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Geoscientist Online

Playing Against Nature

SteinBooks about natural disasters and disaster mitigation tend to focus either on their scientific or political/economic aspects.  Thus, earthquakes are considered either as geological and seismological phenomena or as risks to lives, property and urban infrastructure. 

Playing Against Nature impressively integrates both aspects.  Seth Stein is a seismologist - professor of geological sciences at Northwestern University - with a keen interest in US public policy towards earthquakes; Jerome Stein (father of Seth) was, until his death, an academic economist with an interest in science.  Their book, the product of many years’ interaction, is a textbook intended for upper-level undergraduate or graduate courses, which will also appeal to instructors, researchers and practitioners interested in geoscience, engineering, economics or policy issues relevant to natural hazards.  Although the emphasis is on earthquakes, the authors cover other natural hazards.  Some chapters involve considerable mathematics, but this is seldom crucial to their argument.

Among their many questions for discussion is the risk from Italy’s Mount Vesuvius.  “Since the last eruption in 1944, the Bay of Naples region has been a hotbed of construction—much of it unplanned and illegal—that has hugely increased the number of people living in the danger zone of the volcano” they note.  Millions may be affected by the next eruption, especially those living in the zona rossa (red zone).  The Italian authorities are considering the idea of paying these people to relocate.  “How would you formulate and evaluate such plans?”

Another question concerns earthquake risk in the US Midwest.  In January 2011, the US Department of Homeland Security’s Federal Management Agency (FEMA) issued a call to vendors to provide meals for a survivor population of seven million in the event of a repeat of the severe Missouri earthquakes of 1811-12, one of which temporarily reversed the course of the Mississippi River.  This invitation was promptly cancelled, without explanation, when the news media showed interest.  “Estimate how much FEMA was planning to spend.  What questions would you have asked if you were in the news media?”

Seth Stein’s view, strongly advocated in the media since the 2011 bicentenary, is that a repeat is extremely unlikely, on the basis of his team’s GPS-based regional strain measurements.  Money would be far better spent on improving local education and health care than on seismic retrofitting of buildings in Memphis, says Stein.  Other seismologists are less sure.  Read Playing Against Nature and make up your own mind about such risks and society’s most valid response.

Reviewed by Andrew Robinson*

*Author of Earthshock and Earthquake: Nature and Culture.


Published by: The American Geophysical Union and Wiley 260pp (hbk) ISBN: 9781118620823 List Price: £45.00.  W: