Skip to main content
Earth sciences

Earth sciences

The underlying physics of natural hazards

03 Jul 2017 James Dacey

Natural hazards threaten lives and livelihoods across the globe and can result in huge financial costs. Despite significant progress in understanding hazards, we are still feeling powerless and inadequate in the aftermath of destructive events, which can strike with little warning and often affect vulnerable communities. One of the core missions of the US Geological Survey (USGS) is to conduct research into a range of natural hazards so that the public and policymakers can be better prepared for these events.

At the Menlo Park Science Center in California, USGS scientists are engaged in a range of basic and applied research. In our first video (above), geophysicist Eric Geist explains his studies into the mechanics of tsunamis – giant waves that can wreak havoc on coastal communities and infrastructure. Geist is particularly interested in tsunamis triggered by earthquakes occurring at subduction zones on the seafloor, regions where oceanic plates slides underneath continental plates.

One of the other major hazards affecting the west coast of the US is the threat of large earthquakes. Often they occur along the San Andreas fault, which forms the tectonic boundary between the Pacific Plate and the North American Plate. In our second video (below), you can take a look inside a couple of different earthquake labs at Menlo Park. Brian Kilgore spends his days triggering mini earthquakes on a bench-top and examining their characteristics. Meanwhile, David Lockner works in the rock deformation and friction laboratory where he recreates the conditions in the Earth under which earthquakes occur. This often involves subjecting rock samples to extreme pressures and temperatures and examining how they respond.

To find out more about the science of natural hazards, check out the July issue of Physics World, a special issue that includes feature articles on wildfires, tornadoes and “slow” earthquakes. Physics World‘s editor Matin Durrani introduces that special issue on our blog.

Copyright © 2022 by IOP Publishing Ltd and individual contributors