Turning to Science to Ease Fears of Natural Disasters

by Elizabeth Keller

The world can be a really scary place sometimes.  Although we do our best as parents to provide safety and security for our children, we all know there are some things that are just out of our control. Take Mother Nature, for example.  It’s all well and good to provide close supervision of your children when they are playing at the beach near the water, but how do we protect them from natural disasters?  Even if you don’t experience a natural disaster directly, you can still find yourselves affected by it.  Kids are especially sensitive to the news that something really bad has happened to a lot of innocent people because of something that is out of everybody’s control (earthquake, tornado, hurricane, etc.).  What can we do to prepare our children for coping with the forces of nature directly, or to help reassure them when a major catastrophe is all over the news and causing your child some anxiety? As the mother of an extremely sensitive and anxious child, who can become incapacitated with fear and worry over the news of a natural disaster, I’ve frequently turned to science to provide her with comforting reassurance.

I focus our discussion on a ‘Then’ versus ‘Now’ to describe how disasters that occurred in the past used to be far more devastating to people than they usually are today. It is true that disasters in modern times (such as the Japan earthquake and tsunami in 2011) can still cause devastating losses to life and property, but it’s important to focus your discussion on what didn’t happen because of modern improvements in engineering and what did work.  Both the efforts of dedicated research scientists and experience from previous disasters have taught us valuable lessons on how to minimize damage to people and property during some types of disasters. I remind my children that natural disasters may happen again, but scientists and engineers are still working very hard to find out why these things happen, when and where they might happen again, and what we can do to protect ourselves when they strike.

Here are some recent developments that you and your children may find comforting:

In California, scientists are working on developing an early warning system that would detect the very first (and least destructive) energy waves from an earthquake.  Those first waves of energy travel the fastest, can be detected early, and can be used to trigger alarms, giving people from 10 to 30 seconds of advanced warning before the most destructive earthquake energy arrives in your location. That may not sound like very much time, but it’s enough to allow many people to get out of buildings, or ‘duck and cover’ in a safe location.

Living in areas that have earthquakes regularly does have advantages for protecting against future quakes.  For example, in California and Japan, many buildings, including schools and hospitals and bridges, have been specially built to withstand a great deal of shaking without collapsing.  Knowing that you live in an area prone to quakes helps you prepare for the possibility of being caught in one.

As a result of the devastating losses from the 2004 earthquake and tsunami in Sumatra there are now effective tsunami detection buoys in place throughout the Pacific Ocean and in the high-risk areas of the Indian Ocean.  When enormous amounts of energy are released into the ocean (usually during an earthquake) it can trigger a series of powerful waves hundreds, or even thousands of miles away.  Because the energy waves can travel such great distances there is a tsunami risk for all coastal areas along the Pacific rim, as well as the Indian Ocean.  The fact that the waves take a while to travel to distant shores buys us time to get to high ground, so long as we can get timely warnings.  The buoys that have been permanently stationed at sea will detect changes in ocean energy and send out warnings to agencies with access to coastal areas.  For example, when the 2011 Japan earthquake triggered a massive tsunami that reverberated around the Pacific, the Pacific Tsunami warning system was activated.  I live far inland from the California coast, but when I drove into town on the morning of the Japan quake, there were hundreds of people who had been evacuated from low-lying coastal areas over the hill waiting safely in their cars in shopping center parking lots – alerted by the Pacific Tsunami Warning System.

We still have more work to do to be able to predict large, potentially destructive earthquakes, but you can expect to see a working early warning system in place within the next 10 years.  The early tsunami warning system is already in place and has already saved potentially hundreds of lives.  Natural disasters may be out of our control because we can’t yet prevent them, but knowing that they’re coming and having an escape plan in place can go a long way toward preventing loss of life.  Showing these things to my anxious child has put her fears to rest.  I hope it can do the same for you and yours.


Elizabeth Keller has been a scientist since she was six years old. She has a deep-seated love of science, studying it both inside and outside of school and then working for NASA as a scientist after finishing her graduate degree. She is the mother of four spirited daughters and lives in California.