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Originally published Monday, November 25, 2013 at 5:05 AM

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Susan Kieffer’s scientific life is one disaster after another

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Lit Life

Geologist Susan Kieffer is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and MacArthur “genius” grant winner. Her life’s work is big-scale disasters — hurricanes, typhoons, rogue waves and floods; tornadoes, earthquakes, landslides and volcanoes. But she recently took on one of science’s biggest challenges — trying to explain the mechanics of our unstable world in terms a general reader can understand.

The result, “The Dynamics of Disaster” (Norton, 315 pp., $25.95), fulfills the dream of Kieffer, 71, a longtime professor at the University of Illinois who recently returned to the Northwest when she moved to Whidbey Island. Kieffer was a young scientist working on the Mount St. Helens eruptions when it blew up in 1980.

If you are an amateur weather geek, disaster wonk or budding student of the earth sciences, you will want to read this book. (If you’re squeamish, skip the chapter titled “A Plague of Snakes.”) Kieffer recently answered questions about disasters in an increasingly crowded world, where the pace of catastrophe never seems to slow — the most recent being the Philippines’ Typhoon Haiyan, with estimates of more than 5,000 people dead, about 1,600 missing and millions displaced.

Q: Here’s the question I bet you always get at cocktail parties. Disasters seem to be getting more and more frequent: Is that true?

A: The answer is that they’re probably not getting more frequent. They are more in the news, and the Earth is getting ever more populated.

We don’t have any statistical proof that they’re getting more frequent. It’s a perception that’s fed by the news media, and the fact that more and more people are affected because there are more and more people on the earth. Unfortunately it’s the disadvantaged that are put in harm’s way.

Q: Why is that?

A: My guess is that it’s simply economics, that the richer people live in the better places.

Q: But you also make the point that disaster-prone areas are some of the most desirable places in the world to live.

A: Yes. The primary use (of land) in undeveloped countries is agriculture, and the soils around volcanoes are very rich. But volcanoes are really beautiful — look at the area around Mt. Fuji in Japan.

At Caltech [where Kieffer attended graduate school], we always used to laugh at Caltech professors who lived in Pasadena, right on the San Andreas Fault. A lot of decisions play in to where people choose to live. We’re not intuitively equipped to understand low-probability events with high consequences.

Q: People seem loathe to move out of disaster-prone places, even if they know the worst might happen.

A: I wrote something for NPR on that subject, though it never aired, looking at the [Timothy Egan] book “The Worst Hard Time,” on why people stayed in the area during the Dust Bowl days. In general, some people are really attached to the land. Some are in denial. Some hope that it will be better next time. Some people are just too poor to move.

Q: If I had to summarize your stance on climate change, I would say that you accept that it’s happening, but it hasn’t been demonstrated that specific weather events can be tied to it at this point. Correct?

A: Yes. I purposely didn’t make a whole chapter on climate change. I didn’t want to polarize people from the start. My personal belief on what I have been able to read ... I think climate change is happening, and I think the human contribution is significant.

I don’t think we can say that a specific local weather event can be attributed to it. There are still some arguments that they [disastrous weather events] could be attributed to century-time-scale variation. ... We just have to look at the whole earth system. There’s no question that humans are a geologic force on the planet now.

Q: You’ve examined so many different kinds of disasters. What’s the most awe-inspiring disaster that you have witnessed and/or studied?

A: The devastation at Mount St. Helens has to be the most awe-inspiring sight that I’ve seen in terms of experiencing the power that can be unleashed by geologic processes, though I wasn’t there when the eruption itself occurred. [Kieffer was at St. Helens for the preliminary eruptions and studied the blast zone afterward, but was in Arizona on May 18, 1980, when the mountain blew, killing her colleague, geologist David Johnston.]

In terms of what I have personally witnessed, the 1983 flood on the Colorado River was awesome. I was flown down into the Grand Canyon by helicopter to one of the largest rapids of the Colorado, Crystal Rapids, where a 15-foot-high standing wave spanned the river channel. The noise from the wave and rapids, combined with the basso profondo thumping of meter-sized boulders bouncing along the bed of the river is something that’s stayed vividly with me for 30 years.

Mary Ann Gwinn: 206-464-2357 or

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