Open Access Open Access  Restricted Access Subscription or Fee Access

Ethical dilemmas related to predictions and warnings of impending natural disaster

Kai-Lit Phua, PhD, J. W. Hue, BS


Scientists and policy makers issuing predictions and warnings of impending natural disaster are faced with two major challenges, that is, failure to warn and issuing a false alarm. The consequences of failure to warn can be serious for society overall, for example, significant economic losses, heavy infrastructure and environmental damage, large number of human casualties, and social disruption. Failure to warn can also have serious for specific individuals, for example, legal proceedings against disaster research scientists, as in the L’Aquila earthquake affair. The consequences of false alarms may be less serious. Nevertheless, false alarms may violate the principle of nonmaleficence (do no harm), affect individual autonomy (eg, mandatory evacuations), and may result in the “cry wolf” effect. Other ethical issues associated with natural disasters include the promotion of global justice through international predisaster technical assistance and postdisaster aid. Social justice within a particular country is promoted through greater postdisaster aid allocation to the less privileged.


ethics, natural disasters, natural hazards, risk assessment, disaster prediction, disaster warning

Full Text:



United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Risk Reduction: 2009 UNISDR Terminology on Disaster Risk Reduction. Geneva: United Nations, 2009.

World Meteorological Organization: Natural hazard. Available at Accessed June 8, 2013.

Leivesley S: Natural disasters in Australia. Disasters. 1984; 8(2): 83-88.

Julca A: Natural disasters with un-natural effects: Why? J Econ Issues. 2012; 4(2): 499-510.

Schumacher I, Strobl E: Economic development and losses due to natural disasters: The role of hazard exposure. Ecol Econ. 2011; 72: 97-105.

Igarashi Y, Kong L, Yamamoto M, et al.: Anatomy of historical tsunamis: Lessons learned for tsunami warning. Pure Appl Geophys. 2011; 168: 2043-2063.

O’Connor MR: Two years later, Haitian earthquake death toll in dispute. Columbia J Rev. January 12, 2012. Available at Accessed June 8, 2013.

Davis C, Keilis-Borok V, Molchan G, et al.: Earthquake prediction and disaster preparedness: Interactive analysis. Nat Hazard Rev. 2010; 11: 173-184.

Kodama S: Tsunami-tendenko and morality in disasters. J Med Ethics. 2013. doi:10.1136/medethics-2012-100813.

Snieder R, van Eck T: Earthquake prediction: A political problem? Geol Rundsch. 1997; 86: 446-463.

Scholtz C: What ever happened to earthquake prediction? Geotimes. 1997; 42(3): 16-19.

Matsutani M: Tokai Big One still tops in speculation. Japan Times. June 14, 2011. Available at Accessed June 8, 2013.

Jackson DD, Kagan YY: The 2004 Parkfield Earthquake, the 1985 prediction, and characteristic earthquakes: Lessons for the future. Bull Seismol Soc Am. 2006; 96(4B): S397-S409.

Maricle GE: Prediction as an impediment to preparedness: Lessons from the US hurricane and earthquake research enterprises. Minerva. 2011; 19: 87-111.

Davis C, Keilis-Borok V, Kossobokov V, et al.: Advance prediction of the March 11, 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake: A missed opportunity for disaster preparedness. Int J Disaster Risk Reduct. 2012; 1: 17-32.

Ouyang S, Lin Y,Wu Y: Prediction of natural disasters. Int J Gen Syst. 2000; 29(6): 897-912.

Ghil M, Yiou P, Hallegatte S, et al.: Extreme events: Dynamics, statistics and prediction. Nonlinear Processes Geophys. 2011; 18: 295-350.

Sornette D: Predictability of catastrophic events: Material rupture, earthquakes, turbulence, financial crashes, and human birth. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. 2002; 99(suppl 1): 2522-2529.

Huang C: Differences between disaster prediction and risk assessment in natural disasters. Hum Ecol Risk Assess. 2011; 17: 542-553.

Pate-Cornell E: On “Black Swans” and “Perfect Storms”: Risk analysis and management when statistics are not enough. Risk Anal. 2012; 32(11): 1823-1833.

Clark N, Chhotray V, Few R: Global justice and disasters. Geogr J. 2013; 179(2): 105-113.

Lee I: Humanitarian response and their ethical implications. Asia Pac J Public Health. 2012; 24(5): 856-859.

Holt GR: Making difficult ethical decisions in patient care during natural disasters and other mass casualty events. Otolaryngol Head Neck Surg. 2008; 139(2): 181-186.

McGee RW: An economic and ethical analysis of the Katrina disaster. Int J Soc Econ. 2008; 35(7): 546-557.

Rockwell LH, Block WE Jr: The economics and ethics of Hurricane Katrina. Am J Econ Sociol. 2010; 69(4): 1294-1320.

Sol A, Turan H: The ethics of earthquake prediction. Sci Eng Ethics. 2004; 10: 655-666.

