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Technology and natural hazards clash to create "natech" disasters

In August, a dry lightning storm over California caused an intense forest fire that swept through communities in the Santa Cruz Mountains. After the CZU lightning complex fire was contained, local officials advised some residents returning to their homes not to use drinking water. Benzene, a known carcinogen, was detected in the water supply. The chemical was probably released by plastic pipes that melted during the fire.

Scientists call events like this “natech” or technological disasters induced by natural hazards. Coined in 1994, the term was originally applied to industrial incidents such as chemical or fuel spills that occur after hurricanes, earthquakes, and other natural hazards. But the definition of natech has recently expanded, says resilience scientist David Yu of Purdue University in West Lafayette, India. It now covers any disaster resulting from damage caused by a natural hazard to the technology-dependent infrastructure, he says.

This includes disasters related to the supply of electricity and water. Finding benzene in drinking water after forest fires is a perfect example, Yu says. Natech now also includes disasters that can cause humanitarian crises, such as the 2011 Fukushima nuclear reactor disaster in Japan, caused by a magnitude 9 earthquake and subsequent tsunami (SN: 14/03/11).

The frequency of natech is increasing worldwide, according to a study published in the 2018 Handbook of Disaster Research. More people move to the coasts and edges of wild areas, places vulnerable to natural hazards, especially hurricanes and forest fires (SN: 15/11/18). Power plants, water supply facilities and fiber optic cable networks are needed to support these growing population centers. With the predicted climate change that will fuel more frequent and intense dangers, these natural events will clash with vital infrastructure more frequently (SN: 2/12/20).

Natech often harms the environment but usually does not cause human deaths or injuries. Although the damage is hard to quantify in dollars, the effects of the wave are reaching more than ever, say sociologists Duane Gill of Oklahoma State University in Stillwater and Liesel Ritchie of Virginia Tech in Blacksburg in the Handbook of Disaster Research. This is because the world is more connected than it was 26 years ago. Natech, the couple writes, "reveals the social encrustation of all dangers, risks and disasters."

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