Each year, in the U.S. and around the globe, earthquakes, storms, volcanic eruptions and other natural disasters claim lives and leave thousands displaced. They destroy property, devastate communities and strain social systems ranging from healthcare to food supplies.
From 2008–2018, natural disasters caused $850 billion of economic losses in the U.S. and $1.5 trillion around the world. In 2017 alone, wildfires raged in California while Hurricane Harvey flooded parts of Texas, Hurricane Irma carved a path of destruction through the Southeast, and Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Dominica. Of the disasters that struck that year, 16 cost the U.S. a total of $306 billion.
NSF supports researchers studying hurricanes, floods, wildfires, earthquakes, coastal erosion, severe thunderstorms and tornadoes, volcanoes, space weather disruption of the power grid, and more.
This September saw another reminder of the danger that disasters pose as Hurricane Dorian tore through the Bahamas, leaving scores dead and thousands homeless before sweeping up the U.S. East Coast and into Eastern Canada.
Natural disasters can’t be stopped. But for decades, researchers supported by the National Science Foundation have worked to find ways to minimize their impact. In partnership with other federal agencies and institutions, NSF supports researchers studying hurricanes, floods, wildfires, earthquakes, coastal erosion, severe thunderstorms and tornadoes, volcanoes, space weather disruption of the power grid, and more.
This month, #BroughtToYouByNSF is highlighting that work.
NSF supports researchers who work to improve disaster forecasting — including weather and seismic events. NSF-funded scientists model disaster scenarios and study how humans respond when disasters strike. They invent new tools to improve disaster preparedness and response, from advanced computer simulations to platforms that can recreate extreme conditions such as quaking ground or high winds on a laboratory scale.
And when disasters strike, NSF–funded researchers are there. NSF rapid response grants support researchers going to disaster zones to collect information that provides clues for dealing with future catastrophes.
Projects supported by NSF ask questions that go beyond a disaster’s immediate impact, exploring the long–term ecological costs of extreme events. What happens to plant and animal communities when their populations wash away? What happens to coral reefs when they’re crushed by waves and flooded with freshwater runoff? What happens to plant pollination when bee habitats have been destroyed?
Examples of critical NSF–supported findings abound. In the 60 hours before Hurricane Irma made landfall in Florida, NSF–funded researchers surveyed more than 1,600 Floridians to better understand what drives decisions to go or stay in the face of an oncoming disaster. They found that people took actions based largely on personal factors, not the recommendations of emergency response agencies — and the collection of these data will help shape new disaster response efforts and communications.
Flooding is the most common natural disaster. An NSF–funded collaboration among social scientists, engineers and ecologists is creating open source technologies to better understand floodplain ecology. This research will help build communities with hazard–resilient infrastructure and ready–to–go disaster response processes.
When Villarrica, a volcano in south–central Chile erupted in 2015 and prompted evacuations of nearby communities, NSF–supported researchers were there. They recorded “infrasound,” the low–frequency tones volcanoes produce. Based on the characteristics of these sound waves, researchers can now monitor and study volcanoes from a safe distance. The results could help save the lives and property of those near active volcanoes.
In an earthquake, structures are subject to extreme forces that can cause extensive damage. NSF–funded researchers are investigating the performance of infrastructure designed to survive earthquakes with minimal damage, requiring only minor repairs. This new infrastructure could save millions of dollars and countless lives, the ultimate goal of NSF’s natural hazards–related programs.
Through research across fields from engineering and ecology to geosciences and social sciences, NSF is supporting the creation of tools and techniques that will save lives and protect property. Disaster preparedness — Brought to You by NSF.