Natural & Technological Hazards

Principal Investigator

João Pereira Gomes (Professor at ISEL/IPL)

Description

Risk analysis is a framework for good governance. Traditionally, it is regarded as the assessment of the probability of exceedance of a certain threshold of intensity of an adverse phenomenon, along with the evaluation of the associated damage to the environment, casualties or loss of property or production. Alongside with natural phenomena, many human activities encompass an inherent level of risk, which must be weighed against its benefits by decision-makers. When the decision favours the activity, the associated risks must be mitigated through regulations, to bring it to a socially acceptable level. This is the essence of risk management, which requires, among other components an in-depth scientific knowledge of the phenomena at stake.

During the last decade, it has become apparent that an integrated approach is needed to make risk analysis a useful decision-support tool, because different risks are interdependent – i.e., systemic – and should therefore be treated with a holistic perspective. Natech events (disasters combining a natural and a technological component) – of which the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear disaster of March 2011 is a grim reminder – are the most obvious examples of interdependency between risks of different natures.

Other challenges of risk assessment concern more subtle interplays with societal values that can only be dealt with appropriately through the participation of the stakeholders and the public. Failure to acknowledge these components of risk analysis may lead to technically consistent risk evaluations that are useless (i.e., non-implementable recommendations) for the decision-maker. Even worse, the implementation of recommendations that take into account a partial view of the problem might constitute a hazard in itself, potentially leading to loss of economic livelihood and associated social mobilization. This issue is particularly sensitive in cooperation projects with developing countries, where risk assessment is a key tool for sustainable exploitation of limited resources but it is important to refrain from exporting solutions proven elsewhere without adjustment to the local reality.

CERENA researchers have a solid experience in the assessment of natural and technological hazards and risk, through a large number of past and ongoing projects or contracts in the fields of seismic hazard (FCT projects RETURN, FINDER, SCENE, MOZART, QUAKELOC;  FCT Line of Excellence SEICHE; FP7 project SHARE), volcanic risk (FP7 project MIAVITA), flood hazard (FCT project RIVERSAR, FP7 COST Action FLOODFREQ),  landslide risk (FCT project AULIS, contracts EARAM, EARAM2), climate change related risks (FCT projects ONDAS, BIOARIDRISK and CIDMEG, ERA-NET URBAN, DESERTWATCH ESA project, SADMO EU-INTERREG IIIb MEDOCC and MELODIES FP7 project), soil contamination risk (FP7 project SUSMIN; FCT projects ISIS, NANOCLEAN, BARRINHA-ESMORIZ and SELENIUM, CYTED project IberoArsan, among others), water contamination risk, both underground (FCT project GROUNDURBAN) and in rivers (FP7 project WELCOME II),air pollution risk (BIOZONE and CRYPTOSENSORS FCTs project and GISA project funded by a consortium of stakeholders ), health hazards associated with consumer products (ADI project RUBERREACH, ACT project “Nanoparticles in confined environments”), among many others.

Cooperation with developing countries is well represented in the experience of CERENA researchers, namely in Mozambique, Cape Verde, Latin America and China. The sociological constraints on risk management were dealt with in several projects (MIAVITA, in Cape Verde; EARAM and EARAM II, in Madeira island), through association with specialized teams.

The proposed internal structure of CERENA offers the ideal scenario to approach risk assessment through the methodology outlined above. The integration of competences in the fields of Earth sciences, geoengineering and chemical engineering under the pillar of Environment helps to bridge the gap between natural and man-made hazards, creating the natural forum for the analysis of their interdependence (e.g., seismicity induced by mining activity, natech hazards, etc). Technological hazards such as industrial failures with release of toxic or radioactive substances during the handling, storage or transport of hazardous materials will be crossed with natural hazard zonation, with a view to the mitigation of existing vulnerabilities and better land use planning in what concerns future developments. Special attention will also be paid to the effect of human activities – e.g., deforestation, overexploitation of resources, sealing of the ground – as direct enhancers for adverse natural phenomena such as floods or landslides (the so called “socio-natural” disasters)

Structure

The PI will coordinate the activities of the “natural and technological hazards” thematic line (NATECH), with the assistance of a steering committee composed by the PI’s of the relevant research projects taking place at CERENA at any time.

