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ScienceWise - Winter 2010

Mastering the hazards

Article Illustration
Christina Griffin
Article Illustration
Sunrise against the 10 May 2003 eruption of Anatahan Volcano, Mariana Islands. Photo by A Sauter.
Article Illustration
Village hut destroyed by the May 2003 eruption of Anatahan Volcano, Mariana Islands. Photo by P Shore

New course aims to train natural disaster managers

The recent eruption of Iceland’s Eyjafjoell volcano threw air transport into chaos across half of Europe and illustrates what a dramatic effect such events can have on our day to day lives. But such natural hazards are not new. Earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and tsunamis have been around longer than humans. What is new is the scale of the human impact these events have in modern times. To a large extent this is because there are a lot more humans around than there were a century ago which in turn leads to higher housing densities and taller buildings, both exasperating the effects of earthquakes and Tsunamis. There are also changes in climate and sea level brought about by human activity that may be expected to have a significant impact on the numbers of floods, droughts and severe storms in the 21st century. For all these reasons and more, the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific and the College of Physical and Mathematical Sciences have recently introduced a new Masters of Natural Hazards degree.

The course aims to provide emergency manager practitioners, scientists, policy makers and students with skills and knowledge to work effectively in the management of natural hazards. It integrates the social and scientific components of natural hazards and focuses on hazards and people in the Asia and Pacific region.

Christina Griffin is one of the first cohort of students to undertake the Masters of Natural Hazards degree. She completed her Bachelor of Environmental Science at Wollongong University and has recently worked at Geoscience Australia.
“I became interested in the course when I was studying the impact of sea level rise on Australia’s coastal communities as part of my Geoscience Australia work. It led me to think about the impact of climate change in less developed countries, including how they would respond to a potential increase in the frequency of cyclone, flooding and landslide activity. Coming from a science background I was also attracted by the opportunity to study the social components to natural hazards. For example, we have studied the physical force behind tsunamis and the factors that make people vulnerable to them. The course teaches that successful disaster risk reduction requires an integrated understanding of both the physical and social sciences.”

A major component of the course is an individual research project undertaken by each student. Christina intends to focus her research on the role of coastal environments such as mangroves, reefs and dunes, as natural coast defence mechanisms. “I would like to specifically look at whether these environments can mitigate the impacts of tsunami and severe storm. I would also like to research the role of community participation in the rehabilitation of these environments, and the benefits they provide communities in terms of coastal defence and preservation of natural resources including fish.”

Christina is currently in Jakarta where she plans to conduct some of her research “I find being here in Indonesia helps me better understand some of the social aspects to vulnerability that we discuss in the course.”

“I hope that this formal qualification will put me in a position to be able to work in the area of disaster risk reduction. I would like to work on the management of hazards in south-east Asia, whether this is through an NGO or government organization based in Australia or the region.” she says.

Although many of the people at serious risk from the effects of climate change on the frequency of natural hazards are outside Australia, Christina doesn’t believe that we can simply dismiss it as not our problem. 

“As a developed nation I think we have a strong responsibility to address the issues like sea level rise associated with climate change. Australia has the resources to better cope with the impacts of climate change and fewer people are directly at risk than in less developed countries. Countries in the Asia-Pacific region commonly contain large areas of low-lying coastal plains that support significant populations. This makes them very vulnerable to the impacts of sea level rise and other coastal hazards. As Australia is a large per capita emitter of greenhouse gases I think it is fair we contribute to a solution. I think meeting this challenge would mean a serious commitment from all Australians and lots of collaborative work in the region.”

Aside from reducing our impact on the environment, there’s not a great deal that we can do to eliminate most natural hazards but having more individuals like Christina trained to manage our response, may at least lessen the impacts on those affected.

 

You can find out more about this course at http://naturalhazards.anu.edu.au/master/

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