In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Natural Hazards and Risk

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Resources
  • Journals
  • Geography and the Hazardscape
  • Risk Management and Mitigation
  • Risk and Hazard Perception
  • Risk Communication
  • Disaster
  • Crisis and Emergency Management
  • Disaster Assistance, Aid, and Relief
  • Coping
  • Disaster Recovery
  • Vulnerability
  • Adaptation
  • Resilience

Geography Natural Hazards and Risk
John P. Tiefenbacher
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 May 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 May 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199874002-0082


Natural hazards are processes that occur in nature that threaten the safety, health, and economic interests of human beings. People have often regarded the natural processes as the causes of their losses or the sources of imminent threat. The most dramatic of these events are either geomorphologic processes (earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, landslides, and others) or meteorological processes (hurricanes, tornados, river floods, and others), and these attract widespread attention, but occasionally some derive from complex processes (wildfires, coastal inundation, and other climate change exacerbated processes) or are merely more subtle because they develop slowly or incur slowly appearing changes (such as in droughts, freeze events, infestations [by animals or plants], or disease outbreaks). The likelihood that a particular type of event will occur in a specific location is called risk, and this probability will influence the potential for human exposure in occupied landscapes. The populating of “risky” landscapes creates the hazard, which exists only when human interests are threatened. In this way, “hazard” reflects a measurement of the potential for loss. If humans and their valuables are not present (i.e., potentially exposed to a hazardous event), there is no hazard (statistically speaking). Geographers’ interest in hazard, beyond understanding geophysical processes, stems from the recognition of the importance of human processes (economic, political, sociological, psychological, and others) in the creation and response to hazardous circumstances. The adoption of the “human ecology” perspective (originating in the discipline of sociology) in the 1920s by Harlan Barrows and others established a tradition of analysis of the interaction of physical and human processes. Gilbert White’s scholarship, beginning in the 1940s, opened the policy realm to rational management of human processes and our relationships to the geographies of natural processes. Since then, the geographic perspective of hazards has diversified in a number of ways. Not only has the literature expanded in terms of the sources of hazard but also in terms of critical evaluation of the deeper causes behind the decisions that increase hazard. The past forty years of scholarship have employed increasingly sophisticated social, political, economic, and philosophical models to understand why people are driven to live in places and in ways that increase the likelihood that they will be impacted by detrimental conditions. In geography, in particular, geographic information science and geospatial technologies have enhanced efforts to understand and reduce hazard.

General Overviews

General overviews of natural hazards research can be found in a number of volumes. Some, like Cutter 1993, Tobin and Montz 1997, and Smith and Petley 2009, are designed to comprehensively capture the breadth of the challenges involved in hazard management for students. Rodríguez, et al. 2007 and Wisner, et al. 2011 discuss scholars’ progress toward clarification of the processes involved. These texts tend to be interdisciplinary in scope, and they intentionally blur the disciplinary boundaries within hazards and disasters research. Burton, et al. 1993 and Wisner, et al. 2003 reflect a distinct perspective that establishes either a mainstream or an alternative approach to understanding risk, hazard, vulnerability, resilience, or recovery. Unique in this set of selections is Mileti 1999, a community-authored volume that provides a “second assessment” of the progress, prospects, achievements, and needs of the hazards- and disasters-research communities and the current state of affairs of the practices of hazard and disaster management in the United States. All of these volumes derive from unique perspectives but go beyond the very introductory description of geophysical processes behind hazard that is commonly found in textbooks produced by engineers and Earth scientists.

  • Burton, Ian, Robert W. Kates, and Gilbert F. White. The Environment as Hazard. New York: Guilford, 1993.

    Emphasizes the interactive nature of the production of hazards and provides a framework for understanding the causes behind increasing loss despite relatively static levels of most natural processes. Provides diverse examples to underscore the role that humans’ decisions play in disaster.

  • Cutter, Susan L. Living with Risk: The Geography of Technological Hazards. New York: Edward Arnold, 1993.

    Uniquely describes the range of hazards derived from the interaction between technology, environment, and people. Highlights the spatial issues that make hazards of technology distinct from those of nature and the challenges that the modern views of technology produce.

  • Mileti, Dennis S. Disasters by Design: A Reassessment of Natural Hazards in the United States. Washington, DC: Joseph Henry, 1999.

    The so-called “second assessment” of hazards research undertaken by several hundred scholars and reported in group-authored chapters describing research on components of hazard and disaster management. Seeks to motivate the development of sustainable, disaster-resilient, and livable communities.

  • Rodríguez, Havidán, Enrico L. Quarantelli, and Russell Dynes, eds. Handbook of Disaster Research. New York: Springer, 2007.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-0-387-32353-4

    Extensive coverage of and entry into the disaster research literature. Volume stresses the perspective that disasters are socially constructed events that are best remedied through the management of sociological processes, which dovetails with geographical approaches to hazards research.

  • Smith, Keith, and David N. Petley. Environmental Hazards: Assessing Risk and Reducing Disaster. New York: Routledge, 2009.

    Provides a basic physical- and social-science overview of the creation and management of hazard. Underscores the geographic nature of hazard by focusing on the spatial patterns of risk, disaster, and mitigation.

  • Tobin, Graham A., and Burrell E. Montz. Natural Hazards: Explanation and Integration. New York: Guilford, 1997.

    Integrates physical- and social-science perspectives of the hazards continuum to provide an interdisciplinary framework to understand the relationships between nature, people, technology, politics, and economics geographically.

  • Wisner, Ben, Piers Blaikie, Terry Cannon, and Ian Davis. At Risk: Natural Hazards, People’s Vulnerability, and Disasters. 2d ed. New York: Routledge, 2003.

    Argues that disaster is caused by exposure of vulnerable people to extreme events. Its critique of development provides a perspective that suggests that hazards are a structurally produced problem that can be remedied only by eliminating the causes of vulnerability.

  • Wisner, Ben, J. C. Gaillard, and Ilan Kelman, eds. The Routledge Handbook of Hazards and Disaster Risk Reduction. New York: Routledge, 2011.

    An international and multidisciplinary review of more than sixty-five hazards- and disaster-management topics. Tends to emphasize the “development perspective” over human ecological or other risk-management views. Provides up-to-date entry into the diverse perspectives in the array of hazards scholarship.

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