The G7 meeting will bring together world leaders that represent 2.2 billion people and half the global economy. Many of these are exposed to the threats of natural hazards such as earthquakes, volcanoes, floods and landslides on a daily basis. However, for the last year, these hazards have probably become secondary in their minds, replaced by the more immediate and tangible threat of COVID-19.

Between 1900 and 2019, the total number of deaths due to natural hazards was 23 million, whilst 2.5 million people have died due to earthquakes in the same period. Notably, the annual global death rate due to most natural hazards (floods, landslides, drought, volcanic activity, wildfire) has reduced drastically over the last century (Figure 1). But the death rate due to earthquakes has not reduced in a similar manner, reflecting that earthquake disaster risk reduction lags behind other hazards.

That is somewhat surprising given that half of the world’s megacities are in locations where large earthquakes will occur, including Tokyo, Osaka and Los Angeles. Their development is partially controlled by how earthquakes interact with the landscape. The faults that cause earthquakes generate hills and valleys, and the majority of buildings and infrastructure are located in flat valley regions as these are easier to build on (Figure 2). The rapid global expansion of cities and urban areas in hazardous regions means that it is highly likely that the first million-death earthquake will happen in the near future.

Figure 2 - View to the north-east across the cities of Osaka and Kyoto in Japan, with 3x vertical exaggeration of the topography. The main areas of buildings and infrastructure are located in the flat valleys which are bounded by active faults (red lines). This area was affected by the 1995 Kobe earthquake.

However, the damage caused by earthquakes cannot be represented by death toll alone, but also through their impacts on infrastructure, livelihoods and health. Lower income countries are disproportionality affected by earthquakes, with greater reductions in GDP  and death rates. One of the visions for the G7 summit is supporting the poorest nations to grow and develop – but if poor resilience to earthquakes is not addressed, then any development will be hampered.

Improving the resilience of a population to earthquakes (or any other natural hazard) takes time. It also requires a wide range of expertise from civil engineers, social scientists, hazard modellers, cultural anthropologists, governments, and geologists. Geologists can usually pin-point where big earthquakes, volcanic eruptions or landslides will occur at some point in the future because we are trained to read the landscape and identify faults, volcanoes and steep slopes that cause these respective hazards (Figure 3).

My research aims to develop a better understanding of why, where and when earthquakes occur. Funded through the UK Research and Innovation Future Leaders Fellowship scheme, my work will link geology, physics and computer modelling to develop new ways to calculate and understand earthquake hazard. This funding gives me the breadth and flexibility to work with a range of geologists, modellers, civil protection agencies, risk insurance companies and science communicators, all of whom are essential to make sure that our research will actually help those most affected by earthquakes.

Figure 3 - The fault that caused the earthquakes during the 2016 central Italy earthquake sequence. The white ribbon of rock shows how much the fault moved (the background of the photo moved up, the foreground moved down) during the earthquakes.

Building these links takes time and trust, partly because of the challenges of communicating uncertainty and the kinds of earthquakes or other hazards that are the most or least likely to occur.

The development of COVID vaccines in less than a year shows the power and benefits of international scientific collaboration. It also demonstrates the importance of sustained investment in scientific research to respond to pandemic crises. But this doesn’t work for hazard mitigation, because reacting to a disaster is far more costly than being proactive about mitigating the risks

While our attention is on the immediate COVID pandemic, we need to ensure that the research and preparation for other disasters, that may be more unexpected and more damaging, doesn’t disappear entirely. In the UK, current research projects funded by Official Development Assistance have experienced funding cuts of around 50% (£120 million).

All of these projects are addressing global challenges and generating opportunities for Lower and Middle Income countries. And a number of these projects are focussed on reducing the risks and impacts of natural hazards (e.g. Tomorrow’s Cities, Moving with Risk). 

These budget cuts, implemented with no notice, could seriously undermine trust in UK research and reduce development. And while GDP dropped in all G7 nations during 2020, all the other G7 nations are increasing research funding, especially for scientific research. 

The motto of the G7 summit is “build back better”. However, that can only be done by looking beyond the immediate threats and empowering countries to develop themselves through local researchers. There is no vaccine for natural hazards. We can only be “immunised” against them by long-term, transparent and global efforts.

To enquire about future collaborations, please contact Dr Zoe Milden

COP26: Examining the evidence for global action 

The UN Climate Change Convention in 2021 – also known as COP26 – represented the largest coming together of world leaders to address climate change, and find real solutions. The race is truly on to slow climate change and protect our planet, improve global health and re-build post-pandemic economies through a green recovery.

For our part, it is more important than ever that researchers take a whole-systems approach in the search for solutions. We need to address local environmental priorities alongside national and international goals, if net-zero carbon and sustainable blue-green growth is to be achieved. Our researchers share how systems thinking through transdisciplinary research is key to providing evidence for global action ahead of COP26.

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