The NATECH line crosscuts naturally all the research groups of CERENA, as demonstrated by the current variety of projects. The bulk of the research will continue to be conducted within the scope of the projects, and the activities of the thematic line will not interfere with the specific coordination of the projects. Instead, the thematic line will offer the appropriate platform for cross-feeding among projects, promoting interdisciplinary in the current research and spooning new research ideas. The NATECH line will try to follow and implement the best R&D practices that, briefly, has the following structural principles:

i ) Link to national and international authorities involved in risk management

Projects of this thematic line will have a major involvement of authorities at regional, national or international level. This is a crucial issue to bring solutions and tools to decision makers and managers.

ii) Link to the industry through Joint Industrial Projects This involvement is embodied in Joint Industrial Projects in which companies through joint or individual agreements fund R&D projects in key topics for the companies related with technological hazards. This financing is internally converted in PhD studentships and post-doctoral fellows directly involved and committed with the projects.

iii ) Link to Masters and PhD programs: The research projects will be based on work of Masters and PhD students in Earth-Resources Environmental, Chemical and Materials Engineering programs and post-doctoral researchers as well. Moreover some researchers also participate and supervise thesis in  the Master and PhD program of Conservation and Restoration of FCT-UNL.

iv ) Mobility of researchers

One important point that is fundamental to excellent research, is the short and medium term internships of PhD students and post-doctoral fellows in other research centers and universities of great international prestige to open new insights to research questions.

Furthermore the research projects of the thematic line NATECH line will be grounded in CERENA’s laboratorial resources.

Objectives

The Natural & Technological Hazards thematic strand intends to give responses to the diversity of challenges related with natural and technological hazards joining together the competences of the three research groups.The main goal of this thematic line will be to offer the appropriate platform for cross-feeding among projects, promoting interdisciplinary in the current research and spooning new research ideas.

Extraction and processing of raw materials encompass potential risks to the environment, concerning soil or water contamination or the adverse effects on health and property. Examples of the latter are the damage to buildings caused by quarry blasting, or the inhalation of silica by mine workers or nearby residents. There is an increasing demand by societies of a responsible and transparent management and mitigation of the risks associated with the exploitation of raw materials, which must start with a thorough research of all the controlling factors. Current research at CERENA already contemplates remediation of soil contamination by mining activities (e.g., project ISIS), or the broad environmental impact of gold mining (project SUSMIN), among other aspects of hazard mitigation related to raw material exploitation.

In particular, the oil and gas industry raises environmental concerns in all stages from exploration, through production, processing ,transport to storaging. Despite a strong investment in hazard mitigation research, the evolving technology brings about new challenges, as the discussion on the environmental impacts of fracture stimulation (fracking) for the extraction of shale gas illustrates.

The environment has a special relevance for the NATECH line, because it is at the receiving end in case of technological hazards, or at the causative end in case of natural hazards. The study and mitigation of the adverse effects of natural phenomena such as earthquakes, floods or volcanic eruptions on the populations, on the natural or built environment and on the infrastructures is an important part of the current research at CERENA.

Moreover natural and environmental hazards threaten and can be the cause of degradation and destruction of Cultural Heritage.The feed-back mechanisms whereby the industrial disasters induced by natural phenomena affect the natural environment via the affected man-made infrastructures (again, the Fukushima-Daiichi disaster being an obvious example) are a natural area of cross-feeding between research projects.

In order to achieve the main goal, the following objectives will be pursued:

  • to contribute to improve the understanding of natural processes which involve risks to people, ecosystems or infrastructures, in particular floods, landslides and drought.
  • to contribute to improve models for forecasting hazards related with technological hazards in particular.
  • to contribute to improved risk mitigation through land use planning, using an holistic approach.
  • to provide the right environment for cross-feeding between the different projects at CERENA at any given time, with a view to the promotion of hazard-related research.
  • to identify opportunities of, and promote, new projects on hazard and risk research, with an interdisciplinary and holistic approach, in collaboration with the stakeholders whenever possible.
  • to promote collaboration with national and international authorities involved in risk management.
  • to promote cooperation with developing countries.
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