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London Lecture: Inequality in global earthquake risk today

24 May 2017
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The Geological Society, Burlington House, London
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This has already been a shocking century for natural disasters, with over half-a-million people killed in earthquakes in Gujarat (2001), Iran (2003), Sumatra (2004), Pakistan (2005), China (2008) and Haiti (2010). 

Moreover, in the last few decades several devastating earthquakes have apparently targeted population centres in otherwise sparsely inhabited regions, particularly in Asia.  A close examination of this situation reveals that ancient settlements are often located for reasons to do with water supply, access, strategic defence 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 with several million people. But their growth has, in general, not been accompanied by any reduction in exposure to earthquake hazard.  It is this close relation between where people live and geology that leads to the apparent bulls-eye targeting of cities by earthquakes. As a result, we should expect many more disasters this century, 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, but there are some inspiring stories and examples from recent earthquakes in Japan, Nepal and even Italy, which suggest ways in which scientists, decision-makers and government can work together to enhance public safety.


James Jackson, (Professor of Active Tectonics and former Head of the Department of Earth Sciences in the University of Cambridge)

James was born and raised in India, which established his interest in all aspects of Asia, 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 the powerful range of satellite-based techniques now available, combined with observations of the landscape in the field, to study how the continents develop and deform on all scales, from the movement that occurs in individual earthquakes to the evolution of mountain belts.  His field work has taken him to many parts of Asia, the Mediterranean, Africa, New Zealand and North America. 

He is increasingly involved in how to use the insights obtained by geologists to reduce the appalling risk from earthquakes to populations in developing countries, and currently leads a project called ‘Earthquakes Without Frontiers’ which is a consortium of researchers in UK universities and other institutions, working in partnership with independent earthquake scientists and social scientists in countries throughout the great earthquake belt between Italy and China.

One of its aims is to improve earthquake science and earthquake risk reduction through the exchange of knowledge, information, techniques and data between partner countries.   

In 1995 he delivered the Royal Institution/BBC Christmas Lectures on 'Planet Earth: an Explorer's Guide'.  He has been elected a Fellow of the Royal Society and the American Geophysical Union, and is also a Fellow of Queens' College, Cambridge. 

In 2015 he was awarded a CBE and also the Wollaston Medal of the Geological Society of London.


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