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August: Dog Days of Summer and Earth Catastrophes

The month of August is known for more than the northern hemisphere's hottest, most sultry days of summer. Geoscientists who study Earth's natural hazards can tell you it's also a big month for disasters.

Anniversaries marked this month include the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius that buried Pompeii in 79 A.D., and the monstrous 1883 eruption of Krakatoa in Indonesia that affected Earth's climate for years afterwards. Most recently, on August 25, 2005, Hurricane Katrina devastated the city of New Orleans and other areas along the U.S. Gulf Coast.

Also on the list are the devastating Turkish earthquake of 1999, a killer volcanic eruption under Cameroon's Lake Nios in 1986, and the great Charleston earthquake of 1886. The latter was the first major earthquake in the recorded history of the eastern United States.

"We know that the Atlantic Basin hurricane season peaks from August to October, but long term prediction of volcanic eruptions and earthquakes is still a developing science," said Linda Gundersen, Chief Scientist for Geology at the U.S. Geological Survey in Reston, VA. "These events all point out the urgent need to better understand Earth's natural processes and how to live with them."

Gundersen serves on the U.S. National Committee for International Year of Planet Earth (IYPE), a joint initiative of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS). IYPE is a triennium event, celebrated around the world from January 2007 to December 2009. The UN General Assembly has proclaimed 2008 as the official year.

According to Gundersen, one of the ten science themes of IYPE is natural hazards, with emphasis on maximizing awareness and minimizing risk.

"IYPE recognizes that Earth can be a dangerous place. As our growing world population tends to settle along the coastal and mountainous areas of the continents, our communities become more vulnerable to the risks of multiple hazards," said Gundersen.

"We have made important strides in hazard science and reducing risk using scientific knowledge coupled with monitoring and warning systems. There is, however, much still to learn," she continued. "It is critical to partner with communities, engineers, government officials, and emergency preparedness personnel to successfully prepare for disasters and build resilient communities."

One example of this kind of effort is the Great Southern California Shake-Out to be held November 12-16, 2008 that will feature the largest earthquake drill in U.S. history. The event is a broad coalition of public and private organizations with the goal of inspiring Southern Californians to be ready for the next large earthquake and prevent disaster from becoming catastrophe.

To learn more, visit:

Great Southern California Shake-Out:
About IYPE:
International Year of Planet Earth is a celebration of the earth sciences. It encourages use of the research and vast store of knowledge held by geoscientists around the globe to make Earth a safer, healthier, and wealthier place for humankind. IYPE is the largest global effort of its kind to promote the earth sciences. Seventy-two countries are participating in the initiative with research projects and education and outreach events.

For more information on International Year of Planet Earth, visit

Linda Gundersen,
Chief Scientist for Geology, U.S. Geological Survey,
John W. (Jack) Hess, Chair,
U.S. National Committee, International Year of Planet Earth, and Executive Director, Geological Society of America,


Ann Cairns | Newswise Science News
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