EOSC 114 (3 cr): The Catastrophic Earth: Natural Disasters


Course Description

Student Profile

Jessica Lu, Upper Level Biology Major

Jessica Lu

“I learned a lot about our earth and also the geological area of British Columbia that I never knew before!”

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Earth and Ocean Sciences 114: The Catastrophic Earth – Natural Disasters. EOSC 114 focuses on the causes and physical characteristics of disasters such as volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, tsunami, hurricanes, storm surge, thunderstorms, tornadoes, landslides, wind waves, meteor impacts, mass extinctions. There are no prerequisites.

Student or Audience Description

This course is an introductory science course and is open to all students who need an engaging and personally relevant course to fulfill the earth science, physical science, or general science credit requirements for their degree at any Canadian college or university. This course is designed for students with a general interest in the Earth sciences, science students interested in learning how scientific methods are applied in the Earth sciences, students wishing to take the course for their own interest, and non-traditional students seeking continuing education.

Topics to be Covered

This course is presented in seven topics. Following is a brief description of the course content:

Topic 1: Is the Earth a Fragile System?
Motivation: Types of natural disasters.

Current disasters.Natural cataclysmic events affect the Earth every day, and are a normal part of the Earth-ocean-atmosphere system. However, these same events (landslides, earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunami, etc.) can kill people or reduce the quality of life. This dichotomy motivates the title for this Topic: Is the Earth a fragile system?

To address this question, you start by reviewing the metrics used to describe our world. You next look at the materials that make up the Earth, ocean, and atmosphere. Natural processes can be disasters because of their tremendous energy release, so you will review the types of energy. Some disasters such as earthquakes and tsunami propagate as waves, which you will study. With this background, you will examine the relationship between population growth and the societal impact of natural disasters, and make your own decisions about whether the Earth is a fragile system.

Topic 2: The Shaking Earth
Motivation: Earthquakes

To understand the causes of earthquakes requires knowledge about geology and physics at a global scale. Understanding about why earthquakes are devastating requires insight into local geologic and engineering conditions. Catastrophes occur at local scales, and energy must travel from the cause to the effect. Our home planet is a dynamic, active place and we, as its stewards, must understand it well in order to live safely and wisely.

In this Topic, you will learn about the following important scientific concepts: plate tectonics, seismic wave energy propagation, behaviour of geologic faults, and motion and modes of failure of engineered structures (buildings, dams, bridges, etc.). These and other areas of knowledge are needed to consider the impact of earthquakes on human society and our efforts to reduce harmful effects of ground motion caused by earthquakes.

Topic 3: The Explosive Earth
Motivation: Volcanoes

In this section of the course, you will first study basic volcanic processes and the factors that determine a volcano’s explosivity; this is helpful in assessing how dangerous an individual volcano may be. You will also investigate different types of volcanic hazards associated with specific volcano morphologies and learn how volcanologists predict volcanic eruptions. Finally, you will incorporate your knowledge from the previous volcanism units into a plate tectonic framework to better understand how volcanism is influenced by various plate interactions.

Topic 4: The Unstable Ground
Motivation: Landslides

Despite improvements in recognition, prediction, and mitigation measures, landslides still exact a heavy social, economic and environmental toll. As populations in mountainous regions continue to grow, the need to understand the processes and mechanisms controlling landslide behaviour increasingly becomes more important.

Looking at the “Unstable Ground,” you will begin by studying the different types of landslides, the geological factors that control their development, and the dangers associated with select landslides through a number of case studies from British Columbia and around the world. You will then examine the major factors that influence slope failure: the “causes” that condition a slope for failure, the balance between shear strength and shear stress, and the triggering mechanisms that can initiate failure — both natural and those arising from human activity.

Case histories from some of the world’s most devastating landslides will be analyzed. You will then look at how geological engineers investigate and assess the hazard and risk a given landslide may pose, and examine landslide prevention and protection techniques employed to minimize the threat of the hazard.

Topic 5:

The Turbulent Atmosphere
Motivation: Storms

In this Topic you will learn how storms look, how they behave, and why they behave that way. Your focus will be on thunderstorms, tornadoes, and hurricanes. You will become the detective (e.g., a forensic meteorologist) as you: locate where energy is produced, follow the clues as the energy is drawn into the storms, and catch storms at their greatest fury. By analogy with engines, you will see how the heat in storms can drive their violent winds. You will witness images of the beauty and the power of storms, and will improve your ability to make safer life-planning decisions.

Topic 6:

The Violent Ocean
Motivation: Waves

The Earth’s surface is dominated by a single great ocean of liquid water. This global ocean borders most of the world’s largest cities, is a major transportation route, and provides food, oil, gas, and other resources, and of course, is a most enjoyable recreational resource. Unfortunately for the millions of people who live near the coast, certain oceanic phenomena can cause tremendous damage, destruction, and death.

In this Topic on the Violent Ocean, you will begin with the study of the relationship between water, waves, and energy. You will then study several types of destructive oceanic waves, the dangers posed by these phenomena, and ways to mitigate their destructive and fatal effects through case studies from BC and the rest of the world. Finally, you will learn how man’s activities on land and man-made structures along the coast have become a significant factor in intensifying the destructive effects of oceanic waves.

Topic 7:

Impacts from Space
Motivation: Meteor impacts and other mechanisms for mass extinctions

To lay the foundation for better understanding mass extinction events, you will first learn basic Earth Science concepts such as the importance of the fossil record, the relationship between the biosphere and other Earth systems, and the frequency of extinctions through geologic time. You will then examine the evidence for the Cretaceous/Paleogene (K/P) extinction and discuss possible causes for that extinction. You will also study the present likelihood of a mass-extinction-causing meteorite impact by looking at meteor influx rates, sources of meteoroids, extinction periodicity, and historic meteorite impacts. Various mitigation strategies for impact hazards will be the final topic.


Your course grade will be determined from 6 Graded Quizzes, 5 Homeworks and a comprehensive final exam with the quizzes worth 45%, the homeworks worth 15% and the final exam accounting for 40% of your course grade. All assessments include questions that cover the Lecture Notes posted online.

In addition, you must PASS THE FINAL EXAMINATION with an exam mark of at least 50%.

For information regarding the final exam please visit the Exams page.

Course Materials

  1. Required: Lecture Notes published on Canvas.
  2. Required: Occasional papers for the Homework, published in local and international newspapers, online blogs, scientific journals, and/or variety magazines.
  3. Optional (not required): Reading Material which supplement information found in the Lecture Notes. Copies of these textbooks are on 2-hour reserve or available 24/7 online via the Woodward Library Reserve Collection and the UBC Okanagan Library.