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UCL Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction


Can you write about your research using the 1,000 most common words in the English language?

Joanna PFaure Walker10 May 2019

At the IRDR Spring Academy, I set each member of the IRDR the challenge of explaining their research using only the 1,000 most commonly used words in the English language (taken from this website).  We were allowed the odd exception for a few essential keywords (in my case “earthquake” and “fault”). We had about ten minutes to do this. Below we share some of our attempts. Would you like to try the same exercise?

IRDR Spring Academy 2019

Mohamed Alwahedi:

Some scientists think that all earthquakes happen in the same way, and by the same reason. That is called the self-similarity theory. I am going to test that theory.

David Alexander:

My latest research is on a sunken ship that is full of thousands of live bombs. The work looks at how the risk has been managed and what might happen to the wreck. There are several reasons why the ship might explode. Unfortunately, for 75 years, nothing has been done to reduce the risk, which has grown as the wreck has become older. The British Government has failed to create a clear picture of the danger posed by the ship. Hence, in terms of details, the risk is poorly known. An explosion could cause a terrible disaster. It is time to act, defuse the bombs and clear away the ship, but the options are limited by the danger.

Lucy Buck:

I study how a tsunami changes the land after the water has gone and what this means for the people who live there.

Joanna Faure Walker:

What makes an earthquake occur when and where it does? Scientists seek to answer this question using many different methods. My current work has two main approaches. First, if we collect more field data can we improve risk knowledge? Second, how much more can we learn when we measure details of fault structures? Through my work we have learnt more about how faults join and grow, where earthquakes occur and why, and what next steps need to be taken to help us reduce risk from earthquakes.

Jessica Field:

I have been researching in archives (which is a place where old documents are kept) in Delhi to better understand how the Indian government managed aid during emergencies like floods, earthquakes and conflicts during the 1940s-1960s.

Nathanael Harwood:

Not all ‘Global Warming’ has an equal impact across the Globe; the Arctic in particular has warmed at twice the rate of the rest of the globe, causing the region to be warmer and moister than it should be according to the last half-century of records.  At the same time weather extremes, including hot and cold waves that stick around for longer, have become a common occurrence further south of the Arctic where billions of people live in the warmer ‘midlatitudes’.  As Londoners, that includes us.  Normal weather conditions, or at least weather we would expect given the record, rely on a stable temperature and pressure difference between the Arctic and the midlatitudes which drives the wind and blows weather patterns like storms away at a reasonable pace.  But when these differences are changed, and the Arctic warms at a rate never seen before, it seems obvious that wind patterns and the atmosphere as a whole could be disturbed, made wavier and slower, or even blocked.

Despite this, we still don’t know the specific details on how the Arctic is impacting our weather, or the main driver of our weather called the ‘Jet Stream’, which blows above us at about the height you would take a jet plane at.  Computer models have given a wide range of results, and traditional techniques to look at climate records have failed to provide any robust answers.  This project uses ‘Bayesian Networks’, a way of considering how different things relate to each other in a large network, to look at how the Arctic region fits into relationships between the atmosphere and different parts of the world.  These large-scale disturbances of the jet stream, wind and weather are a crucial part of the climate change puzzle because they can cause devastating cold conditions, like on the US East Coast, unbearable heat waves across parts of Europe, as well as floods and droughts.  If we want to understand what the future holds for us in terms of extreme weather, we need to understand the relationships between these different drivers so that we can predict and better prepare for a future with a very warm Arctic.

Ilan Kelman:

There is a lot of talk that people must move because the climate is changing. Counting these numbers of people is very difficult and cannot really be done. People move for many reasons and do not always make decisions using long times. It is hard to pick only one factor.

Claudia Sgambato:

Earthquakes are some of the most dangerous natural events, causing many deaths and damage. It is important to contribute to the knowledge of when and where the next earthquakes will occur, and how destructive they can be. However, it is not an easy task: at present there is no way to predict an earthquake. My research addresses this problem, by studying where the structures responsible for producing earthquakes, called faults, are, and how often they rupture. I also study the geometry of the faults, in other words their changes in shape, because these may have an important role in the seismic hazard, causing a higher rate of deformation.

