Natural Disasters

Natural disasterNatural disasters, also referred to as natural hazards, are extreme, sudden events caused by environmental factors such as storms, floods, droughts, fires and heatwaves. Natural disasters are now occurring with increasing severity, scope and impact. When we explore natural disasters in the context of planetary health, we are utilizing a systems-thinking approach to grasp the complexities and anthropogenic drivers relating a given disaster to causes and effects. 

Globally, twice as many people were affected by natural disasters in the 1990s vs. in the 1980s, and global annual economic losses from extreme events increased 10-fold over the past four decades. Heat waves, droughts, fires, floods, tropical storms, and other natural disasters pose long-term health consequences. For example, particulate matter from fires reduces air quality and causes morbidity and mortality from cardiorespiratory disease; flooding can cause biological contamination of water supplies, displacement and trauma; more intense coastal storms, combined with sea level rise and loss of coastal barrier systems (mangrove forests, vegetated dunes, coral reefs, and wetlands), generate a “triple threat” for inhabitants of low-lying coastal areas. Survivors of natural disasters face serious, yet poorly understood, physical and mental health impacts. It must be a priority to investigate trends in exposure to natural hazards, which populations are most vulnerable, and effective practices for reducing vulnerability.

Learning Objectives

  • L1: To identify and explain the anthropogenic drivers of increasingly severe natural disasters.
  • L2: To relate the potential direct and indirect impacts of different disasters, assessing the different settings and scales in which they occur.
  • L3: To examine local, regional and global actions that perpetuate or exacerbate disasters and understand the facilitating policy framework.
  • L4: To recognize cross-disciplinary areas for research and innovation in disaster resilience, spanning across the traditionally environmental or medically-focused efforts. 
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Myers SS. Planetary health: protecting human health on a rapidly changing planet . The Lancet [Internet]. 2017. Publisher's VersionAbstract

The impact of human activities on our planet's natural systems has been intensifying rapidly in the past several decades, leading to disruption and transformation of most natural systems. These disruptions in the atmosphere, oceans, and across the terrestrial land surface are not only driving species to extinction, they pose serious threats to human health and wellbeing. Characterising and addressing these threats requires a paradigm shift. In a lecture delivered to the Academy of Medical Sciences on Nov 13, 2017, I describe the scale of human impacts on natural systems and the extensive associated health effects across nearly every dimension of human health. I highlight several overarching themes that emerge from planetary health and suggest advances in the way we train, reward, promote, and fund the generation of health scientists who will be tasked with breaking out of their disciplinary silos to address this urgent constellation of health threats. I propose that protecting the health of future generations requires taking better care of Earth's natural systems.

Sorensen CJ, Borbor-Cordova MJ, Calvello-Hynes E, Diaz A, Lemery J, Stewart-Ibarra AM. Climate Variability, Vulnerability, and Natural Disasters: A Case Study of Zika Virus in Manabi, Ecuador Following the 2016 Earthquake . GeoHealth [Internet]. 2017;1 (8) :298–304. Publisher's VersionAbstract

Climate change presents complex and wide-reaching threats to human health. A variable and changing climate can amplify and unmask ecological and socio-political weaknesses and increase the risk of adverse health outcomes in socially vulnerable regions. When natural disasters occur in such areas, underlying climatic conditions may amplify the public health crisis. We describe an emerging epidemic of Zika virus (ZIKV) in Ecuador following the 2016 earthquake, which coincided with an exceptionally strong El Niño event. We hypothesize that the trigger of a natural disaster during anomalous climate conditions and underlying social vulnerabilities were force multipliers contributing to a dramatic increase in ZIKV cases postearthquake.

Adger WN, W.Arnell N. Successful adaptation to climate change across scales. Global Environmental Change [Internet]. 2005;15 (2). Publisher's VersionAbstract

Climate change impacts and responses are presently observed in physical and ecological systems. Adaptation to these impacts is increasingly being observed in both physical and ecological systems as well as in human adjustments to resource availability and risk at different spatial and societal scales. We review the nature of adaptation and the implications of different spatial scales for these processes. We outline a set of normative evaluative criteria for judging the success of adaptations at different scales. We argue that elements of effectiveness, efficiency, equity and legitimacy are important in judging success in terms of the sustainability of development pathways into an uncertain future. We further argue that each of these elements of decision-making is implicit within presently formulated scenarios of socio-economic futures of both emission trajectories and adaptation, though with different weighting. The process by which adaptations are to be judged at different scales will involve new and challenging institutional processes.

Lane K, Charles-Guzman K, Wheeler K, Abid Z, Graber N, Matte T. Health Effects of Coastal Storms and Flooding in Urban Areas: A Review and Vulnerability Assessment . Journal of Environmental and Public Health [Internet]. 2013. Publisher's VersionAbstract

Coastal storms can take a devastating toll on the public's health. Urban areas like New York City (NYC) may be particularly at risk, given their dense population, reliance on transportation, energy infrastructure that is vulnerable to flood damage, and high-rise residential housing, which may be hard-hit by power and utility outages. Climate change will exacerbate these risks in the coming decades. Sea levels are rising due to global warming, which will intensify storm surge. These projections make preparing for the health impacts of storms even more important. We conducted a broad review of the health impacts of US coastal storms to inform climate adaptation planning efforts, with a focus on outcomes relevant to NYC and urban coastal areas, and incorporated some lessons learned from recent experience with Superstorm Sandy. Based on the literature, indicators of health vulnerability were selected and mapped within NYC neighborhoods. Preparing for the broad range of anticipated effects of coastal storms and floods may help reduce the public health burden from these events.

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