 and four times this amount in 2008.
A number of uncertainties remain, however researchers of all disciplines continue to advance knowledge, in order to find solutions and help prepare for future extreme weather events.
Measures include better identifiying vulnerable areas, attempting to predict the impact of climate change, finding new tools to face financial loss, and bringing prevention measures to the centre of policies. These measures, and many others, should be urgently explored.