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Partnering for a less hazardous planet: Interview with Professor John Rundle


"Since more than 30% of the worlds' populations will live within seismically active zones within a few decades, it is clear that knowledge about natural disasters needs to be far more widely disseminated and understood than it has been to date. Who would have thought that New York city would be devastated by hurricane Sandy? That the Tohoku earthquake would make a measurable impact on the global economy?"

John Rundle is a Distinguished Professor at the University of California, Davis, and a thought leader in earthquake sciences.

He is also an External Professor at the Sante Fe Institute, New Mexico; Director of the California Institute for Hazard Research of the University of California; Executive Director of the APEC Cooperation for Earthquake Simulation (ACES); and Chairman of the Open Hazards Group, a team dedicated to reducing the impacts of natural disasters. Prof Rundle attended the APRU Multi-hazards Symposium at Tohoku University, Japan.

Being situated in the Pacific Ring of Fire, all APRU universities face the common threat of earthquakes and tsunamis. What do you think are the opportunities for APRU universities to partner to address this shared threat?

The APRU universities are the world's leading repositories of knowledge and expertise for strategies, technologies, and data for confronting these devastating natural hazards. In addition, these universities will train the great majority of the next generation of intellectual leaders in the required areas of science and technologies. That being said, no university by itself has all of the needed expertise. For that reason, collaboration is mandatory. Where one university is comparatively weaker, another may be stronger. What has been missing is the scientific and technological framework, together with the institutional structure to allow this collaboration to develop and succeed. This is where the APRU contribution will be critically important.

What do you think is the potential utility to APRU universities if projects like www.openhazards.com website was expanded around the Pacific Rim as a collaborative APRU project?

The openhazards.com site is an open-access web site offering apps (applications) for personal seismic hazard forecasting, residential risk assessment, and other types of information and personal risk management utilities for the global public. Recently we have introduced social networking on the site, so that site visitors can define their own groups, upload photos, and originate discussion threads among groups of people. While intended as a disaster reduction resource for the general public, it is also highly useful as a means for collaboration among professional groups such as the APRU multihazards initiative. Unlike sites such as Facebook, which is not available in some APEC economies including China, and which has other aims, openhazards is meant to be a site primarily for those interested in disaster mitigation and reduction, providing apps in the form of tools and information to a global audience. While initially built as a site with disaster related apps, openhazards is now evolving into a social networking platform that is hosting and will host an increasing number of disaster-related apps for information and mitigation. We believe that a site such as openhazards can significantly and positively impact the problem of collaboration among these far-flung groups, and lead to modes of remote cooperation and collaboration not previously possible.

Takenoura 2

(Above: A part of a sunken dock at Takenoura after the 2011 tsunami. Photo courtesy: John Rundle)

Given the global trends in severity and frequency of natural disasters over the past decade – from the Aceh tsunami, to the Haiti earthquake to the Japan tsunami - do you think we are at an academic crossroads where knowledge generation in natural hazards should become an integral part of higher education strategies, rather than an option related to specific disciplinary backgrounds?

Natural hazards affect all of us. As human populations increasingly move into at-risk areas, due to population growth and economic factors, human society is increasingly vulnerable to catastrophes. An example of these is global warming, which will put coastal areas at risk due to rising sea levels. Another example is tsunamis, such as the events of March 11, 2011 and of December 26, 2004. And since more than 30% of the worlds' populations will live within seismically active zones within a few decades, it is clear that knowledge about natural disasters needs to be far more widely disseminated and understood than it has been to date. Who would have thought that New York city would be devastated by hurricane Sandy? It is clear that everyone needs to be aware of the destructive potential of natural events. And who would have thought that the Tohoku earthquake would make a measurable (negative) impact on the global economy? So yes, knowledge of natural hazards is no longer optional, but rather needs to be a strong component of higher education strategies. 

Can you share with us your experiences working with the APEC Cooperation for Earthquake Simulation (ACES) and how such collaborations are influencing regional earthquake/hazard policy with APEC?

ACES (http://quakes.earth.uq.edu.au/) was proposed by Peter Mora at the University of Queensland in 1997, and was approved at the APEC ISTWG meeting in Singapore that year, having been sponsored by the Australian economy. The original partner economies, along with Australia, were China, Japan, and the United States. Since then, the economies of Canada, Chinese Taipei, and New Zealand have joined and regularly participate. Officially sanctioned meetings have been organized by the various economies since 1998, the most recent being in Maui, HI, Oct 23-26, 2012, hosted by the United States. In the years ACES group has been meeting, we have found that we have a great number of common interests and there have been exchanges of codes, scientists, and students. However, one of the modes that needs some further consideration and development is the mechanisms of collaboration , inasmuch as the research groups are separated by many thousands of miles around the Pacific Rim. Travel among these locations has been and will always be a significant detriment to collaboration among these far-flung groups. This has led our group to develop a new approach, utilizing new social networking ideas, as described below. Another requirement that has become apparent is the need for a more permanent, overarching structure or umbrella organization under which to operate. This requirement motivates the ACES interest collaborating with the APRU muiltihazards initiative to move both research organizations forward.

We know that climate change already poses unprecedented threats to the global population and environment. On top of this, what impacts can earthquakes have on the broader adaptation/mitigation debate, based on your studies of earthquake behavior?

It has been said that because climate change is gradual, it may be possible to adapt in certain ways. However, great disasters such as the Tohoku earthquake have often been unanticipated, making disaster response extremely challenging. While humans may be able to adapt to climate change, they can only respond to sudden great disasters, and must therefore rely on mitigation strategies.

Within the next decades, more than a third of the world's populations will live in seismically active zones. As the great Tohoku earthquake indicated, these great disasters will have an increasingly measureable impact on the global economy, not to mention the considerable loss of life and property. Many of these seismically active regions lie along global coastlines, and are thus economically critical to the continuation of international trade and economic development. Coastlines cannot be abandoned, so new types of strategies must be developed that allow economies to grow and respond to great coastal and earthquake disasters. Only the APRU universities have the intellectual capability to develop and formulate strategies to implement these approaches.


(Above: A building sits on its side after the 2011 tsunami in Japan.)

Can you tell us a bit about new approaches that you and your research group are taking in forecasting or managing hazard and risk?

Our forecasting approaches are explained in a series of publications in the peer-reviewed literature over the past decade, the most recent of which has been published in the prestigious journal Physical Review E* [1]. Basically we use small earthquakes to forecast the probability of large earthquakes. In addition, a more general and probably more accessible description can be found at http://www.openhazards.com/topics-forecasts.

*J.B. Rundle, J.R. Holliday, W.R. Graves, D.L. Turcotte, K.F. Tiampo and W. Klein, Probabilities for large events in driven threshold systems, Phys. Rev. E, 86, 021106 (2012)                                                     



16 January 2013