Fall 2017: Natural Hazards and Disasters

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Natural Hazards and Disasters

Courses: OEAS 250N (CRN 18872); three credits; and OEAS 250N (CRN 18879), 1 Credit
Course title: Natural Hazards and Disasters
Instructor: Dr. Hans-Peter Plag
Term: Fall 2017, August 28 - December 12, 2017
Time: Mondays and Wednesday, 3:00 PM - 4:15 PM and Wednesday, 2:00 PM -2:55 PM
Location: DRGS 2106
Office Hours: On request.

Course description

The course and the lab introduce some of Earth's natural phenomena that can, and often do, result in major loss of life or catastrophic damage to property. These phenomena are considered in their relevance to major national and international efforts to manage and reduce disaster risk and increase societal sustainability. Students in the course and lab develop and enhance their research, analysis, critical thinking, and writing skills. The course and lab are suitable for first and second year undergraduate students considering a career in science, teaching, and governance, or who are just interested to know more about the planet on which they live.

Course expectations

At the end of this course and lab, students should understand the basics of a variety of environmental phenomena that can cause major disruptions to human and non-human populations, the Earth's life-support system, and, in the case of human communities, cities and infrastructure. They should be able to distinguish between the hazards and the processes that can lead to disasters in the human and non-human environment. Students should be able to research the relevant data, describe the phenomena based on evidence, understand the uncertainties inherent in complex systems, and critique discussions of hazards and disasters that are presented in the media.


There are no prerequisite courses, but you are expected to have reached the Commonwealth of Virginia standards-of-learning in high school math, science, and writing. Regular class and lab attendance is required as some of the information will only be provided during class and lab.

Course Contents

Humanity is embedded in, and interacts with, the Earth's life-support system (ELSS). The ELSS provides the basis for the welfare of all human and non-human communities, and these communities are adapted to prevailing conditions. Hazardous events can change these conditions and cause damage to the communities, with the impacts ranging from local, individual to global scales. For humans, reducing disasters caused by hazards is a goal and a necessity to improve sustainability of human communities. Disaster reduction, or better, Disaster Risk Governance (DRG), requires a thorough understanding of the hazards that can occur, the probability of them occurring, and the processes that can lead to disastrous impacts on human and non-human communities.

Although the class and lab are titled “Natural hazards and disasters,” it needs to be emphasized that the distinction between natural and anthropogenic hazards is somewhat arbitrary. It would work if humans were in a spaceship and Earth was free of humans. The fact that humanity is an integral part of the ELSS and is modifying the ELSS at a very significant level leads to many hazards that seem to be “natural” but are actually to some extent caused or amplified by humans.

In the class and lab, we define a hazard as a change of the system state that can lead to a reduction of the system's capability to function. A hazard can be a short event (e.g., an earthquake), a longer process (e.g., extinction), or a slow trend (e.g., sea level rise). We distinguish:

  • extraterrestrial hazards: asteroids, bolides, radiation events, and solar storms
  • geo(logical) hazards: those that arise mainly from processes in the solid earth;
  • hydro-meteorological hazards: those that are associated with processes in the coupled hydrosphere-atmosphere system;
  • biological hazards: pandemics, rodents, insects, algae-bloom, extinction;
  • chemical hazards: changes in major flows of the ELSS leading to changes in the composition of atmosphere, ocean, soil, water (including pollution, acid rain, ocean acidification, change of greenhouse gases);
  • technological hazards: accidents, mal-function, AI, nano-technology;
  • social hazards: involuntary migration, unrest, racism, genocide, wars, imperialism, failed governance
  • economic hazards: depressions, bubbles, speculations, peak-oil, etc.

The class will introduce these hazards and discuss their direct and indirect relevance for human and non-human communities. A useful concept for assessing the relevance is “Risk”, which utilizes the “Probability Density Function” (PDF) of the hazard. Main focus will be on hazards with pre-dominantely non-human origin. In the lab, exercises will be used to go into more details and responding to questions will help to review what was discussed in class.

