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The Dynamics of Disaster

The Dynamics of Disaster

3.5 2
by Susan W. Kieffer

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“If you are an amateur weather geek, disaster wonk, or budding student of earth sciences, you will want to read this book.”—Seattle Times

In 2011, there were fourteen natural calamities that each destroyed over a billion dollars’ worth of property in the United States alone. In 2012, Hurricane Sandy ravaged the East Coast and


“If you are an amateur weather geek, disaster wonk, or budding student of earth sciences, you will want to read this book.”—Seattle Times

In 2011, there were fourteen natural calamities that each destroyed over a billion dollars’ worth of property in the United States alone. In 2012, Hurricane Sandy ravaged the East Coast and major earthquakes struck in Italy, the Philippines, Iran, and Afghanistan. In the first half of 2013, the awful drumbeat continued—a monster supertornado struck Moore, Oklahoma; a powerful earthquake shook Sichuan, China; a cyclone ravaged Queensland, Australia; massive floods inundated Jakarta, Indonesia; and the largest wildfire ever engulfed a large part of Colorado.

Despite these events, we still behave as if natural disasters are outliers. Why else would we continue to build new communities near active volcanoes, on tectonically active faults, on flood plains, and in areas routinely lashed by vicious storms?

A famous historian once observed that “civilization exists by geologic consent, subject to change without notice.” In the pages of this unique book, leading geologist Susan W. Kieffer provides a primer on most types of natural disasters: earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanoes, landslides, hurricanes, cyclones, and tornadoes. By taking us behind the scenes of the underlying geology that causes them, she shows why natural disasters are more common than we realize, and that their impact on us will increase as our growing population crowds us into ever more vulnerable areas.

Kieffer describes how natural disasters result from “changes in state” in a geologic system, much as when water turns to steam. By understanding what causes these changes of state, we can begin to understand the dynamics of natural disasters.

In the book’s concluding chapter, Kieffer outlines how we might better prepare for, and in some cases prevent, future disasters. She also calls for the creation of an organization, something akin to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention but focused on pending natural disasters.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Earth’s treacherous energies are tracked in this informative, unexcitable primer on natural disasters. Geologist and MacArthur genius Kieffer, proprietor of the Geology in Motion blog, surveys a slew of spectacular cataclysms—the Tohoku earthquake, superstorm Sandy, tornadoes, volcanoes, floods, droughts, even a Martian landslide—and the scientific principles and mechanisms that generate them. She treats these varied upheavals within the unifying framework of analyzing “changes of state” that transform a seemingly placid landscape or seascape into deadly chaos: the sudden liquefaction of the ground by a quake’s tremor; the unnoticeably gentle ocean swell that piles up into a raging tsunami at the shore; the rock-face that shears off a mountainside in an eye-blink. Kieffer adroitly explains these phenomena with homespun analogies to exploding bicycle tires, ripples in a kitchen sink, and the like, and recalls her unruffled firsthand glimpses of the Mount St. Helens eruption and other disasters. There’s not a huge conceptual payoff to her grand unified theory of disasters; the particular details of how they go about devastating the world in their separate, idiosyncratic ways are more captivating than the common physical laws that underlie the mayhem. Kieffer’s measured tone doesn’t hard-sell the drama of geocatastrophe, but she presents a clear, engagingly wonky introduction to the field. 40 illus. and photos. (Oct.)
Donald Turcotte - Science
“Fast-moving, interesting… Imparts a range of knowledge of the risks of natural hazards in a relatively painless way that educates but also entertains.”
“Anyone interested in the processes that underlie catastrophic events within Earth will welcome this book, part riveting and all informative.”
The Times of London
“Kieffer's brisk and lucid presentation has some of the relish with which surgeons reputedly regale each other with tales from the operating theatre. Laid out before the reader are the suppurating wounds, scalds, tremors, and scars acquired by the Earth over millennia, centuries, decades, or minutes.”
“Photos enhance the drama of this highly accessible look at disasters.”
Discover Magazine
“Geologist Kieffer analyzes recent earthquakes and eruptions with a clear eye on improving our planning for, and response to, these inevitable events.”
Seattle Times
“If you are an amateur weather geek, disaster wonk or budding student of the earth sciences, you will want to read this book.”
The Times Higher Education
“[T]he clarity of Kieffer’s writing, coupled with her careful choice of supporting graphics, makes the content engaging and accessible to a wide readership.”
Kirkus Reviews
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.

Product Details

Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
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Barnes & Noble
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File size:
7 MB

Meet the Author

Susan W. Kieffer is a professor emerita of geology at the University of Illinois and a recipient of the MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant. She is also a member of the National Academy of Sciences. Kieffer hosts a popular blog called Geology in Motion. She lives on Whidbey Island, Washington.

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The Dynamics of Disaster 3.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Excellent book for any non-scientist who wants to understand the dynamic interplay of variables that bring about natural disasters. The author reveals stories about her life in the field while teaching the reader about waves and tsunamis, earthquakes, landslides, volcanic eruptions. The author has a vast knowledge about these subjects and is able to write about them in everyday language for the typical non-geologist reader. Recommend.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is a good topic, poorly written, with incomprehensible sentences and poorly-expressed statistics. Too bad this was such a struggle to read.