Morss RE,Wahl E: An ethical analysis of hydrometeorological prediction and decision making: The case of the 1997 Red River flood. Environ Hazards. 2007; 7(4): 342-352.

Hall SA:Warnings of impending danger: Science and social factors. March 28, 2011. Available at Accessed June 8, 2013.

Ebi KL, Schmier JK: A stitch in time: Improving public health early warning systems for extreme weather events. Epidemiol Rev. 2005; 27: 115-121.

Belville JD: The National Weather Service Warning System. Ann Emerg Med. 1987; 16(9): 1078-1080.

Voight B: The 1985 Nevado del Ruiz volcano catastrophe: Anatomy and retrospection. J Volcanol Geothermal Res. 1990; 42(1- 2): 151-188.

Parker CF, Stern EK, Paglia E, et al.: Preventable catastrophe? The Hurricane Katrina disaster revisited. J Contingencies Crisis Manag. 2009; 17(4): 206-220.

Athukorala P: Indian Ocean Tsunami: Disaster, generosity and recovery. Asian Econ J. 2012; 26(3): 211-231.

Turner LR, Alderman K, Tong S: The 2011 Brisbane floods affected residents’ health. Med J Aust. 2012; 197(4): 214-216.

Casacchia M, Pollice R, Roncone R: The narrative epidemiology of L’Aquila 2009 earthquake. Epidemiol Psychiatr Sci. 2012; 21(1): 13-21.

Schechter LR:From 9/11 to Hurricane Katrina: Helping others and oneself cope following disasters.Traumatology. 2008; 14(4): 38-47.

Floret N, Viel J-F, Mauny F, et al.: Negligible risk for epidemics after geophysical disasters. Emerg Infect Dis. 2006; 12(4): 543-548.

Hall SS: Scientists on trial: At fault? Nature. 2011; 477: 264-269.

Castelvecchi D: Italian seismologists appeal L’Aquila ruling. Nature News Blog. March 7 2013. Available at Accessed June 8, 2013.

Nosengo N: L’Aquila verdict row grows. Nature. 2012; 491: 15-16.

Parkash S: Ethics in disaster management. Ann Geophys. 2012; 55(3): 383-387.

Memmott M: New earthquake shakes Indonesia; update: Tsunami watch canceled. September 30, 2009. Available at Accessed June 8, 2013.

Eosco GM, Shafer MA, Keim B: Lessons learned: Evacuations management of Hurricane Gustav. Presented at the 4th Symposium on Policy and Socio-economic Research, American Meteorological Society, Phoenix, AZ, 2009: 1-9. Available at Accessed June 8, 2013.

No author listed: The tsunami of 26 December 2004. Scienzagiovane. August 1, 2006. Available at Accessed June 8, 2013.

Eburn M: The emerging legal issue of failure to warn. Aust J Emerg Manag. 2012; 27(1): 52-55.

No author listed: Katrina nursing home owners acquitted. NBC News. September 7, 2007. Available at Accessed June 8, 2013.

Betsill MM, Glantz MH, Crandall K: Preparing for El Niño what role for forecasts? Environ: Sci Policy Sustain Dev. 1997; 39(10): 6-29.

Dollar J: The man who predicted an earthquake. The Guardian. April 6, 2010. Available at Accessed June 8, 2013.

No author listed: Shock and law. Nature. 2012; 490(7421): 446.

L’Aquila quake: Italy scientists guilty of manslaughter. BBC. October 22, 2012. Available at Accessed June 8, 2013.

Lucibella M: Communication breakdown played role in scientists’ convictions. APS News. 2012; 21(11): 1, 6. Available at Accessed June 8, 2013.

Brotgze J, Erickson S, Brooks H: A 5-yr climatology of tornado false alarms.Weather Forecast. 2011; 26: 534-544.

Hough SE: A seismological retrospective of the Brady-Spence prediction. Seismol Res Lett. 2010; 81(1): 113-125.

Gori PL: The social dynamics of a false earthquake prediction and the response by the public sector. Bull Seismol Soc Am. 1993; 83(4): 963-980.

Dow K, Cutter SL: Crying wolf: Repeat responses to hurricane evacuation orders. Coast Manage. 1998; 26(4): 237-252.

Faden R, Shebaya S: Public health ethics. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2010. Available at Accessed June 8, 2013.

Nostro C, Amato A, Cultrera G, et al.: Turning the rumor of the May 11, 2011, earthquake prediction in Rome, Italy, into an information day on earthquake hazard. Ann Geophys. 2012; 55(3): 413-420.

Georgiadis T, Lagorio PP: The communication of science as an ethical issue: The case of Raffaele Bendandi. Ann Geophys. 2013; 55(3): 409-412.

Simmons KM, Sutter D: False alarm, tornado warnings, and tornado casualties.Weather Clim Soc. 2009; 1: 38-53.



  • There are currently no refbacks.