Mark Shortt:

Alone, I travelled to the north to research sea ice. It was very cold with a lot of wind, but with the help of other scientists I got some strength values. This will be important for oil and gas companies.

Omar Velazquez Ortiz:

I am trying to understand and improve the different escape ways that structures’ occupants can use under a shaking event, considering early warnings

Rory Walshe:

How does the history of risk from major cyclones effect society and culture for institutions and individuals and how can we research history to understand response.

Caroline Wood:

International professional instructions are available to help doctors give drugs to stop disease. Doctors can find it difficult to use these instructions in their practice, particularly for operations. Our research designs digital decision resources (apps) to help improve knowledge and educate doctors about the correct drugs to give.

Punam Yadav:

My recent research, which focusses on political participation of women and their agency, examines the life experiences of women who have been elected at the local government. The aim of this research is to examine the impact of reservation on the everyday life of these women politicians.

I carried out 25 interviews with women politicians and 5 interviews with male politicians. Despite increase in women’s representation in politics in Nepal, these women politicians talked about how difficult it was for them to work in a male dominated environment. They also spoke about opportunities their new roles had brought for them. They have access to new space and earned more respect due to their new roles.

IRDR Masters student publishes Early Warning and Temporary Housing Research. This is part of the on-going collaboration between UCL-IRDR and IRIDeS-Tohoku University

Joanna PFaure Walker4 June 2018

Angus Naylor, an IRDR Masters student alumni and Masters Prize Winner, has published the research conducted for his Independent Research Project. The research was carried out as part of his MSc Risk, Disaster and Resilience with me, his project supervisor, and our collaborator at Tohoku University IRIDeS (International Research Institute of Disaster Science), Dr Anawat Suppasri.

Following the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami in 2011, UCL-IRDR and Tohoku University IRIDeS wanted to join forces to learn more about both the fundamental science and impacts of disasters both in Japan and around the world. Naylor’s recently published paper adds to other collaborative outputs from the two institutes: Mildon et al., 2016, investigating Coulomb Stress Transfer within the area of earthquake hazard research; Suppasri et al., 2016 investigating fatality ratios following the 2011 Great East Japan Tsunami; and IRDR Special Report 2014-01 on the destruction from Typhoon Yolanda in the Philippines. The two institutions have met on a number of occasions, and have an upcoming symposium in October 2018.

In 2014, three and half years after the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami destroyed much of Tohoku’s coastline, I led and Dr Anawat Suppasri organised a joint UCL-IRDR and Tohoku University IRIDeS team, visiting residents of six temporary housing complexes in Miyagi and Iwate prefectures. While there, we used written questionnaires and informal group interviews to investigate the suitability of early warning systems and the temporary housing among the elderly population affected by this event.

When analysing the results, we found overall that age was not the principal factor in affecting whether a warning was received, but did play a significant role regarding what was known before the warning was received, whether action was taken and how temporary and permanent housing was viewed. The results suggest that although the majority of respondents received some form of warning (81%), no one method of warning reached more than 45% of them, demonstrating the need for multiple forms of early warning system alerts. Furthermore, only half the respondents had prior knowledge of evacuation plans with few attending evacuation drills and there was a general lack of knowledge regarding shelter plans following a disaster. Regarding shelter, it seems that the “lessons learned” from the 1995 Kobe Earthquake were perhaps not so learnt, but rather many of the concerns raised among the elderly in temporary housing echoed the complaints from 16 years earlier: solitary living, too small, not enough heating or sound insulation and a lack of privacy.

An example of Temporary Housing following the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami visited during the fieldwork for this study (Photograph: Dr Joanna Faure Walker)

The research supports previous assertions that disasters can increase the relative vulnerabilities of those already amongst the most vulnerable in society. This highlights that in order to increase resilience against future disasters, we need to consider the elderly and other vulnerable groups within the entire Early Warning System process from education to evacuation and for temporary housing in the transitional phase of recovery.

