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Pushing the Boundaries in Disaster Studies: Reflections from the NEEDS 2022 PhD Workshop

By Mhari Gordon, on 14 November 2022

Mhari Gordon is a PhD student at UCL-IRDR.

This blog was jointly posted with RADIX and COPE.


This month, November 2022, I was fortunate enough to attend and present at the Northern European Emergency and Disaster Studies (NEEDS) Conference as well as participate in the preceding PhD workshop. The PhD workshop was run over a day and a half by Emmanuel Raju, Ksenia Chmutina, and JC Gaillard and attended by 18 PhD students. The workshop was a fantastic experience and great opportunity to meet enthusiastic disaster scholars.

NEEDS PhD Workshop participants, facilitators, and guests. Photo credit: Ksenia Chmutina (original photo link).

The workshop kicked off with an activity mapping how our PhD research topics connected in terms of key concepts, methodologies, research subjects or objects, and geographical locations. Despite diversity in our research orientations and backgrounds, the mapping exercise highlighted overlaps. For example, many of our studies focus on groups which are under-represented individuals in disaster studies, such as genders beyond the binary, learning challenges, youth, and refugees. We also noticed a trend in using methodologies which sit more on the mixed and qualitative methods side, moving away from large-scale approaches observed in quantitative methods.

Moreover, we recognised and spoke about our experiences of using concepts such as vulnerability, resilience, and intersectionality. Terms which were originally critical ‘western’ concepts that have now turned into mainstream buzzwords and act as blanket and uniform (or universalism) approaches in disaster studies. There is a tension between reclaiming the true heterogeneous nature of such concepts, but also debating the need to move beyond them. Such concepts may not have the same meanings, or even exist, in all cultures and languages. New disaster studies need to be more reflective and critical by expanding out of the previous siloing and labelling as well as welcoming the diversity of cultural contexts. This led to us reflecting on our positionality in studying disasters and how to navigate this in terms of methodologies and sharing our messages with audiences. During the afternoon sessions, we started asking questions such as why is the research being done and who will benefit? We then analysed and critiqued a more extensive set of questions which is outlined in the RADIX Disaster Studies Accord (link).

The second morning was dedicated to publishing in disaster journals. The workshop facilitators and guests, including Christine Eriksen, Rodrigo Mena, Eefje Hendriks, and Ricardo Fuentealba, shared valuable and practical advice. The two key takeaways from the morning were to consider 1) the editors of a journal and 2) the format of publication. As authors of academic publications, we need to critically consider how we can best present and do justice to the messages that we are sharing. This may be in the likes of keeping parts of the text in the original language so that the local context and meaning are not lost in translation or interpreted with western-academic terms and norms. Or the likes of different formats to the standard academic paper such as a comic strip – which will be included in an upcoming issue of the Disaster Prevention and Management Journal (journal link).

The advice shared with the PhD students for publishing in Disaster journals was:

Ask colleagues and mentors about their experiences with different journals and seek their advice on which journal they think is most suitable for our manuscript.

Read the scope of the journal and if there is still uncertainty about whether our manuscript’s topic fits, then send an email to the editor(s) asking for their advice before formally submitting.

Look at which journals our citations and references, as well as scholars with similar research interests, have published in. This will give one an initial indication of the type of work which is accepted by the journal.

Editors can usually tell by the title and first few sentences of the manuscript whether it will be accepted for peer review or not – so our manuscript needs to be convincing from the start.

Do not panic if it is taking a few months between the manuscript being accepted for review and receiving feedback. It can take time to find appropriate and willing reviewers and for them to review the manuscript. There are also unexpected delays or interruptions during this process.

Finally, if the authenticity of the research and manuscript does not match the standardised format but fits within the scope of a journal, then we should not hesitate to contact the editor(s) to see if they are willing and able to find a creative solution!

Overall, the key message from the PhD workshop was to keep pushing the boundaries of disaster studies, in terms of concepts, methodologies, and assumptions, as well as how we share our research!

Climate, Disasters, and Displacement: Asia-Pacific Perspectives panel. Presenters for part two (left to right): Mhari Gordon, Sivakamy Thayaalan, Yvonne Su, and Geeta Moni. Photo credit: Mhari Gordon (original photo link).


More information about the NEEDS 2022 conference, including keynotes and panels, can be found at: https://eventsignup.ku.dk/needs2022/conference.

I would like to gratefully acknowledge the UCL Warning Research Centre for funding my PhD study and the UCL Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction for funding the expenses for me to attend the NEEDS 2022 Conference.