The boundary between hazards of non-human and human origin is blured. Technological hazards can be triggered by non-technological hazards. Human activity can trigger hazards or change the spectrum of hazards in terms of frequency and magnitude. Human activity can also lead to the ELSS crossing thresholds and entering new states with significantly different characteristics and mal-adaptation. The interdependency of human and non-human hazards will be discussed in detail.

Hazards and disasters are linked by processes in the exposed community and its environment that are triggered by a hazardous event. These processes depend on how the community is organized and developed, and the same hazardous event can lead to a wide range of disasters depending on the exposed community's preparedness and adaptation. Understanding the processes that link hazards and disasters is a prerequisite for DRG. The class will analyze these processes based on case studies.

In the interaction with the ELSS, humans have to make choices about where to settle, how to develop communities and the built environment, how to meet the needs of human communities, and how to prepare for hazardous events. Many of these choices benefit from a risk-based decision-making. For many of the non-human hazards, we cannot change very much the PDF of the hazard, but we can impact vulnerability and exposure of human communities. The concept of DRG captures this. Risk associated with a specific hazard is defined as the product of hazard probability, vulnerability and value of the assets exposed to the hazard. The class will introduce the concept of DRG and apply to case studies.

Disaster risk assessments are an important tool to guide community actions to reduce or govern the risk. However, public and governmental support for DRG depends on risk awareness, which is determined by individual, community, country and cultural biases. In modern societies, the media play an important role for the development of, as well as the biases in, risk awareness. The class will review a number of risk assessments and relate them to risk awareness. The role of the media in shaping risk awareness will be analyzed.

Work Skills and Collaboration

You must be able to access Blackboard and the class web page at http://www.mari-odu.org/academics/2017f_disasters on a daily basis. Assignment details, course materials, schedule changes, and other important information will be posted at the class web page regularly. Please visit the course website for detailed weekly course information.

Exam schedules and grades will be available on the class page on Blackboard.

From time to time you will be asked to research and bring specific content (e.g., published facts, evidence, sources) to the class. Do not assume that this content will be provided for you if you fail to complete the assignment.

Collaboration is expressly permitted, encouraged, and may even be required for team projects, but must follow these guidelines:

  • You must actively participate in the collaborative project;
  • You must write your own individual report on any team project work;
  • All team members’ names must be included in any written project work;
  • You must understand the material and be able to answer questions on it.

Text book

Access to a digital text will be supplied to students at no cost. All necessary information for the course, including the reading list and homework are posted here: http://www.mari-odu.org/academics/2017f_disasters. Students must bring a laptop, mobile phone, tablet, or other device for internet access to every class.

You are responsible for reading and complying with all information posted.


The course combines lectures with exercises and project work. There are weekly reading assignments, up to five blocks of questions to be answered in writing, several lab exercises, three case study papers, and a midterm and final exam.

The course will be graded on an A to F scale. You will be graded on a standard scale:
100-90% =A
89.9-80% =B
79.9-70% =C
69.9-60% =D
59.9% and below=F.

The overall grad for the class and lab will be composed of individual grades using:
Class and lab participation 5%
Written Case Study reports (3 of them) 40%
Question sets (5 of them) 25%
. There will be additional exercises that count for 5%
Mid term exam 10%
Final exam 15%.
There will be the opportunity to get special credits, which are added to the total points obtained.

University regulations prohibit communicating test results via email or by phone. If you wish to talk about your grade, please make an appointment. All scores will be placed on BlackBoard as soon as possible after they are graded.

Grade forgiveness policy:

Missed question sets or exams may only be made up for valid reasons such as: participation in ODU sports team events (a coach's note is needed), evidence of illness (doctor's or Student Health Services' note needed), bereavement of an immediate family member (death notice needed), or documented court appearance (copy of notice to appear needed). Advance notice in writing must be given whenever possible.

Late assignments or reports will be graded on a reduced point scale as follows:
up to 24 hrs late = 90%
up to 48 hrs late = 80%

A further 10% per day reduction in possible points earned will be applied, up to a maximum total of 5 days late, after which the assignment will not be accepted without evidence that the student was sick or there was a family emergency.