The paper, ‘Suitability of the early warning systems and temporary housing for the elderly population in the immediacy and transitional recovery phase of the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami’ published in the International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction, can be accessed for free until 26th July here, after this date please click here for standard access.

The authors are grateful for the fieldwork funds which came from The Great British Sasakawa Foundation funding to UCL-IRDR and MEXT’s funding to IRIDeS. The joint UCL-IRDR1 and IRIDeS2 fieldwork team comprised Joanna Faure Walker1, Anawat Suppasri2, David Alexander1, Sebastian Penmellen Boret2, Peter Sammonds1, Rosanna Smith1, and Carine Yi2.

Angus Naylor is currently doing a PhD at Leeds University
Dr Joanna Faure Walker is a Senior Lecturer at UCL IRDR
Dr Anawat Suppasri is an Associate Professor at IRIDeS-Tohoku University

Chilean Volcano Field Work

Amy LChadderton10 February 2014

In 2008 Chaitén Volcano in Chile reawakened spectacularly after what was thought to be over 5000 years of slumber. In early May 2008 the residents of nearby Chaitén town received just 24 hours warning of the imminent eruption in the form of earthquakes strong enough to knock objects from shelves. Residents of the small town, known as the Gateway to Patagonia, one of Chile’s most spectacular and remote regions, evacuated themselves from their vulnerable position at the mouth of the Chaitén River, directly downstream of the volcano.

Eruption at Chaitén Volcano, May 2008 (Carlos Gutierrez)

Eruption at Chaitén Volcano, May 2008 (Carlos Gutierrez)

The eruption began explosively after all residents had safely departed the town and continued effusively for the next 2 years. What made this eruption particularly significant and thrust this small forgotten corner of the world into the global limelight was its extremely sudden onset coupled with the fact that rhyolitic eruptions are so rare that this eruption was the first to be observed in over 100 years. This rarity meant that it was an extremely appealing case study to focus my PhD research on, and an even more appealing place from which to collect experimental samples. This fascination is what led to myself and 6 colleagues, including Professor Peter Sammonds (UCL) and Dr Hugh Tuffen (Lancaster University), to set out on New Years Eve 2013 on the mammoth journey to Southern Chile to visit this incredible volcano.

After four flights, the last of which was in a 9-seater aeroplane that landed on a landing strip that doubled as a main road when flights weren’t expected, and two days, we finally made it to the trailhead of the hike up to the crater rim of Chaitén Volcano.

Professor Peter Sammonds, Amy Chadderton, Dr Hugh Tuffen setting off to Chaiten dome

Setting off up the volcano

This relatively short yet steep hike up the flank of the volcano took us up through the blast zone, an area of once-dense forest that was destroyed by pyroclastic flows generated from the eruption. An encouraging sign of recovery on these slopes was the re-colonisation of vegetation where previously only sporadic trees stripped of all foliage and bark remained standing.

Vegetation regrowth in blast zone

Vegetation regrowth in blast zone

Reaching the crater rim and seeing Chaitén’s 400m lava dome come into view was an awe-inspiring sight. Its imposing size and impressive slopes made for some unforgettable first impressions from the rim. We set up camp on the crater rim as the sun was setting and took in the spectacular scenery.



Despite my enthusiasm for the field trip, I must admit that the descent into the crater the following day was not my favourite activity. The 50m scramble down the perilous near-vertical unconsolidated slope was a challenge, but the end location definitely made the journey worth it. Gazing up at the dome from the crater floor allowed us to fully appreciate its true magnitude.


Most of the dome’s lower slopes are covered in scree, but small intact outcrops offered us tantalizing glimpses into the make-up of the dome itself. It was from one of these outcrops on the earliest lobe of the eruption that I collected my largest sample of rhyolite. Weighing in at 26kg it proved a challenge to transport but hopefully will provide an excellent insight into how this rhyolitic dome formed. Littering the crater floor we also found a plethora of incredibly interesting samples. I collected 3 more large blocks of sample material from the crater floor, including a 7kg piece of an obsidian volcanic bomb. As we could only collect what we could carry we had to be selective, however, and several large volcanic bombs had to be admired and recorded but alas left where we found them. With the help of Hugh and Peter and two trips down the volcano I managed to collect 55kg of sample material from Chaitén Volcano, making it a very successful field trip indeed!