Arctic Field Training in Svalbard (Spitsbergen)

By Stanislav Pavlov, on 29 April 2013

Arctic sea ice cover has had a high profile in the media over the last few years. There has been a growing interest in the region from across the scientific community, such as oceanographers and marine engineers in particular. The Arctic ice cover has reduced, allowing increasing access to the natural resource base in the arctic and has the potential to open new shipping routes.

As part of my PhD project researching the risks of Arctic offshore operations we were invited to participate in a field training course organized by the University Centre of Svalbard (UNIS) in Svalbard – far in the Arctic north. Together with Prof. Peter Sammonds we left the relative luminosity and warmth of London to arrive in Longyearbyen, the world’s northernmost town at 78°North, during the peak of the polar night season.

Field training in the afternoon with Longyearbyen town in the background

Field training in the afternoon with Longyearbyen town in the background

Over the course of one week we practiced skills, both indoors and in the field, essential for work in the Arctic region. These included first aid, sea and emergency rescue, rifle training, crevasse and avalanche rescue etc.  Activities that would otherwise seem relatively mundane were much more difficult to accomplish in the freezing cold. Tasks such as setting up camp or equipment, were made much more difficult by several layers of clothing and necessitated efficient team effort. The wind and visibility were key unpredictable variables that would change the conditions in a very short space of time.

It was refreshing to see many participants in the safety course, highlighting the number of scientists who are working on understanding the arctic environment. The equipment given to participants in field experiments was excellent and the rescue service in Svalbard was second to none.

During our stay we understood the importance of the skills needed to operate in this fragile and ever changing environment. In addition we were in an excellent position to observe and absorb the unusual Arctic environment. In particular we were surprised to find that the ice cover did not extend to the main part of the island, and was only partially covering the northeasterly corner of the island. This was not surprising as the ice cover has been at its lowest levels in past few years.

It was easy to see that with the lower levels of ice cover, an increasing exploration of these areas will be very likely in the near future. As with any oil exploration there are many risks involved in the operations. The key for our research at IRDR is to research the associated risks involved in such activities. So far there have not been any major incidents in the Artic seas, but with ever increasing activity in the region the understanding of the risks is vital in preventing and dealing with any possible future disasters.

Svalbard Rescue Services demonstrating a rescue operation with a Super Puma helicopter

Svalbard Rescue Services demonstrating a rescue operation with a Super Puma helicopter

Our visit to the Arctic was an amazing experience and the completion of the safety course will allow us to participate in future fieldwork projects within Svalbard and obtain valuable field data to further our understanding of the Arctic sea ice.

Fieldwork in Abruzzo: Four years on from L’Aquila

By Luke N J Wedmore, on 19 April 2013

With the 4-year anniversary of the devastating L’Aquila earthquake occurring in the middle of my first PhD fieldtrip to Italy, the importance of studying active faults in the Abruzzo region remained at the front of my thoughts throughout my trip. The aim of the trip was to use Laser scanning (LiDAR) and ground penetrating radar (GPR) to increase our understanding of the active earthquake faults in the area. The group comprised Dr. Joanna Faure Walker (UCL IRDR), Dr. Ken McCaffrey (Durham University) and Dr. Laura Gregory (University of Leeds).

Dr. Ken McCaffrey (Durham University) using LiDAR to scan active normal faults in Abruzzo

Dr. Ken McCaffrey (Durham University) using LiDAR to scan active normal faults in Abruzzo

The first week was spent collecting GPR and LiDAR data along active faults, while the second week was spent hunting for potential future data collection sites. The active normal faults in this area can be seen in the landscape due to the existence of prominent limestone bedrock fault scarps on the side of steep mountains. However, such fault scarps are not present everywhere; for example, part of the fault responsible for the 1915 Avezzano earthquake that killed over 30,000 people crosses the Fucino plain. The Fucino basin is a former lake bed that was drained in the 1800’s. Consequently, the fault scarp has been obscured by erosion from the lake and more recently by intensive farming. LiDAR scans of sites along the fault trace within the plain ensure that we have a 3D digital image of the current state of the fault.

LiDAR scanning on the Fucino Plain

During the course of the two-week trip I visited 10 active faults across the region of Abruzzo and collected large quantities of data to process over the coming months. Visiting the faults for the first time was invaluable to my understanding of the earthquake hazard and overall seismic risk that people in the area are subject to.  Observing spectacular villages that cling to the sides of mountains located in the hanging walls of active faults and larger towns in the basins below highlighted the potentially devastating impact earthquakes in the area could have.  The results of my work will feed into a larger NERC funded study which aims to determine the time since each active fault last produced an earthquake; being a first year PhD student, this is a fantastic opportunity for me and I am looking forward to contributing to such an innovative and exciting project.