Saturday, February 16, 2008

Hazards and Disasters

Classifying Hazards and Disasters:

There have been many recent efforts to classify hazards, the type of disasters they can cause, and to develop a typology which reflects the nature of the hazard, the level of risk they pose and what/who they pose a risk to.

While there are minor differences in these schemes, they are generally recognize similar categories of hazards: geologic, climatic or, more generally, natural vs. man-made (though the distinction is recognized as fuzzy) and so on.

They also recognize that hazards operate at different time scales, both in their onset or 'onslaught' and their duration as well as in their predictability and statistical frequency. Hurricanes come in seasons, though within the season they are still relatively unpredictable, volcanoes and earthquakes seem to follow long term statistical patterns but remain unpredictable on the short term (though volcanoes give definate and detectable warning signs).

UNEP (The United Nations Environment Program) published an excellent chart:

While this represents an excellent classification scheme for the most part, I propose several modifications. Firstly, the category "Climatic" should be "Meteorological/Climatic". Given the attention given to climate change, this is not an unnecessary distinction. Hazards such as storms, flooding, tornadoes, hurricanes and so on are current weather events- and meteorology is the study of such events, of current weather phenomenon. How current weather is going to change as a result of the increase in greenhouse gases (and concurrent global warming) is still largely unknown. While there is no doubt that global warming will produce changes in meteorological patterns over time (climate change)- and their is still great debate among scientists, climatologists, computer modellers and meteorologists about the exact nature of these changes- an excellent example is the ongoing debate regarding hurricane frequency and intensity.

Most scientists will agree that climate change is going to involve increased unpredictability of weather patterns and the possibility of increased intensity of some events such as hurricanes in the Atlantic for example, climate change may also be marked by diminishing intensity of other patterns (rainfall in given regions).

Typology of Hazards and Disasters: risk, vulnerability and complex causes

While until recently there was a tendency among scientists and others studying disasters to conflate the risk natural or man-made hazards with the risk of disaster. It is now generally recognized that the equation linking risk of a disaster to the frequency of a hazardous event is not a simple one.

It is important to distinguish between primary causes- the natural hazard, secondary causes- human activities and population patterns and so on and the actual disaster.
A food shortage or a famine, for example, can be caused by drought, flooding, storms or severe weather, and war and can be alleviated or compounded by social and economic organization and practices including international interventions. In the same manner a plague, epidemic or pandemic is not merely the result of a particular pathogen.

The important thing to remember is that the disaster is not the same thing as the hazard or other causes.

Primary Causes (Hazards)



flooding, drought, severe storms and related phenomenon (tornadoes, hurricanes, lightning)

Extraterrestrial (Impacts, Solar Flares, etc.)



The Environment and Poverty Times: Special Edition for the World Conference on Disaster Reduction January 18-22, 2005, Kobe, Japan. A publication of UNEP/GRID

Monday, February 11, 2008

Living Undersea:

Dreams of living underwater are not new. However, it was only with the development of the first submarines in the 19th century, and later with the development of scuba gear that the dream began to be be considered a real possibility. In the 1960's there was an explosion of interest both in space colonization and in undersea colonies, and NASA was instrumental in developing both. The petrochemical industry was an early proponent of undersea habitats for the purpose of deep-water petroleum drilling. The worlds first experiments in undersea living, pioneered by Jacques Cousteau, were in large part funded by the French petroleum industry- though Cousteau later radically distanced himself from projects involving further exploitation of the sea and became an activist for the conservation of ocean ecosystems.

Actual experiments and Successful Habitat Operations

Continental Shelf Habitat II

Made famous in Jacques Cousteau's documentary film "World Without Sun" (Le Monde Sans Soleil) the Continental Shelf Station II or Conshelf II was the first major attempt at an undersea habitat, funded in large part by the French petroleum industry, who saw such experiments as necessary to open up the undersea world to economic exploitation*. (*Cousteau later rescinded his support for such projects, calling the worlds attention to the necessity of preserving the worlds oceans in the face of ever greater exploitation.) The first Conshelf station was a much smaller affair and submerged in only 10 meters of water off the coast of Marseille.

The later Conshelf III station succeeded in establishing a habitat at 100 meters.


The U.S. Navy established a program of undersea habitats called SEALAB in order to study and improve techniques such as saturation diving, underwater rescue, and to test the endurance of divers.

The first SEALAB was placed in 58 meters of water off the coast of Bermuda in 1964.

The second SEALAB was in 62 meters of water in the La Jolle Canyon off the California coast in 1965.

The third SEALAB, a modified SEALAB II, was lowered in 185 meters of water off St. Clemente island off the California coast in 1969, but after a fatal accident and some alleged sabotage attempts the program was shut down out of safety concerns.

