What we know and wish we knew about volcanoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, and more: Interview with Dr. Ellen Prager

By Carly Benson

In 2015, the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction established an ambitious outcome for the global community to accomplish by 2030:

The substantial reduction of disaster risk and losses in lives, livelihoods and health and in the economic, physical, social, cultural and environmental assets of persons, businesses, communities and countries (Sendai Framework).

One of the priorities for action is to understand disaster risk. The Sendai Framework urges governments to invest in understanding risk across all its dimensions – hazard, exposure, vulnerability, capacity, and the environment – and to use this understanding to inform disaster prevention and mitigation, planning and preparedness, and to enable actors across all of society to make risk-informed decisions by ensuring non-sensitive data is freely available.

I sat down with Dr. Ellen Prager, a marine scientist, researcher, science communicator, and author of Dangerous Earth: What We Wish We Knew about Volcanoes, Hurricanes, Climate Change, Earthquakes, and More to talk about our current scientific understanding of disaster risk.

Knowns and unknowns of natural hazards

CB: In general terms, what do we know and not know about major hazards such as floods, fires, earthquakes, and hurricanes?

EP: I spoke with numerous scientists while researching this book, from glaciologists to volcanologists to seismologists and beyond, and there were a few common threads across hazards. First off, much of the information we have is through indirect research. You can’t see first-hand inside tectonic faults, inside the “plumbing” of a volcano, or under a glacier. Technology is improving and we are just getting to the point of being able to peek underneath an ice shelf or glacier, but in general, we have to use indirect evidence to understand these hazards. Sometimes, this means relying on geological records because no one was around the last time glaciers melted or a supervolcano erupted.

That said, scientists increasingly understand the mechanisms behind these hazards and the risks they create for people and communities. We have a pretty good idea of how a hazard such as an earthquake or volcanic eruption or hurricane happens, and we know where they are most likely to happen. Hazard mapping has come a long way in this regard.

But the big missing piece is exactly when. When will a hazard strike? How fast will it happen, how bad will it be? That’s what we’re not so good at yet. For seismologists, the quest to be able to forecast or issue an early warning for earthquakes is sometimes called the “holy grail”, but this is true across most hazards: volcanoes, tsunamis, floods, fires, heatwaves, sea level rise, etc.

The question of “when” was especially striking as I spoke to climate change scientists. Across the board, they said the impacts of climate change are happening faster than they expected, even knowing their models and estimates are generally conservative. To me, this was the most alarming part of these discussions. Wildfires, heatwaves, storms with huge amounts of precipitation, ocean warming, ice sheets melting – the extreme impacts of climate change are happening much faster than anticipated.

CB: To what extent is climate change affecting our understanding of other hazards, such as floods, storm surges, wildfires, etc.? Have risk assessments based on historical data become obsolete?

EP: We have to start with historical data to see where the risks are the greatest, and as a starting point to understand how hazards behave. That said, the risks we face are unprecedented and the pace of change is so fast, we have to realize the impacts we’re going to see will be more extreme.

Taking action

CB: Does the focus on continuously improving our understanding of risk distract from taking action? Do we know enough yet to act?

EP: Yes! In most cases, there’s plenty of science and we know enough to plan, to prepare our homes and communities, and to respond. But science is an evolving process, so we need to take an adaptive approach: as we learn more, we shift how we prepare.

For a long time, scientists spent their effort on research, trying to understand hazards and risks. But in writing this book, I saw a shift in which scientists are stepping out of an objective role and saying, “we know enough to prepare and act.”

As scientists – and policymakers too – we don’t necessarily understand how best to get people to take action. We struggle to get people the information they need in the medium most appropriate for them: Not everyone is online, or speaks English, or watches the Weather Channel. This is where physical scientists need to work with social scientists, behavioural economists, and other professionals in communications and emergency management. How do we get the right information to people in the right way so they can and do take action?

Communication connects the scientific understanding of risks and risk assessments with hazard warnings and forecasts. Too often, it’s the missing link. Because just producing data is not enough – there are so many platforms and databases and portals and websites with data. But interpreting that data, helping people to access the information they need when they need it in a way that makes sense and enables them to act, that’s where we have to improve.

Risk communication: The missing link

CB: In Dangerous Earth, you share a story of the eruption of the Nevado del Ruiz volcano in Colombia in 1985. As the volcano became more active, scientists wanted to warn the public of the increased risk but officials downplayed it, partially out of concern for “real estate devaluation”. Tragically, two months later a major eruption killed more than 23,000 people. I was struck by how similar this is to current debates in Canada about disclosing flood risk to the public, for fear it could impact real estate prices. What would you counsel governments weighing the potential economic impact of disclosing risk against the threat to people and communities?

EP: This problem is not unique to Canada. California is facing cliffside erosion, storms, and rising sea levels. Florida has storm surges and hurricanes. Wildfires, floods – governments around the world are grappling with these questions. But we can’t let fear – or politics – compromise our ability to plan and prepare for disasters.

We have to talk about what we know and what possible solutions are. I recently saw a survey for communities in Florida, where I live, about coastal retreat. In the survey, 40% of people said they would be willing to move if the sea level rise and storm surge were going to get worse in the next few years. We can’t underestimate the ability of people – once they understand the risks to themselves, to their families and homes, to the things they care about – to be rational and want to take action.

I recently also attended a workshop on coastal retreat, and the number one thing community members said to the government officials leading the workshop was that it has to be two-way communication. If it’s managed retreat (as in, managed by the government), then people aren’t interested. But they are willing to talk about assisted retreat, where governments help and communities work together. And this, I think, is key. We have to get communities involved early on, and we need to talk about solutions.

CB: If you could change one thing about how we are advancing the Sendai priority of understanding disaster risk, what would it be?

EP: We need to get better at communication. There are thousands of portals of data, but people don’t know what the data mean. They don’t know where to look for the right data for different hazards. We need a platform that allows experts to collaborate with decision-makers and community members in real time to help them interpret the data, to understand what it means for them, and to take action.

Dave Jones of StormCenter Communications has created a platform called GeoCollaborate designed to do exactly that, to bring data together with expert interpretation, easy access and foster collaboration, but we need the numerous federal agencies involved in different aspects of hazard and risk science to invest and make it happen.

Let’s not underestimate people’s ability to act once they understand the potential impacts to them and their families.


Dr. Ellen Prager is a marine scientist and author who is passionate about oceans, the environment, and helping people understand science. She has written numerous books, including Dangerous Earth: What We Wish We Knew about Volcanoes, Hurricanes, Climate Change, Earthquakes, and More. Her current project uses the wacky questions she and other scientists often get as a lighthearted way to address misinformation about oceans and climate change. For example: Should you pee on a jellyfish sting? You’ll have to wait for the book to find out (just kidding – don’t do it! You could make it worse, and there’s some fascinating chemistry as to why).

Carly Benson is an emergency management professional who has worked for municipalities in Alberta and British Columbia during large-scale response and recovery operations. She also studies disaster recovery as an academic and is passionate about how to improve recovery processes and outcomes for communities.