Surviving Natural Disasters


Twenty First Annual Darwin College Lecture Series 2006


Lecture 5   :   17 February

James Jackson

Cambridge University




This has already been a shocking century for natural disasters, with many tens of thousands of people killed in earthquakes in Gujurat (2001), Iran (2003), Sumatra (2004) and Pakistan (2005). Moreover, in the last few decades several devestating earthquakes have apparently targeted population centres in otherwise sparsely inhabited regions, particularly in Asia. A close examination of this situation reveals that ancient settlments are often located for reasons to do with water supply, access, strategic defense or controlling positions on trade routes, and that these considerations are, in turn often controlled by natural geological phenomena, particularly features of the landscape that are created by earthquakes. What were originally small villages grow into towns, then cities, and now mega-cities of with several million people. But their growth has, in general, not been accompanied by any reduction in earthquake hazard. It is this close relation between where people live and earthquakes that leads to the apparent bulls-eye targeting of cities by earthquakes. As a result, we should expect many more disasters this cetury, some of which will be far worse, in terms of mortality, than those we have already seen. At the same time, earthquakes in the developed world have largely become stories about economic loss, rather than loss of life. An earthquake of moderate-size can kill 40,000 in Iran (at Bam in 2003) but only a handful in California. The question of what to do with the huge populations concentrated in earthquake-prone mega-cities of the developing world is one of the most pressing of our time, and has no easy solution.



James Jackson is Professor of Active Tectonics in the Department of Earth Sciences, University of Cambridge. He was born and raised in India, which probably established his interest in all aspects of Asia, which is where much of his research has been concentrated. After a first degree in Geology, he obtained a Ph.D. in Geophysics, using earthquakes to study the processes that produce the major surface features of the continents, such as mountain belts and basins. In addition to seismology, his current research uses space-based remote sensing (including radar interferometry, GPS measurements and optical imagery) combined with observations of the landscape in the field, to study the evolution and deformation of the continents on all scales, from the movement of individual faults in earthquakes to the evolution of mountain belts. Much of this effort takes place with collaborators in the COMET group ( His field work has taken him to many parts of Asia, the Mediterranean, Africa, New Zealand and North America. In 1995 he delivered the Royal Institution/BBC Christmas Lectures on 'Planet Earth: an Explorer's Guide'. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society, the American Geophysical Union, and Queens' College, Cambridge. 

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