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Natural Hazards and Earth System Sciences An interactive open-access journal of the European Geosciences Union
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Volume 18, issue 10 | Copyright

Special issue: Risk and uncertainty estimation in natural hazards

Nat. Hazards Earth Syst. Sci., 18, 2741-2768, 2018
https://doi.org/10.5194/nhess-18-2741-2018
© Author(s) 2018. This work is distributed under
the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.

Review article 24 Oct 2018

Review article | 24 Oct 2018

Epistemic uncertainties and natural hazard risk assessment – Part 1: A review of different natural hazard areas

Keith J. Beven1,2, Susana Almeida3, Willy P. Aspinall4, Paul D. Bates5, Sarka Blazkova6, Edoardo Borgomeo7, Jim Freer5, Katsuichiro Goda3, Jim W. Hall7, Jeremy C. Phillips4, Michael Simpson7, Paul J. Smith1,8, David B. Stephenson9, Thorsten Wagener3,10, Matt Watson4, and Kate L. Wilkins4 Keith J. Beven et al.
  • 1Lancaster Environment Centre, Lancaster University, Lancaster, UK
  • 2Department of Earth Sciences, Uppsala University, Uppsala, Sweden
  • 3Department of Civil Engineering, Bristol University, Bristol, UK
  • 4School of Earth Sciences, Bristol University, Bristol, UK
  • 5School of Geographical Sciences, Bristol University, Bristol, UK
  • 6T. G. Masaryk Water Resource Institute, Prague, Czech Republic
  • 7Environmental Change Institute, Oxford University, Oxford, UK
  • 8Waternumbers Limited, Halton Mill, Halton, Lancaster, LA2 6DN, UK
  • 9Department of Mathematics and Computer Science, Exeter University, Exeter, UK
  • 10Cabot Institute, University of Bristol, Bristol, UK

Abstract. This paper discusses how epistemic uncertainties are currently considered in the most widely occurring natural hazard areas, including floods, landslides and debris flows, dam safety, droughts, earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic ash clouds and pyroclastic flows, and wind storms. Our aim is to provide an overview of the types of epistemic uncertainty in the analysis of these natural hazards and to discuss how they have been treated so far to bring out some commonalities and differences. The breadth of our study makes it difficult to go into great detail on each aspect covered here; hence the focus lies on providing an overview and on citing key literature. We find that in current probabilistic approaches to the problem, uncertainties are all too often treated as if, at some fundamental level, they are aleatory in nature. This can be a tempting choice when knowledge of more complex structures is difficult to determine but not acknowledging the epistemic nature of many sources of uncertainty will compromise any risk analysis. We do not imply that probabilistic uncertainty estimation necessarily ignores the epistemic nature of uncertainties in natural hazards; expert elicitation for example can be set within a probabilistic framework to do just that. However, we suggest that the use of simple aleatory distributional models, common in current practice, will underestimate the potential variability in assessing hazards, consequences, and risks. A commonality across all approaches is that every analysis is necessarily conditional on the assumptions made about the nature of the sources of epistemic uncertainty. It is therefore important to record the assumptions made and to evaluate their impact on the uncertainty estimate. Additional guidelines for good practice based on this review are suggested in the companion paper (Part 2).

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This paper discusses how uncertainties resulting from lack of knowledge are considered in a number of different natural hazard areas including floods, landslides and debris flows, dam safety, droughts, earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic ash clouds and pyroclastic flows, and wind storms. As every analysis is necessarily conditional on the assumptions made about the nature of sources of such uncertainties it is also important to follow the guidelines for good practice suggested in Part 2.
This paper discusses how uncertainties resulting from lack of knowledge are considered in a...
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