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Catastrophic Risk - Past and Future

Shah Family Fund Distinguished Lecture
Charles Scawthorn
Tuesday, November 13, 2007 - 4:30 pm
Annenberg Auditorium

There are disasters, and there are catastrophes – synonymous terms, one “ill-starred”, the other to “overturn” and beloved of early geologists.  This year’s Shah Distinguished Lecture addresses the development and future of catastrophe risk analysis and mitigation.

The rational analysis and mitigation of catastrophic risk is founded on a large body of work developed over the last several 150 years. To use earthquakes as an example, in the 1850s in the British Isles Mallet developed the vision of seismology and seismic risk, but it required Milne in Japan in the 1880s to develop seismometers to measure earthquakes, then Wood, Richter, Gutenberg and others in the 1920-30s at Caltech to enable better measurement and the rudiments of expressing earthquake occurrence probabilistically, then the emergence of plate tectonics and engineering risk analysis in the 1960s, before seismic risk could be quantified and therefore managed. 

Surrounding and channeling these developments were broader social and technological influences driving the demand for risk analysis, such as the rise of nuclear power in the 60s and a sea change in risk attitudes during the same period, typified by Carson’s Silent Spring and Nader’s Unsafe at Any Speed. Today risk assessment is well established indeed required in many fields, for managing the effects of earthquakes, floods, tropical cyclones, development in general, new technologies and many other endeavors. 

Yet, fundamental improvements are still needed.  Risk analyses are as varied as the animals in a zoo, with comparable access and uncertainties. How do we assess these analyses, and for what do we manage?  In the future, risk analysis will have to serve an increasing demand for accuracy, and assurance of inclusiveness.  Not analyzing what we don’t know will no longer be acceptable.

 

Charles Scawthorn is Professor of Lifeline Engineering in Kyoto University (Japan), and a structural engineer with more than 30 years experience assessing enterprise, regional and national infrastructure natural and technological risk, for Global 1000 corporations, the insurance industry, FEMA, state agencies, and the World Bank.  He has played a key role in transforming these assessments into integrated mitigation programs in North America, Europe and Asia, and has been a team leader or member for investigations of disasters in the United States, Canada, Mexico, Japan, Turkey, Indonesia, Pakistan and the former Soviet Union.    He is a graduate of The Cooper Union (New York), and received his Ph.D. from Kyoto University.