Geologist says impact of disasters can be mitigated with better notice

BYU Professor of Geology Ron Harris speaks to students at Snow College Convocation about reducing risk surrounding natural disasters.


Geologist says impact of disasters

can be mitigated with better notice

By Max Higbee

Staff writer

Nov. 9, 2017


EPHRAIM—What if not every natural crisis had to be a natural disaster? What if the world’s earthquakes and hurricanes could pass, shaking empty cities and flooding deserted houses?

This is the reality that Ron Harris, Professor of Geology at Brigham Young University, hopes to create.

“A crisis is something we can’t avoid, like a landslide hazard or a flood or an earthquake. A disaster is when we meet that hazard or that crisis unprepared, so they’re mostly human disasters rather than natural disasters. I call them natural hazards; they become disasters when we don’t prepare for them.”

He says that the key to avoiding tragedy when extreme weather and geological events occur is to learn to listen to the earth, listen to the people, and teach the people to listen to the earth.

“If this would have been done in Houston, if this would have been done in Mexico or other places where there’s been recent disasters, the disasters wouldn’t have happened. It would have been a crisis, but not a disaster. People weren’t listening to the earth, and the people who were listening to the earth weren’t communicating it to the public.”

Harris described how he and his team correctly predicted the 2004 earthquake under the Indian Ocean that caused the infamous and tragic tsunami in that region, but that because they only published their findings in academic magazines and journals, they were unable to reach the people who were actually in harm’s way.

In the aftermath of that, he realized that he wanted to find ways for his work to actually help people avoid disasters. Harris founded a non-profit organization called “In Harm’s Way” with the express mission of predicting extreme natural events and educating people in the potential paths of such events.

He has worked with his colleagues and students at BYU to go to Indonesia in recent years and work with people living near active volcanoes. Harris cited one particular instance in which a volcano erupted and nearly all of the surrounding homes were empty, thanks, he says, to the work that he and his colleagues did to raise awareness of the danger.

Speaking about “In Harm’s Way’s” work in Indonesia, he shared what he calls the 20/20/20 method: if you live in an area at risk of a tsunami and you feel the earth shake for 20 seconds or more, you have 20 minutes to get 20 meters or more above sea level. He cites this method with saving lives in natural crises in Indonesia.

In the last few minutes of his presentation, Harris apprised students of the impending geological event some have termed the Great Utah Earthquake; Utah is about 100 years overdue for an earthquake resulting from the tectonic activity at the root of the Wasatch Front. He implored students to take the time to reduce “non-structural hazards” such as securing things like books, TVs, and furniture that would otherwise be flung or toppled by an earthquake.

Harris grew up in Oregon, earning his Bachelor’s in Geology from the University of Oregon in 1982, followed by his Master’s in Geophysics from the University of Alaska in 1985. He received his Ph.D. from University College in London before working for the US Geological Survey in Alaska. He taught at West Virginia University from 1989 to 1998 and before moving to Utah and joining the faculty at BYU, where he has taught ever since. His wife Deb and he have four sons.

“In Harm’s Way” is online at: inharmsway.info.

This week’s convocation opened with a musical number by Jeff Smith playing piano and singing Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?” accompanied by Parker Andrezzi on the trumpet. Smith is a vocalist with Snow College’s Commercial Music Ensemble, who will be presenting a concert for next week’s convocation.