Are we learning enough about our Earth and its processes?
by Dr Afroz Ahmad Shah
The necessity to understand and update our knowledge about geological processes is increasing in the modern times as we move further ahead because it involves the Earth and its various processes, which directly or indirectly affect life on it. The incoming challenges for global sustainability and hazard mitigation will have to be countered with new and innovative ways of technology and research.
The need to save people from natural disasters, an increase in the demand for various resources, the scarcity of raw materials and energy requirements for the rapidly increasing population, particularly in the developing world, will require the earth scientists to shoulder major responsibilities. Earth scientists understand the Earth processes better and therefore, can immensely help the rest of the people to understand this planet and to implement the various ways to build an eco-friendly environment. Thus, these scientists work to understand the planet and to discover new ways to make it healthier and sustainable. However, such goals can only be achieved provided we understand the need for focused and applied earth sciences.
Historically speaking, through most of the past century, Earth Sciences largely served as a tool for exploitation of natural resources. It is true that industrial output increased by 13-fold whereas energy use expanded 16 times with an increase in the water consumption by a factor of seven1. These strategies have helped about 25% of human population to live comfortably. This, however, is a victory at the cost of the Earth’s environment. The challenge that haunts mankind in the next century will be to maintain a tidy balance between nature, its environment and human comfort. To keep and sustain such a balance will be hard. Science in general and earth sciences in particular will play a key role in the accomplishment of this complicated objective.
In the past, the realisation to have a sustainable and healthy Earth was grossly overlooked by the greedy anthropogenic exploitation of resources. However, this was changed during the 1980s when United Nations set up the Brundtland Commission to assess the Earth’s health and Its environment. The concept of ‘sustainable development’ was introduced in its report; ‘Our Common Future’. It was realised that the role of geosciences to promote and propagate the knowledge of the Earth and its complex interaction with surroundings is required for a sustainable and healthy planet. Professor Wolfgang Lucht, in one of his recent publications2 , warns that the current planetary state can be destabilised if human activity causes critical Earth-system thresholds to be passed. He further stresses that with enough warning and insight, we might avoid or limit the damages, or adapt to them rather than be simply suffering the consequences. Yet, the current lack of progress in mitigating climate change and preserving complex ecosystems does not look promising.
Similarly, the lack of understanding and awareness of natural hazards is demonstrated time and again, particularly when a natural calamity attacks us. Our knowledge and preparedness to tackle the natural challenges in the form of earthquakes and tsunamis, which continuously pose unremitting threats to our 10,000 year-old civilisation, is very little. For example, the devastations of Acehnese and Thai coasts in 2004, of Kashmir and New Orleans in 2005, of southwest Java in 2006, of Sumatra again in 2007, western Sichuan and Myanmar in 2008, of Haiti in 2010, Japan, New Zealand and Turkey, in 2011, brought about colossal damage in terms of death toll and destruction. These disasters remind us of a desperate need to understand the basics of earth sciences and to implement various methods of mitigation and simultaneously think of various ways, in which the prediction can be made possible. It is disheartening to know that in some of these events the warning signs were known to exist; for example, New Orleans and Port au Prince, which had long been recognised as a catastrophe waiting to happen, but somehow even that awareness did not produce the desired effect! Similarly, there are several places in the world, for example SE Asia, where the knowledge about earthquakes is still in its infancy. The repeated earthquakes in Kashmir and Aceh are tragic examples in which the inability to translate the acquired knowledge into timely planned action clearly shows the challenges faced by earth scientists today.
To understand the natural events and provide timely measures, one ought to know the basics of Earth Sciences, potentially the do’s and don’ts of disaster skills. For example, in Japan this practice has played a huge role in saving lives. There are reports, where a principle of a school, demolished the school wall to allow the students to freely run to higher altitudes, before the arrival of a tsunami. All those students were subsequently saved. However, there are also cases where people went to the protective tsunami wall to see its arrival, thereby, ignoring its dangerous impact. This happens because civilians do not realise that tsunami waves can reach enormous heights. It teaches us that dangers and hazards associated with a tsunami or an earthquake can be much bigger than what we anticipate and therefore prior preparations should be made for the same. We know that earthquake scientists around the world are struggling to make prediction a possibility and there is a long way to go before we can warn people about an impending disaster. However, mitigation education is available and will immensely help people to overcome the effect of disasters.
Similarly, the volcanic hazards are keeping us on toes, for example, one of Iceland’s volcanoes known as Eyjafjallajökull erupted on 14 April 2010 for the first time in two centuries. The ash clouds forced aviation authorities of UK to shut down the airspace affected by these clouds for six days. It is reported that most northern European countries also shut their airspace for over a period of 5 days, which affected about 10 million travellers worldwide with a loss of about 2.1 billion Euros.
It was only recently that some of the events listed above shook the world out of the torpor that it was in. Now, we are curious to understand the system and its integration with the other systems. But how far have we been successful in achieving that? To quote an example, India, a country with over a billion people, is prone to almost all kinds of natural disasters but the geoscience education is poorly represented in schools, colleges and universities. Although a few universities offer full earth science degree courses, that is far less than what is required.
Similarly, Singapore still does not have a full geoscience degree program, at the primary, secondary and tertiary levels. Although the Earth Observatory of Singapore has been established to fill this vacuum, more institutes should join this endeavour. The National University of Singapore has recently started a minor in Geo-Science, which is indeed a good beginning to contend with.
Likewise, Malaysia is yet to develop a robust earth science program, which can educate and increase awareness about earth sciences in the next generations. There are very few institutes which have Earth Sciences onboard and this requires immediate attention.
The more knowledge we gain about our mother Earth, the more we can do to prevent its and our destruction.
The need to have a robust earth science education system around the globe should be intensified. The ride will be bumpy, steep and often full of hurdles and will require a strong and motivated workforce. Therefore, all the concerned will have to share the burden of responsibilities as we proceed further in the evolutionary path. Geologists have to take a multidisciplinary approach to save the destruction and help mankind to make Earth a sustainable and healthy planet. A basic earth science education is required to be included in the academic curriculum across the planet. Thus, a global project aimed to propagate awareness in earth sciences is very important to avoid mass death tolls and destructions from earthly catastrophes.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Dr Afroz Ahmad Shah is a research fellow at the Earth Observatory Sciences (EOS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, working with Prof. Kerry Edward Sieh on earthquake geology of New Guinea. He obtained his PhD in 2010 (tectono-metamorphic evolution of Precambrian rocks) with Prof. Tim Bell in School of Earth & Environmental Sciences, James Cook University, Australia. He obtained an M.Tech. in engineering geosciences (2006) from IIT Kanpur India. He can be contacted at email@example.com. Find out more about Dr. Afroz Ahmad Shah by visiting his Scientific Malaysian profile at http://www.scientificmalaysian.com/members/afrozshah/
Paul J. Crutzen., 2002. Geology of mankind. Nature 415:23-23.
Rajendran, C.P., 2010. Challenges in Earth sciences: 21st century. Current Science, 99, 1690-1698.