Chaitén Lava Dome

Chaitén Lava Dome

The samples collected from Chaitén will enable me to better understand the dynamics of the 2008 eruption via laboratory analogue experiments. I will measure the permeability of cored samples under volcanic conditions simulated in the lab in order to help determine how gas escapes from the volcano during eruptions. Gas escape greatly influences the dynamics of the eruption and ultimately how dangerous a volcano can be.

Roots of earthquake-prone faults brought to light

Joanna PFaure Walker25 November 2013

Earthquakes affect many highly populated areas around the world so understanding what controls the distribution and frequency of them is a top priority for the earth science and disaster risk reduction communities. Often, however, the controlling factors remain elusive because scientists have limited information about what happens deep down in the Earth’s crust where earthquakes initiate. A recent Nature Geoscience article (Cowie et al. (2013) published online on 3rd November, 2013) has shed light on the problem, and has shown how phenomena on the surface can be linked to the movement of rocks in the deep crust.


Tohoku University Research Visit and Japan Field Mission: March 2013

Amy LChadderton26 April 2013

In March 2011, a Mw 9.0 earthquake occurred off the coast of Tohoku in northeast Japan. This earthquake triggered one of the largest tsunamis Japan has ever seen and devastated much of the coast. Three months after this historic event, EEFIT (the Earthquake Engineering Field Investigation Team) began their Tohoku field mission. On the anniversary of this disastrous event, exactly 2 years after the fateful earthquake, BIS (UK Department for Business Innovation and Skills) funded myself and fellow PhD student Melodie Vanderpuye to undertake a brief follow-up mission to preliminarily scope the progress that has been made in rebuilding devastated areas. The week-long mission to Japan involved strengthening UK-Japan links via participation in the 10th International Workshop on Water Dynamics and ICDP Japan Beyond Brittle Project, and the undertaking of a 2-day field mission to tsunami-impacted areas.

Our week in Japan began with a fascinating 3 days at the 10th International Workshop on Water Dynamics and the ICDP Japan Beyond Brittle Project at Tohoku University, Sendai. The conference brought together a wide range of expertise from both the scientific and engineering communities and provided an interdisciplinary forum for the sharing and discussing of ideas.

Figure 1

The conference was not only informative, providing a brilliant insight into the issues I will be encountering during my PhD, but allowed relationships to be forged between industry representatives and the academic world.  During our time at the conference meetings were also held with the IRIDeS (International Research Institute of Disaster Science) representative Prof Fumihiko Imamura to discuss the agenda for the upcoming conference at UCL in November 2013, which marks the anniversary of the 150 year relationship between UCL and Japan.

Attending the conference we saw first-hand Japan’s praiseworthy desire to nurture international relationships between industry and academia. The hospitality at Tohoku University was second to non and we were looked after extremely well. The conference banquet at the end of the first day was a particular highlight, even if we were swaying slightly with exhaustion from our 12 hour flight and full conference day without any sleep!

After an enlightening 3 days at the conference it was Melodie and I’s turn to go it alone and explore Japan for ourselves in order to follow up on the EEFIT report compiled 2 years earlier. We also wanted to experience first-hand the impact of such a large magnitude, both in power and impact, event. We hired a car to give us the freedom we needed to explore the planned sites. The field mission began in Sendai and took a coastal route where possible, as certain roads still have not been rebuilt after the tsunami, as far north as Ofunato. With a slight nervous excitement regarding what we were going to find, we set off on Friday 15th March heading north towards the Miyagi Prefecture coastline, one of the worst hit sections of coast in Japan.

Heavily damaged railway station at Nobiru.

Railway station at Nobiru.

