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Natural Hazards and Catastrophes

Alan Whittington
University of Missouri-Columbia University with graduate programs, including doctoral programs


1 credit hour course for non-scientists, with no pre-requisites. Aims to improve quantitative and scientific literacy through applying simple skills to topics including global climate change, earthquakes, volcanoes and asteroid impacts.

Course Type:
Entry Level:Geologic Hazards

Course Size:
greater than 150

Course Context:

This is a 1 credit hour course for non-scientists, with no pre-requisites, that meets ten times over five weeks. It will be taken by students who need only one more hour to satisfy the University's 9 credit hour science requirement, or who need one more hour to maintain full-time status. These students are typically non-science majors.
The lack of pre-requisites allows some freedom in not being constrained to cover a certain quantity of material. The teaching focus will be split between geological subject matter and quantitative techniques. NOTE: This course has not yet been taught.

Course Goals:

1. Remove misconceptions regarding global climate change, and catastrophic hazards (earthquake, volcano, tsunami), propagated by the media and popular films.
2. Increase confidence in using simple math skills, and in critically evaluating quantitative data and charts.
3. Change student attitudes toward science

By the end of the class, students should be able to:
(i) predict the various hazards inherent in various plate tectonic settings
(ii) analyze the various feedback mechanisms by which the planet self-regulates climate
(iii) interpret historical records of volcanic and seismic activity
(iv) evaluate the validity of scientific information and arguments presented in the media


Assessment is constrained by class size (350) and number of meetings (10). Assessment is therefore by computer-graded multiple choice exam (60 points) and four online homeworks, administered through and graded by WebCT (10 points each). Each of these will include content / comprehension questions (5 points) and quantitative computational questions (5 points). Calculators will be used in the final exam.


Syllabus (Microsoft Word 64kB Jun28 06)

Teaching Materials:

References and Notes:

Given the short nature of this course, and the wide range of web resources available for the topics covered, I will not adopt a large expensive textbook. My current choice is:

Global Catastrophes: A Very Short Introduction, by Bill McGuire. Oxford University Press, 152 pages, 2006. ISBN: 978-0-19-280493-8.

[This book was previously published as: A Guide to the End of the World: Everything You Never Wanted to Know, by Bill McGuire. Oxford University Press, 216 pages, 2002. Paperback, ISBN: 9780192804525. This older version is now (June 2006) unavailable from the OUP website.]
Two alternative (or supplemental) books by the same author are:

Firefly Guide to Global Hazards, by Bill McGuire. Firefly Books Ltd, 256 pages, 2004. Paperback, ISBN: 155297815X.

Raging Planet: Quakes and Volcanoes and the Tectonic Threat to Life on Earth, by Bill McGuire. Apple Press, 144 pages, 2002. Softcover, ISBN: 0764119699. Hardcover, ISBN: 1840923598.