See the Naval Undersea Museum's SEALAB site for more information.

Jacques Rougerie's Galathee- tested in 1976. This mobile habitat had a capacity for 4-7 people.

Undersea Colonies

Atlantic I and II

These people appear to be serious, but their project appears to be not much more than a slightly scaled up version of Jaques Cousteaus undersea habitats or the U.S. Navy's former Sea Labs. I imagine that living in anything that small a group of people will experience all the problems of a space station as well as the political issues common to visionary communes. Best of luck though!

Proposed Undersea Habitats, Villages, Workstations, etc.

A proposed undersea village entitled "UNDERWATER LIFE UNITIES" by architect Jacques Rougerie for a NOAA and NASA study, 1973. The village would have housed between 50 and 250 people in the waters off the Virgin Islands.
Artificial Islands, Landfills and Polders: A continuation of the last post (Floating Cities and Houseboats)

Well, as I mentioned before, it seems that what with the now almost inevitable rise in sea-level- the question is really 'how much?'- there's a renewed interest in a whole host of ways that we might deal with the situation given that 90% of the world's population live in coastal zones, many of which will be particularly vulnerable to sea level change and other climate change hazards.

So I thought I'd do a little thing on past and present ideas of colonizing the sea and other water surfaces as well as some of the ways people have 'made land' in the past either by reclaiming it, by filling in coastal areas or by creating artificial islands of various sorts.

While we might associate such things with modern life- the creation of airports or luxury resort communities like Palm Island in Dubai for example, there is in fact a long history of artificial islands as well as land creation in many areas of the world. I mentioned the floating islands of the marsh Arabs and on Lake Titicaca (don't snigger kiddies) in my last post as well as the crannogs of Ireland and Scotland which were created by fill. I also briefly mentioned the city of Venice, built on piles in the mud flats of an estuary as most people are aware.

Other famous artificial islands of the past include the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan on the present day location of Mexico City which is built largely on land-fill which replaced the lake. One of the reasons the Mexico City earthquake was so disastrous was that the shaking was amplified by the unconsolidated fill underneath- a problem shared by the Marina district in San Francisco.

From wikicommons:

Artificial islands are commonly built in port areas in order to create much needed space. They were also used as a quarantine and containment areas- as with Ellis Island in New York which was greatly expanded by landfill. An early example is Dejima island created in the Nagasaki harbor during the Edo period. Finished in 1636 it served first to house Portuguese traders and prevent direct contact with the population, then as the Japanese headquarters of the Dutch East Indies Company. in order to serve as a ghetto/self-contained area for foreign merchants.

Dejima, circa 1832


Floating Reed island of the Uros people, Lake Titicaca. From


A polder is an area of low-lying land reclaimed from marshlands, lakes or the sea by the use of dykes and drainage canals or they can be created on floodplains where a dyke protects a piece of land from a river or the sea. The dykes and drainage systems create a hydrologically seperate system- the polder is physically seperated from outside water sources and all inflowing and outflowing water is controlled (unless the dykes fail- as recently happened in New Orleans).

The most famous polderlands are those in the Netherlands; as the old expression goes, "God created the Earth, but the Dutch created Holland". Polders exist in many areas of the world however, in the Sacramento River Delta in California, Bangladesh, the Fenlands of England and the Marais de Poitevin on the Atlantic coast of France and the city of New Orleans to name but a few.

A Typical Polder Landscape in Holland- very similar to other polderlands in Europe (frequently built by Dutch immigrants/engineers, as in the Marais de Poitevin in France). From

Marais Poitevin in the Vandais, France which was drained in part by Hugonots from the Netherlands. From

Related Resources

Waterworlds - floating and underwater facilities

An interesting article from the UNESCO Courier. Discusses a 1995 international congress about artificial islands, land reclamation and marine/sea habitats, ongoing projects in the world such as Israel's planned artificial island communities, and international legal issues that will accompany such projects.

The Uros People

An interesting article with good photos about the Uros people of Lake Titicaca.

Energy Islands

A proposed "Energy Island" as conceived by Dominic Michaelis integrating OTEC (Ocean Thermal Energy Transfer) with solar and tidal energy production.


Saturday, February 09, 2008

Houseboats and Floating Cities

A proposal for a floating city for Shanghai's World Expo by a team from the University of Delft.

I've always had a fascination for houseboats, probably because as a child I lived near Sausalito in the seventies when its houseboat community (which counted Alan Watts as a resident) was in its golden-age of anarchic hippiedom prior to the "house-boat wars" which. Two smaller communities of houseboats (and the occasional hippy) are still there, but not in the numbers or diversity of yesteryear. Ah...the good old days. Still, well worth a visit, and there are some crazy home-made ones still afloat.

