DISASTERSThe Social Impact of Disasters

By Samuel Schlaefli

Published 29 April 2022

A human geographer and a physicist conduct research into weather and climate risks. Their methods may be different, but they agree that the scale of a disaster is often determined more by societal decisions than by the natural hazard itself.  

Christine Eriksen spent 13 years living and working in Australia before taking up her post at ETH Zurich in August 2020. “One of the reasons I decided to move to Switzerland was to escape the growing number of catastrophic bushfires,” she says. The “Black Summer” fires blazed across Australia between June 2019 and May 2020, burning more than 18 million hectares of land and causing damage estimated at CHF 70 billion.

Eriksen was living in Wollongong at the time, 90 kilometers south of Sydney. Fires raged in the hinterland for months, eventually reaching the coast. Smoke drifted into lower-lying urban areas. “I would wake at night in a panic, gasping for breath because the room was full of smoke,”says Eriksen. “Yet my home was a good 60 kilometers from the nearest fire!”

Millions of people were exposed to persistent smoke, and it exacerbated Eriksen’s struggle to separate her personal life from her research work on the social dimensions of disasters.

The Risk of Wildland-Urban Interfaces
As a human geographer, Eriksen has been fascinated by forest fires ever since her time as a doctoral student. Her research explores the challenges of rebuilding after forest fires, the role played by social and cultural norms in disaster resilience, and the way in which policy decisions can increase risk in certain contexts.

As part of her field research, Eriksen spent several years in fire-prone areas of south-eastern Australia and California, interviewing residents, public officials and firefighters, and observing changes in socio-economic factors. Her findings showed that people were increasingly moving away from cities in search of nature, affordable housing and a better work-life balance. “This steady expansion of the wildland-urban interface has greatly increased the risk of forest fires turning into social disasters,”says Eriksen. “And that’s something we’re seeing in many parts of the world, including California and the Mediterranean.”

Climate change has increased the frequency and intensity of major forest fires along with heatwaves and dry summers. “When I began my research in the 2000s, Australia could typically expect a major fire once every 5 to 10 years. Now they’re happening once every 2 to 3 years,” says Eriksen. Yet she still shudders every time she hears the term “natural disaster”. “Disasters are not ‘natural’,” she says. “The biggest risks are primarily a result of social and cultural processes.”