Planning for a Crowded Pacific Rim
David G. Howell

The Pacific Rim is a place where tectonic plates collide, and where inhabitants live with earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, typhoons, landslides, floods, fires and tsunamis. Economic globalization and population growth near the Pacific coasts have compounded the effects of natural disasters. Where societies are inexorably intertwined and where lifelines - transportation corridors, communication cables, pipelines and other arteries that sustain the populace - have few redundancies, local calamities can become regional catastrophes. A severe disruption in any one place will impact human lives and have economic echoes elsewhere in the world.

Crowding the Rim is a public-private partnership that is international and interdisciplinary. Established in May 2000, it combines the talents and resources of the American Red Cross, the Circum-Pacific Council, Stanford University and the U.S. Geological Survey, along with other supporting organizations and corporate sponsors. Its mission is to determine how the consequences of natural hazards can reverberate through the Pacific Basin and to further the use of science and technology in understanding and mitigating these far-flung effects.

Catalyzing the partnership was an international summit that took place in August at Stanford University, bringing together about 250 people from 20 countries. Professionals from such sectors as emergency management, academia, education, industry and technology worked side by side.

The delegates ranged in age from Michel T. Halbouty, age 92, to Brenda Cartagena, age 15. When Brenda is as old as Mike is now, the year will be 2078 and the world's population will have grown from 2 billion when Mike was born to nearly 10 billion. And in that same time span, the Pacific basin will experience as many as 50 magnitude-8 earthquakes and hundreds of volcanic eruptions and typhoons. Just how these natural hazards will impact our lives depends in large measure on how well we are prepared.

A concluding statement from the summit's delegates said, in part: "We have come together - separate individuals from around the world, representing a broad variety of disciplines, organizations and cultures. We depart as a group, sharing an extraordinary enthusiasm, energy and spirit; committed to taking what we have learned and experienced back into the communities and institutions from which we have come. Now the question is how we can carry this spirit and intent back with us into our daily lives, and share it with others having similar concerns."

In this sprit, a goal of the initiative is to disseminate information. One tool we have developed is RimSim, a game simulation that is a six-hour, seven-party negotiation, to create a framework for understanding the next generation of disasters.

During the summit, RimSim showed us some key priorities in dealing with real-world disasters. The delegates concluded, "As a result of our work with [RimSim], in which interdisciplinary groups of analysts engaged in post-disaster planning, we respect the difficulty of making long-range decisions in the face of limited information and complex, interwoven regional infrastructures - but gain confidence that it can be overcome.

"The exercise yielded some consensus themes that may be useful in real-world situations: establishing the primacy of regional over national objectives; involving local people and reinforcing local capacity; recognizing the priority of humanitarian purposes; recognizing and accepting resource limitations and reaching creative solutions by exploration outside the initial assumptions."

RimSim showed us that we need to understand how the ripple effects of a natural disaster can complicate short- and long-term recovery, with impacts both near and far from a disaster's location.

We also realized that we need to illustrate the importance of and some of the problems surrounding the use of scientific information in disaster recovery situations. Scientific information is rarely conclusive or definitive, and can thus add uncertainty to the disaster planning process. The science community must take the responsibility to ensure that scientific information is not only heard, but also understood, believed and deemed relevant. Otherwise, our work might simply be ignored.

Further, when disasters strike, cooperative fact-finding among all people dealing with the disaster enhances their confidence in the information they use to make decisions.

Another tool for sharing knowledge is a geographic information systems (GIS) database called HAZPAC, for Hazards of the Pacific, to incorporate data on geohazards, demographics and infrastructure.

Having developed these tools, our next challenge is getting them into the hands of those who most need them. To do so, we will host workshops in selected countries. These workshops will serve as forums to introduce the findings of the Summit and to provide opportunities to explore how HAZPAC and RimSim can be customized to deal with specific regional issues, such as the vulnerability of the Americas' trade corridors.

Looking to the future, a key component of the Crowding the Rim mission is to educate future leaders. We have designed a high school module to educate learners about hazard issues, socio-economic risks to their country and the value of international collaboration. The module is being developed in cooperation with the Stanford Program for International Cross-Cultural Education, which will also distribute it.

"It was essential to involve students and teachers in the summit," said Donald Kennedy, editor of Science magazine and co-chair of the Crowding the Rim Summit. "One of our hopes is that, through the educational module, the new generation of people growing up around the Pacific Rim will have a much better fix on how to make plans in case a disaster happens."

Howell is a scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Menlo Park and is co-chair of the Crowding the Rim initiative. He prepared this with the Crowding the Rim team. Visit

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