OEAS 250N: Natural Hazards and Disasters

Course description

The course and the lab introduce some of Earth's natural phenomena that can, and often do, result in major loss of life or catastrophic damage to property. These phenomena are considered in their relevance to major national and international efforts to manage and reduce disaster risk and increase societal sustainability. Students in the course and lab develop and enhance their research, analysis, critical thinking, and writing skills. The course and lab are suitable for first and second year undergraduate students considering a career in science, teaching, and governance, or who are just interested to know more about the planet on which they live.

Learning Goals

Students will acquire the skills to understand natural hazards and the potential disasters that may be triggered by these phenomena. They will:

  • Have an understanding of the basics of a variety of environmental phenomena that can cause major disruptions to human and non-human populations, the Earth's life-support system, and, in the case of human communities, cities and infrastructure.
  • Be able to distinguish between the hazards and the processes that can lead to disasters in the human and non-human environment.
  • Have knowledge of the basic concepts of of hazards, vulnerabilities, disasters, risk and disaster risk governance.
  • Have an understanding of human perception of risk as a social construct and appreciate the importance of human impacts on the magnitude and frequency of hazardous events.
  • Be able to research the relevant data, describe the phenomena based on evidence, understand the uncertainties inherent in complex systems, critique discussions of hazards and disasters that are presented in the media, and to express the result of this research in a scientific case study report.
  • Have an appreciation of the major national and international programs aiming at disaster risk governance also in the context of sustainable development.


There are no prerequisite courses, but you are expected to have reached the Commonwealth of Virginia standards-of-learning in high school math, science, and writing. Regular class and lab attendance is required as some of the information will only be provided during class and lab.

Course Contents

Humanity is embedded in, and interacts with, the Earth's life-support system (ELSS). The ELSS provides the basis for the welfare of all human and non-human communities, and these communities are adapted to prevailing conditions. Hazardous events can change these conditions and cause damage to the communities, with the impacts ranging from local, individual to global scales. For humans, reducing disasters caused by hazards is a goal and a necessity to improve sustainability of human communities. Disaster reduction, or better, Disaster Risk Governance (DRG), requires a thorough understanding of the hazards that can occur, the probability of them occurring, and the processes that can lead to disastrous impacts on human and non-human communities.

Although the class and lab are titled “Natural hazards and disasters,” it needs to be emphasized that the distinction between natural and anthropogenic hazards is somewhat arbitrary. It would work if humans were in a spaceship and Earth was free of humans. The fact that humanity is an integral part of the ELSS and is modifying the ELSS at a very significant level leads to many hazards that seem to be “natural” but are actually to some extent caused or amplified by humans.

In the class and lab, we define a hazard as a change of the system state that can lead to a reduction of the system's capability to function. A hazard can be a short event (e.g., an earthquake), a longer process (e.g., extinction), or a slow trend (e.g., sea level rise). We distinguish:

  • extraterrestrial hazards: asteroids, bolides, radiation events, and solar storms
  • geo(logical) hazards: those that arise mainly from processes in the solid earth;
  • hydro-meteorological hazards: those that are associated with processes in the coupled hydrosphere-atmosphere system;
  • biological hazards: pandemics, rodents, insects, algae-bloom, extinction;
  • chemical hazards: changes in major flows of the ELSS leading to changes in the composition of atmosphere, ocean, soil, water (including pollution, acid rain, ocean acidification, change of greenhouse gases);
  • technological hazards: accidents, mal-function, AI, nano-technology;
  • social hazards: involuntary migration, unrest, racism, genocide, wars, imperialism, failed governance
  • economic hazards: depressions, bubbles, speculations, peak-oil, etc.

The class will introduce these hazards and discuss their direct and indirect relevance for human and non-human communities. A useful concept for assessing the relevance is “Risk”, which utilizes the “Probability Density Function” (PDF) of the hazard. Main focus will be on hazards with pre-dominantely non-human origin. In the lab, exercises will be used to go into more details and responding to questions will help to review what was discussed in class.

The boundary between hazards of non-human and human origin is blured. Technological hazards can be triggered by non-technological hazards. Human activity can trigger hazards or change the spectrum of hazards in terms of frequency and magnitude. Human activity can also lead to the ELSS crossing thresholds and entering new states with significantly different characteristics and mal-adaptation. The interdependency of human and non-human hazards will be discussed in detail.

Hazards and disasters are linked by processes in the exposed community and its environment that are triggered by a hazardous event. These processes depend on how the community is organized and developed, and the same hazardous event can lead to a wide range of disasters depending on the exposed community's preparedness and adaptation. Understanding the processes that link hazards and disasters is a prerequisite for DRG. The class will analyze these processes based on case studies.

