EARTH Magazine: How Much Natural Hazard Mitigation Is Enough?

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EARTH Magazine: How Much Natural Hazard Mitigation Is Enough?


Megan Sever (


Alexandria, Va. — Hurricane Sandy struck the U.S. East Coast in October 2012, leaving about $65 billion of damage in its wake and raising the question of how to mitigate the damage from future storms. It’s a question that arises in the wake of most natural disasters: What steps can society take to protect itself from storms, floods, landslides, earthquakes, tsunamis or volcanic eruptions? But the question itself illustrates the complexity of preparing for natural disasters.

Our first instincts might be to protect ourselves as well as possible, but reality sets in quickly: Society has finite resources. Resources used to mitigate potential hazards are not available for other purposes. For example, funding higher levees to reduce flooding competes with plans to improve highways. And money spent making school buildings earthquake-resistant cannot be used to hire teachers. Communities thus face the fundamental question of deciding how much mitigation is enough.

Prioritizing is always hard, but it is especially difficult for natural hazards, because of the scientific inability to forecast the future. But prioritizing is not impossible, says Seth Stein, author of  “Playing Against Nature: Integrating Science and Economics to Mitigate Natural Hazards in an Uncertain World” and the Deering Professor of Geological Sciences at Northwestern University. Formulating natural hazard policy should involve combining science and economics to analyze a problem and explore different options, recognizing that the future is uncertain. Read more about the ways to figure out the optimal amount of mitigation in the December issue of EARTH magazine:

For more stories about the science of our planet, check out EARTH magazine online or subscribe at The December issue, now available on the digital newsstand, features stories on a huge set of dinosaur tracks found in Alaska, hundreds of methane seeps found along the U.S. East Coast, and snow triggering earthquakes on Mount Rainier, plus much, much more. Be sure not to miss  the year-end musings of EARTH staff and contributors as well!


Keep up to date with the latest happenings in Earth, energy and environment news with EARTH magazine online at: Published by the American Geosciences Institute, EARTH is your source for the science behind the headlines.

The American Geosciences Institute is a nonprofit federation of 49 geoscientific and professional associations that represents more than 250,000 geologists, geophysicists and other earth scientists. Founded in 1948, AGI provides information services to geoscientists, serves as a voice of shared interests in the profession, plays a major role in strengthening geoscience education, and strives to increase public awareness of the vital role the geosciences play in society's use of resources, resiliency to natural hazards, and interaction with the environment.