We were immediately struck by the impact of the tsunami at one of our first stops, Nobiru, a small town east of Matsushima. Nobiru showed no signs of redevelopment apart from a few individual residential homes. The tsunami destroyed the town’s railway station, twisting the tracks and overhead power lines and heavily damaging the station building and surrounding shops. The coastal road is still diverted due to unrepaired damage. It appears that due to the town’s lack of industrial prowess and significant strategic importance, redevelopment has not been a priority and the whole area is mostly abandoned. A similar situation was also observed at Wakabayashi on the coast of Sendai. This is an area of near-total devastation. The only new building within this entire area was a temporary structure housing a 7 Eleven convenience store. Wakabayashi was our final site on the last day of our field mission but despite the evidence of destruction we had observed over the previous 2 days, this final site really made the impact of the tsunami hit home. The utter hopelessness and vulnerability of Wakabayashi’s position coupled with the footprints of homes

Memorial at Wakabayashi, Sendai.

Memorial at Wakabayashi, Sendai.

where living rooms, kitchens, bedrooms and bathrooms were still visible really made us think about the impact of this event on individual families. It is very easy to quote statistics on damage to concrete and steel, and even death toll statistics can become quite meaningless and devoid of emotion when repeated so frequently, but on the ground, stood at the front door of what was once a happy family home, now a mere footprint on the earth, really compounded our belief that something needs to be done to prevent this devastation from occurring to future generations. A memorial stands on the shoreline at Wakabayashi, dedicated to all of the victims of the tsunami.

Rebuild Shop at Onagawa

Rebuild Shop at Onagawa

Sites where the outlook was more positive were Onagawa and Shizugawa Bay, which in contrast to Nobiru and Wakabayashi, showed clear signs of progress but had not quite reached the rebuilding stage of recovery. In Onagawa one indicator of the destruction the 16 metre inundation wave wrought on the bay has turned into an unlikely tourist attraction. A 3-storey steel framed, reinforced concrete building was overturned by the force of the water during the tsunami but remained intact. As images of the building have circled the globe and visitors to the area go out of their way to visit the site, the ruin is now being deliberately preserved as a monument and reminder of the power nature can wield. A car park has been cordoned off and a temporary ‘Rebuild Shop’ has sprung up to help raise funds for the redevelopment of the area.

Left: 2011 EEFIT report image of Building D; Right: Recent mission image of Building D

Left: 2011 EEFIT image of Building D; Right: 2013 image.

After a refreshing night in a Japanese style hotel room, complete with slippers, Tatami Mats and a wonderful bento meal, we set out for Ofunato. On entering the town from the south, the redevelopment and rebuilding efforts of the town became apparent. The road (Route 45) appeared newly laid and lining it were newly constructed buildings housing a range of businesses from small enterprises to larger chain stores. The overall impression of Ofunato was one of progress.

Preserved tree at Takata-Matsubara


Despite the speedy recovery of certain areas devastated by the 2011 tsunami, there is still a long way to go before the Tohoku coastline of Japan can be classified as recovered from this momentous event. Some may argue that it never can fully recover from such an earth-shattering occurrence. Hope, however, can be seen in the miraculous survival of a singular tree on the shoreline of Takata-Matsubara. Where once 70,000 pine trees stood along a 2 km stretch of beach, one tree was left standing after the 2011 tsunami. This ‘miracle pine’ has captured the hearts of the Japanese people and it is now being preserved as an enduring symbol that hope is not lost and life can be protected.

Throughout our enlightening week in Japan, lots of things were learnt, many sights were seen and much rice was eaten. We all came away with a far greater appreciation of what challenges Japan, and indeed the world, are facing relating to our vulnerability to natural disasters. In addition to this deeper understanding however, Melodie and I also learnt that our transferable skills extend to the operation of an entirely Japanese Sat Nav; the personal achievement of our successful navigation around the coast and arrival back at the car hire shop a mere 10 minutes before the drop off time was, we felt, quite a triumph!

We would like to thank, once again, the UK Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) for funding the expedition; their support is gratefully acknowledged.