In the interaction with the ELSS, humans have to make choices about where to settle, how to develop communities and the built environment, how to meet the needs of human communities, and how to prepare for hazardous events. Many of these choices benefit from a risk-based decision-making. For many of the non-human hazards, we cannot change very much the PDF of the hazard, but we can impact vulnerability and exposure of human communities. The concept of DRG captures this. Risk associated with a specific hazard is defined as the product of hazard probability, vulnerability and value of the assets exposed to the hazard. The class will introduce the concept of DRG and apply to case studies.

Disaster risk assessments are an important tool to guide community actions to reduce or govern the risk. However, public and governmental support for DRG depends on risk awareness, which is determined by individual, community, country and cultural biases. In modern societies, the media play an important role for the development of, as well as the biases in, risk awareness. The class will review a number of risk assessments and relate them to risk awareness. The role of the media in shaping risk awareness will be analyzed.

Work Skills and Collaboration

You must be able to access the course Web page at http://www.mari-odu.org/academics/2022s_disasters on a daily basis. Assignment details, course materials, schedule changes, and other important information will be posted at the course Web page regularly. Please visit the course website for detailed weekly course information.

Exam schedules and points received for assignments and exams will be available in the Web workspace of the course.

For some of the lab exercises, basic knowledge of Excel or a similar software will be necessary. If you have no such knowledge, you will still be able to carry out the exercises if you collaborate with a student who has the knowledge. For some exercises, it will be easier to use a tool like powerpoint or a graphical software. For the study case papers, you will need to use a text processing software such as Word or a similar program.

From time to time you will be asked to research and bring specific content (e.g., published facts, evidence, sources) to the class or lab. Do not assume that this content will be provided to you if you fail to complete the assignment.

Collaboration is expressly permitted, but must follow these guidelines:

  • You must actively participate in any collaborative project;
  • You must write your own individual report on any team project work;
  • All team members’ names must be included in any written project work;
  • You must understand the material and be able to answer questions on it.

Reading Material

Access to digital text and reading lists will be supplied to students at no cost. All necessary information for the course, including the reading list and assignments are posted at http://www.mari-odu.org/academics/2022s_disasters. Students must bring a laptop, mobile phone, tablet, or other device for internet access to every class.

You are responsible for reading and complying with all information posted.


The course combines lectures with lab exercises and project work. There are weekly reading assignments, which correspond to the class contents and the lab exercises. In the lab, 10 sets of questions will be discussed and written answers to the questions are due after the lab. Three case study papers will be required and there will be a midterm and final exam. Each student will also be a reviewer for one case study of another student.

The class and lab will be graded with one grade for CNR 16789. The course will be graded on an A to F scale. You will be graded on a standard scale:
100.0-93.0% = A; 92.9-90.0% = A-
89.9-87.0% = B+; 86.9-83.0% = B; 82.9-80.0% = B-
79.9-77.0% = C+; 76.9-73.0% = C; 72.9-70.0% = C-
69.9-67.0% = D+; 66.9-63.0% = D; 62.9-60.0% = D-
0-59.9% = F.

The overall grad for the class and lab will be composed of individual grades using:
Class and lab participation (based on 2+2 forms): 7%
Question sets (8 of them, 7 best being counted): 18%
Lab Exercises (7 of them, each 5%): 35%
Written Case Study reports (3 of them, each 15%): 45%
Review of a case study report written by another student: 5%
Mid term exam: 8%
Final exam: 12%.

University regulations prohibit communicating test results via email or by phone. If you wish to talk about your grade, please make an appointment. All scores will be available as soon as possible in the workspace, where they are posted immediately after an assignment has been graded.

Grade forgiveness policy:

Missed question sets or exams may only be made up for valid reasons such as: participation in ODU sports team events (a coach's note is needed), evidence of illness (doctor's or Student Health Services' note needed), bereavement of an immediate family member (death notice needed), or documented court appearance (copy of notice to appear needed). Advance notice in writing must be given whenever possible.

Late assignments or reports will be graded on a reduced point scale as follows:
up to 24 hrs late = 90%
up to 48 hrs late = 80%

A further 10% per day reduction in possible points earned will be applied, up to a maximum total of 5 days late, after which the assignment will not be accepted without evidence that the student was sick or there was a family emergency.

COVID-19 Regulations

Students are required to follow ODU's regulations concerning COVID-19 risk reduction and mitigation. The detals are provded at https://www.odu.edu/status/covid-19. For updates for the spring semester 2022 see https://www.odu.edu/news/2022/1/covid_19_update_spri#.YdW64dDMKUm.