There have been numerous speculative projects by architects over the years for floating communities- ranging from floating cities in Tokyo harbor to glorified tax-havens like the so-called Freedom Ship. Others have been smaller scale, individual units connected together in a tropical lagoon for example. Few have got off the drawing board, however. Those communities that do exist are largely ad hoc groupings of house boats in a pleasure port or along a river bank.
And then there are the squatter communities that live along various waterways on makeshift barges and rafts.

Recently NPR's and National Geographic's Climate Connections- a series (available as a podcast) dedicated to the effects of climate change around the world and how people are coping with it, dedicated part of an episode to a Dutch architect and his floating houses that are being used to create floating and mobile communities in the Netherlands. The Netherlands have of course, over a thousand year old history of battle against the "water-wolf" which threatens to consume their land- and with climate change that battle enters a new era. Merely raising the dykes will not work and there are many projects in the works, including the possibility of man-made barrier islands in the North Sea.

But there is growing recognition that planned flooding is going to be one way that they deal with problems of storm surges and flood waters from upstream- and houses that can lift off their foundation and float during a flood would be one way of keeping people, and their property, safe. Its am idea I had thought about years ago, basically a house that rose up on poles and sank down again- but since I'm not an architect, merely a dreamer, the idea was left to others. Still, nice to see that its finally being done.

Additionally, floating houses, or houseboats, can be built and floated to areas that are permanently underwater without the need to drain the land and create polders. In a densely populated country such as the Netherlands, that is definately a bonus. Check out the Climate Connection page dedicated to the architecture - Dutch Plan for a Floating Future.

And some Dutch architects, check the link below, are talking of colonizing the sea. Not exactly a new idea, but maybe one that has finally come of age. Perhaps the age of colonizing the sea has finally come about, and the Dutch are going to do it.

Of course, if we look around the world, we see that there have been floating villages around for ages, and that people have been using houseboats for aquaculture and food production for hundreds if not thousands of years in Asia. The Marsh Arabs lived on floating islands of reeds in the marshes of Iraq until Sadam drained the marshes, creating some 200,000 refugees, many of whom went to Iran. Man-made islands called crannogs were a common feature in Ireland and Scotland from prehistoric times through to the middle ages, and of course there is Venice, which, while not actually floating (in fact it's sinking), was created on mud-flats and is as much a city of water as anything else. And, lest we forget, there are the numerous "river shacks" in bayous and along waterways throughout the Southern United States- home to rednecks, recluses, and probably a few hippies in there too.

So I thought I'd include some photos of some real and imagined floating homes and floating communities- just of all of you out there, who, like me, dream of living in a floating, nomadic home one day.

The Pilkington Sea City- an idea from the seventies.

David Szondy, whose excellent Tales of Future Past I got this photo off, writes,

"In some cases, it would be to artificial islands, such as Pilkington Sea City. Designed in 1971, this city of 30,000 was a totally automated community powered by natural gas, equipped with all sorts of the latest amenities, and where the population made its living by fish farming, marine research, and ballast dredging. Yes, I said ballast dredging. It was supposed to be built on Dogger Bank in the middle of the North Sea-- Probably the daftest development site this side of the Roaring Forties. If you've never sailed through the North Sea in wintertime, consider yourself lucky. It's one of the foulest, coldest, and generally nastiest stretches of water around. The Pilkington people claimed that the city would be perfectly shielded by wave barriers and an enormous wind break that formed the outer wall of the place, but for myself I'd have more confidence in domesticating a Cape Buffalo."

And check out this design for a floating scientific observation vessel, and a smaller design actually built by architect Jacques Rougerie. Check out his website- everything from ocean cities to space stations.

Take a look at the Ocean Arcologies page from with images and photos of architects models of floating cities.

And the University of Delft had bought two islands in Second Life and is using them to develop it's idea for a floating city which can be found on their website

One of the really common activities of actual floating, or semi-floating villages is fishing and aquaculture, as anyone who has visited coastal Asia can attest. Floating salmon farms and oyster farms are a common feature of suitable coastal areas in Europe, North America and Australia as well. This design, by architect Jacques Rougerie, may be the next logical step- the whole structure is meant to be towed into location and 'unfolded'. In addition to being a farm, it would provide lodgings for 6-10 peopele:

For a look at the more vernacular side of floating living take a look at these:

A Marsh Arab village from before Saddam drained the marshes-



Similar Reed Island and Village in Lake Titicaca, Peru

from de:Bild:Insel uros.jpg.

A Floating Village in Vietnam


And Thailand


Another one in Thailand- Sangkhlaburi


A floating fish farm on a floating village in China

from flickr-

A river shack in a bayou


Canal Boats in London- from the blog Ecoboot

Other Blogs of Interest with posts on floating cities