EARTH 390: Natural Hazard Policy

Professor: Seth Stein                    Lectures: Tues Thurs 12:30-1:50 PM, Tech F285 

Defending society against natural hazards is a high-stakes game of chance against nature, involving tough decisions. How should a developing nation allocate its budget between building schools for towns without ones and making existing schools earthquake-resistant? Does it make more sense 
to build levees to protect against floods, or to prevent development in the areas at risk? Would more lives be saved by making hospitals earthquake-resistant, or by using the funds for patient care? What should scientists tell the public when—as occurred in L’Aquila, Italy, and Mammoth Lakes, California— there is a real but small risk of an upcoming earthquake or volcanic eruption? Recent hurricanes, earthquakes, and tsunamis show that society often handles such choices poorly. Sometimes nature surprises us when an earthquake, hurricane, or flood is bigger or has greater effects than expected from detailed hazard assessments. In other cases, nature outsmarts us, doing great damage despite expensive mitigation measures or causing us to divert limited resources to mitigate hazards that are overestimated. Much of the problem comes from the fact that formulating effective natural hazard policy involves combining science, economics, and risk analysis to analyze a problem and explore the costs and benefits of different options, in situations where the future is very uncertain. Because mitigation policies are typically chosen without such analysis, the results are often disappointing. This course uses general principles and case studies to explore how we can do better by taking an integrated view of natural hazards issues, rather than treating the relevant geoscience, engineering, economics, and policy formulation separately. We will consider thought-provoking questions that confront the complex issues involved.


Overview article describing the topic from the Humboldt Foundation magazine Kosmos

Required Text

Playing Against Nature: Integrating Science and Economics to Mitigate Natural Hazards in an Uncertain World by S. Stein and J. Stein, 2014 

More information about the book 

EOS article (Society’s High Stakes Game of Chance Against Nature) about the text


60%: Homework problems 
20%: Group project 
20%: In-class problems 

Portable electronic devices may not be used in class. Please bring handouts to lecture. You may work with other students on the problems, if at the beginning of each assignment you list whom you worked with and on which parts. Problem sets are due one week after being assigned, unless prior arrangements have been made. Class question make-ups are only allowed by advance arrangements. As per university policy, class attendance is expected and required. 

EOS article  (Exploring Natural Hazard Policies with Bike Helmets and Bus Fares) about the class

Article about 2015 class project

Publication from 2015 class project (Should Fermi have secured his water heater?)

Course Handouts:

EARTH 390 Handout (pdf) 

Class lectures: large downloadable power point files, expanded from the text

  1. Introduction part 1  part 2
  2. When Nature Won
  3. Nature Bats Last
  4. Uncertainty and Probability
  5. Communicating What We Know and Don’t
  6. Human Disasters part 1 part2
  7. How Much is Enough?
  8. Guessing the Odds
  9. When’s the Next Earthquake? part 1 part 2
  10. Assessing Hazards
  11. Mitigating Hazards
  12. Choosing Mitigation Policies