Kieffer (Emerita, Geology/Univ. of Illinois) argues that all natural disasters that disrupt the Earth and its atmosphere are the result of a rapid shift in matter and energy that she calls a “change of state.”
Large-scale natural disasters are inevitable, but with more understanding about their entangled geological dynamics, we can improve methods for surviving them. Volcanic eruptions, hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, landslides and even giant rogue waves that swell in the middle of the ocean can be traced back to common physical forces: a redistribution of energy within the Earth that can alter the state of an area in a matter of seconds. These root forces explain how a landscape-altering landslide can occur with such sudden devastation or how a tornado can materialize from thin air (or, more precisely, from temperature shifts in the polar jet stream). The author explains the science behind these destructive natural disasters, using clear language to describe how basic geological properties of the Earth can predicate such dramatic physical events. She also includes riveting eyewitness accounts from survivors of natural disasters throughout history—e.g., from Pliny the Younger, who observed the A.D. 79 eruption of Mount Vesuvius (“it rose to a great height on a sort of trunk and then split off into branches”), or the Japanese fisherman who dared to get in his boat during the 2011 tsunami that ravaged his country. Kieffer’s larger point is that a deeper understanding of these events and their underlying causes is required in order to make effective changes in how communities approach engineering strategy, advance-warning technologies and emergency-response routines. As fluctuations in the Earth’s atmosphere and oceans may affect the frequency and severity of natural disasters, now is the time to make thoughtful policy decisions.
Sharp, timely, slightly terrifying science writing.