Floods, fires, earthquakes, and other natural disasters have driven humans from their homes throughout history. The problem is growing as world population rises and millions of people move to mega-cities, many of which are located in vulnerable areas. According to a recent report by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, a non-government research organization in Geneva, Switzerland, 27 million people on average have been displaced each year since 2008 by natural disasters.
Climate change is worsening the problem by raising sea levels and increasing the frequency of catastrophic storms. U.S. students may remember images from Superstorm Sandy in the fall of 2012, which flooded large sections of lower Manhattan and caused at least $50 billion in damages. Climate analysts have calculated that if global carbon emissions continue to rise at their current rates, about 2.6 percent of the world’s population (177 million people) will live in areas that are at risk from regular flooding by 2100. No country is safe, but the greatest risk is in Asian nations such as Japan, Vietnam, Thailand and Bangladesh, where large fractions of the population live in areas that are vulnerable to coastal flooding.
Human vulnerability to disasters can be studied from several science perspectives. Unit 24 of Annenberg Learner’s Earth Revealed geology series focuses on coastlines, where the energy of ocean waves meets rocky landmasses of the mainland. Use this video to discuss issues that people living near shore should consider, such as erosion and how far back from the water to build. For more information on flood risks, the U.S. National Flood Insurance Program develops flood-hazard maps for U.S. communities that can be viewed online, along with videos from flooded communities.
Many people live in areas where they know there is significant risk of floods, wildfires, or other natural disasters. In unit 25 of Earth Revealed, see how scientists are studying the San Andreas Fault and residents of San Francisco have adapted to the risks of earthquakes in the Bay area. Teaching Geography, workshop 2, “Latin America,” part 2, discusses the risks that people living near Mount Tungurahua in Ecuador face. In addition, the Volcanoes interactive explores our ability to predict volcanic eruptions and steps that people can take to reduce the danger of living near active volcanoes.
Many cities threatened by rising seas are considering ways to adapt and make themselves more resilient in the face of floods and storms. One widely-cited example is the Netherlands’ Room for the River program, which is creating open spaces where the Rhine River can spill over during floods without threatening local communities. In New York City, a program called Rebuild by Design is proposing flood-protection strategies for the New York region, including protective berms around Manhattan and restored marshes and oyster reefs in New York Harbor to absorb the impact of storms.
At the Annenberg Space for Photography in Los Angeles, an upcoming exhibit called “Sink or Swim” will examine human responses to coastal flooding around the world, from sea walls to floating schools. The exhibit, which runs from December 13, 2014 through May 3, 2015, will show “how communities are rising up to meet the challenges” of climate change in densely populated coastal zones worldwide, says Annenberg Foundation Chairman of the Board, President and CEO Wallis Annenberg.