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Author: George Bugliarello
Systems Challenges on a Global Scale
Human history has been punctuated by major natural disasters, from the Thera eruption of around 1600 B.C., which generated a tsunami some 100 meters high and devastated northern Crete, and the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 A.D. that buried Herculaneum and Pompeii, to the Lisbon earthquake and tsunami in November 1755 and the eruption of Krakatoa and the tsunami that followed in 1883. The tsunami event in December 2004, which devastated whole populations at the edge of the Indian Ocean, is a powerful warning, not only of how unprepared some areas of the world are for major catastrophes, but also that we must be aware of systems challenges on a global scale. These include tsunamis, volcanoes, global warming, the rise in sea levels, and the large meteorites that may hit Earth at some time in the future. The Indian Ocean tsunami reminds us that nature knows no political boundaries and that borders cannot stop the circulation of airborne pollution or limit the consequences of weapons of mass destruction and other anthropogenic disasters.
We can use the lessons we learn from disasters to try to mitigate the consequences of similar events in the future. The Indian Ocean tsunami might have been less deadly if sensors and a global warning system had been in place, if there had been local alert and evacuation systems for the populations at risk, if the global logistical support system for recovery had been more efficient, and if policies for coastal development had been more effective.
Clearly, we need better ways of assessing risks and better defense mechanisms against them. There is really no excuse for not having global systems in place to address technical and scientific challenges, as well as other challenges, such as the adequacy of first responders, communications to populations at risk, local emergency responses, the facilitation and coordination of international aid, and rapid decisions about the appropriateness of involving military organizations that have the logistic capabilities necessary to deliver assistance.
The papers in this issue of The Bridge focus on various aspects of the recent tsunami disaster. Philip Liu describes simulations of the propagation of the tsunami waves generated by the Sumatra earthquake and tsunami. Admiral Conrad Lautenbacher Jr. underlines the imperative of linking, integrating, and extending observational capacities. The paper by Robert Dalrymple and David Kriebel focuses on the survivability of structures hit by the tsunami waves. Costas Synolakis, Emile Okal, and Eddie Bernard address other factors that greatly exacerbated the human disaster last December, such as widespread ignorance of the phenomenon, shoreline configuration, lack of emergency preparedness, and inadequate evacuation plans.
Unfortunately, disaster prevention on a global scale does not have as high a priority as smaller-scale problems. For engineers to play an important role in global disaster prevention and mitigation, they must adopt a broad definition of engineering as a protector of our species from natural processes that are supremely indifferent to our plight and from the consequences of human follies on a global scale. In most engineering schools, however, global earth-systems engineering is the province of a few specialized departments (or even individuals). Knowledge of risk assessment, logistics, warning systems, and the prevention and management of disasters and their consequences put engineering in the proper context and should be a cultural requirement for engineering education.