Natural Hazards

The fact that people continue to live in places at risk from hazardous events, where 'objective analysis' might be presumed to suggest safer alternative locations, provided the rationale for another strand of cognitive behavioral research by geographers. Natural hazards research combined the geographer's interest in physical environmental processes that apparently lie outside human control with the desire to understand complex patterns of behavioral response. It focused on a range of highly infrequent, but extreme geophysical (climatological and geological), events that cause major hardship and possible loss of life for the communities affected. Natural hazards research owed its origins to Gilbert F. White, whose work on response to flooding in the USA had pointed to the complexities of individual and societal response to flooding. From initial focus on river floods, the scope of this research broadened in its coverage to include other forms of flooding (e.g., coastal floods), drought, hurricanes, snow and avalanche, tornadoes, volcanic eruption, and tsunamis. Natural hazards research also increasingly acquired a cross national remit in the 1970s with an American led program of studies carried out under the auspices of the International Geographical Union, which involved researchers from 15 nations examining 9 different types of hazard.

The most significant results from this research emphasized a view of human beings as possessing bounded rationality. Extreme events themselves were seen as being outside the control of individuals but, since disaster occurred with relative infrequency, the threat was seen as dormant and remote rather than immediate and real. What might appear as misperception when disaster does occur normally helps to compensate for the fact that making precautionary adjustments to cope with these events would require major changes in the way of life of those under threat, which, for a variety of reasons, they are reluctant to make. However, most researchers stressed that this was not a simple case of people ignoring unequivocal evidence. In most cases, information from the hazardous environment is ambiguous and provides a paucity of reliable cues on which to base action. As a result, judgments may well err on the side of an optimistic scenario.

Considered collectively, these points hint at the role of three underlying factors. First, previous experience of the magnitude and frequency of hazards will influence how people assess the likelihood of possible recurrence, the potential impact on their lives, and the appropriate measures that they consider need to be taken. Extreme events tend to act as a fixed point in experience, obliterating memories of earlier occurrences and acting as a standard against which later ones will be compared, although the poignancy of the recollection will fade if the extreme event happens only very rarely. Second, researchers often argued that personality was a significant variable, with speculative hypotheses that people living in hazard prone zones have personalities similar to gamblers in that they trade off the odds of losses caused by natural hazards against the prospects of profitable and untroubled living. Very little concrete evidence, however, was ever offered in support of such arguments aside from anecdote, with the suspicion that the third factor – the influence of culture – was more important. Culture undoubtedly influences attitudes toward nature, with the responses of different societies to the same form of hazard covering the full spectrum from fatalism in the face of nature to belief in human mastery over it. Equally, response to natural hazards is mediated by culturally transmitted attachments to place. While some writers seem genuinely surprised that anyone should be foolish enough to reside in hazard prone zones, areas such as the sea shore and river basins have had records of settlement that extend unbroken back into antiquity. Symbolic and emotional attachments of these places, coupled with the economic advantages of living there, are more than suf ficient to offset the risks involved.