Natural disasters can bring death and destruction to communities in the United States and around the world, but they can also teach us about Earth's natural processes. Teams of scientists are gathering new information about dangerous natural events, using cutting-edge methods and technology to help people understand them better. "When Nature Strikes" is produced by NBC Learn in partnership with the National Science Foundation and The Weather Channel.
When Nature Strikes -- On the Front Lines
MARSHALL SHEPHERD reporting:
Tornadoes, floods, wildfires -- natural disasters like these bring devastation and tragedy to people every year. But they can also teach us a lot about the geological and atmospheric events that have been occurring on earth for millions of years. Supported by the National Science Foundation, scientists and researchers are working to improve our understanding of these natural hazards while advancing the frontiers of our knowledge.
From the boiling lava of a volcano, to the torrential rains that can cause a flash flood, to the ripping winds of a hurricane, natural disasters make lasting marks on the landscape and often take a heavy toll on communities and lives.
MICHAEL MANGA (University of California, Berkeley): Everything that they run into is incinerated, anyone living in their path will die.
SHEPHERD: Since the formation of our planet, these natural processes have helped to shape it. But it's not until fairly recently in Earth's history that they've affected humans, turning these often impressive displays of nature into devastating killers.
RUSS SCHUMACHER (Colorado State University): Because it happens so quickly, it can be very hazardous.
PATRICIA ROMERO-LANKAO (NCAR): People's livelihoods are affected, their houses are destroyed, and it is hard for them to come back.
SHEPHERD: The key to being better prepared for natural disasters is knowing more about them. With funding from the National Science Foundation's Directorate for Geosciences, teams of scientists are working on the front lines, gathering new information about a wide array of potentially dangerous natural events. To better understand how they form, where they'll appear, and when they'll strike.
DAVID MONTGOMERY (University of Washington): You can then map, how wet will different places be? How steep are they? And you can put that kind of information into a slope stability model to predict the places where it would take a little bit of rainfall to cause a landslide, or it would take Noah’s flood to trigger a landslide.
SHEPHERD: To achieve this, some geoscientists are looking at evidence from events in the past to predict natural disasters in the future. Like examining debris from a super-volcano that erupted hundreds of thousands of years ago. Or taking soil samples from below the surface to look at the sedimentary record of centuries-old hurricanes.
JEFF DONNELLY (Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution): It's basically like a time capsule. What happens during the hurricane is that you wash in sediment from the beach. So you’ll have this really mucky, dark sediment, and then these light sand layers that are in there, that are related to these storm events.
SHEPHERD: This information helps scientists understand not only how natural disasters behaved, but where and when they will likely occur again. Other scientists are able to utilize technologies that they've never had access to before. Cutting-edge computer models are revealing how changes in weather can determine the spread of a wildfire. Satellites are helping astrophysicists observe solar storms-- massive bursts of electromagnetic radiation from the sun that could potentially wreak havoc here on Earth.
SARAH GIBSON (National Center for Atmospheric Research): We would face blackouts, our satellites would go down, GPS, pretty much everything that we've come to depend on would go on the fritz.
SHEPHERD: Researchers are learning more every day about how natural hazards form and behave. And their predictions can help warn people about them. Such as identifying areas that may be susceptible to earthquakes.
JOHN VIDALE (University of Washington): That's really our job with our seismic network, is to prepare people for those once-a-century events that can really disrupt not only people's lives, but the whole regional economy.
SHEPHERD: Or predicting how much damage a tsunami could inflict if it strikes a coastal city. It could also lead to a better understanding of why some storms spawn tornados while others don’t.
HOWARD BLUESTEIN (University of Oklahoma): It's really important to improve our predictions, because if people hear, "Tornado warning, tornado warning, tornado warning," and there's no tornado, they're not going to pay attention to warnings.
SHEPHERD: The work that scientists are doing is also helping to inform the public. Their research goes out to civil engineers, power companies and city and state governments, to help them plan a future where we can all be less susceptible to natural hazards.
ROMERO-LANKAO: I think that we know better what needs to be done to manage these disasters. But then we need more than that. We need to know how to better communicate information in a simple way that everyone can understand.
SHEPHERD: Together, these scientists and their research are helping to expand our knowledge of Earth's natural processes and helping us prevent the next natural hazard from becoming a disaster -- when nature strikes.
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