Tornadoes sweep through central Kansas. Mudslides bury a neighborhood in Guatemala. A tsunami triggers a nuclear meltdown at a power station in Japan. Every day, the news brings fresh reminders of the great dangers our planet can unleash with little warning. The dangers remain, even as researchers slowly unpack the secrets behind volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, tropical storms, and other natural hazards. That knowledge can reveal new threats, such as the planet-changing possibility of volcanic supereruptions or collisions with mountain-sized bodies from space. However, this information also leads to better tools for studying natural hazards and estimating where, how often, and how fiercely they are likely to strike.
Our increasingly sophisticated toolbox is helping us understand the physical processes driving hazards such as large and damaging earthquakes; track tropical cyclones to project how increasing temperatures might change these powerful storms; provide much-needed warnings of volcanoes, landslides, and tsunamis; and recover from catastrophic events when they occur. These tools now allow researchers to analyze data collected as disasters occur, including the recent collapse of the Bárdarbunga caldera in Iceland.
The ways in which communities prepare and respond to potential disasters are also becoming more sophisticated. Social media allows for rapid dissemination of information before and during a disaster. Although social scientists sometimes face challenges in interpreting the digital record of these events, they may provide a valuable insight into an effective response. Communities that face risks from natural hazards benefit from investing time and effort into preparing for unlikely yet unavoidable events.
This special package explores some of the ways people are learning to assess risks, lessen dangers, and repair the damage from disasters that elude or breach our defenses. We will continue to highlight important research and news on our Natural Hazards topic page. Natural hazards will never go away, but we can always become better prepared for the inevitable.
Additional articles in our Natural Hazards feature package:
- Here’s how the world could end—and what we can do about it
- These disaster machines could help humanity prepare for cataclysms
- Blogging the danger—and sometimes the art—of deadly landslides
- Review on Historical trends of tropical cyclone tracks by A. H. Sobel et al. and related Interactive graphic display of tropical cyclone tracks from 1980-2014
- Review on global trends in satellite-based emergency mapping by S. Voigt et al.
- Review on connecting slow earthquakes to huge earthquakes by K. Obara and A. Kato
- Editorial on hazards without disasters by M. McNutt
- Natural Hazards topic page
- Podcast: The science of the apocalypse
Video images: Twisting tornado looms over central Kansas; Chile’s Calbuco volcano spews ash and lava in 2015; Meteor Crater, in Arizona, marks the site of a 50,000-year-old asteroid crash; storm chasers study an approaching tornado; aftermath of landslide triggered by 2008 Tangjiashan earthquake in southwest China; lava from Sicily’s Piano del Lago volcano outshines the lights of Catania below.