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Asking "how would nature design a city" with resilience to natural hazard events?
The scene at Mount St Helens in
Washington State, USA at 8:32am
PDT on Sunday 18 May 1980 looked
one of utter devastation. A pyroclastic flow
had blasted out from the stratovolcano at
speeds of up to 300 miles an hour leveling an
estimated 40,000 acres of forest in an instant.
The VEI (Volcanic Explosivity Index) 5 eruption
column rose 80,000ft into the atmosphere,
as snow, ice and several glaciers melted,
forming a series of mudslides that reached
as far as 50 miles away. Declared a natural
disaster, it was the most economically
destructive eruption in US history.
Ecologists from the Mount St Helens Pacific
Northwest Research (PNR) Station returned to
the site at the earliest opportunity to establish
the eruption’s impact on its ecosystems. What
they found amazed them: they had imagined
that the pyroclastic flow – which had reached
temperatures up to 1,000°C – the tephra
(volcanic ash layer) and mudslides would have
completely decimated the ecology of the region,
yet it had proved to be remarkably resilient.
PNR scientists found that though many
plants and animals were wiped out by the
eruption, a surprising number survived. While
chance played a significant role in the survival
prospects of the various species, both the
complexity of the ecosystem and the species
lifecycles were significant factors. When the
eruption struck, some species were either
underground, such as Pocket Gophers, or
under a covering of spring snow, such as
Pacific Silver Firs and Huckleberries. Several
migratory species of birds and fish, such as
Pacific Salmon and Steelhead Trout, escaped
the immediate impacts of the eruption as they
were elsewhere when it occurred.
Three decades of research at Mount St
Helens has provided invaluable insights into
nature’s ability to recover from disaster.
Ecologists have identified several key
characteristics of ecosystem resilience,
including the fact that the biological response
to such events is rapid, so long as the events
are relatively infrequent, with sufficient
recovery times between disasters to enable
species populations to replenish.
The erosive aspect of such events has been
found to unleash new nutrients, that in some
instances, such as in the lakes at Mount St
Helens, enabled ecosystems to bounce back
even stronger than they were previously. The
disruptive element has likewise been found to
be a positive, as though it often dramatically
re-landscapes a region, the biological
communities established in the aftermath are
often ultimately more diverse and productive
than those prior to the event.
Having researched ecosystem resilience to
myriad events traditionally termed ‘natural
disasters’, including wildfires, drought,
flooding, hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis
and asteroid impacts, I have come to realise
what humankind considers a force for
destruction, nature considers a force for
creation. Take for example the Banksia, an
Australian wildflower of which 50% of species,
termed ‘seeders’, have seed-bearing follicles
that are stimulated by fire. The remaining 50%
of Banksia species, termed ‘sprouters’, have
fire-resilience with thick bark and lignotubers
that sprout in the aftermath of a wildfire,
enabling the species to re-establish quickly.
Fire is built into the Banksia’s lifecycle, as is
the case with myriad native Australian species
including Grass Trees, Acacia and Eucalyptus.
Similarly fire is built into the lifecycles of
species in historically fire-prone regions
worldwide, as is flooding into species living in
deltas and wetlands.
The Bionic City
In the course of her research into ecosystem resilience, Melissa Sterry came to realise that “what
humankind considers a force for destruction, nature considers a force for creation.” Melissa is now
developing The Bionic City: a model that transfers knowledge from complex natural ecosystems to a
blueprint for a future city resilient to extreme meteorological and geological events…
Theoretical in approach,
the hypothesis transfers
knowledge from Earth’s
ecosystems to a blueprint
for a metropolis with
resilience to extreme
meteorological and
geological events.
Whereas humankind attempts to suppress or
avert major environmental changes, such as
drought, nature adapts and does so by inventing
innovative ways to not only accommodate the
situation, but to take advantage of it.
Extreme meteorological and geological
occurrences have always been of concern
to Homo sapiens – and with seemingly good
reason, as some 74,000 years ago one such
event nearly extinguished us. When the super
volcano at Toba on the island of Sumatra in
Indonesia erupted during the Stone Age, the
impacts of the VEI 8 magnitude event reduced
our population from an estimated 1,000,000
to just 10,000, of which only 1,000 to 3,000
were breeding adult pairs. The largest known
volcanic structure on Earth spewed such great
volumes of sulfuric acid into the atmosphere
that an estimated 6- to 10-year volcanic winter
ensued. Ironically, several academics now
think that this most deadly of events in our
history was also a catalyst for rapid innovation
in human language and co-operation skills –
possibly to the extent that were it not for this
event our species could have died out, as did
all of our several bi-pedal hominid ancestors,
including Neanderthals.
Our species’ capacity to accommodate
challenging meteorological and geological
events has never been more pertinent. While
the past several thousand years have provided
a generally temperate climate in many parts of
the world, both climate models and real-time
events, such as multiple major international
flooding incidents in a matter of years, illustrate
that the steady state to which we became
accustomed is fast becoming a thing of the past.
While the world’s weather systems become
more volatile, we grow ever more aware of
the geologically active nature of our planet.
We know that it’s only a matter of time before
we experience an eruption in excess of VEI 6;
in other words an eruption of the scale
humankind last experienced when Krakatoa
erupted in 1883. Some 20% of the world’s
population lives in an eruption hazard zone,
many in areas becoming significantly more
volcanically active. While our best scientific
minds are still deciphering the nature of
the Rock Cycle – the system within which
volcanoes operate – evidence is building
to support a direct relationship between
earthquakes and eruptions.
Simultaneously paleogeological records
indicate that climate change has a direct
impact on the level of geological activity. NASA
scientists researching present-day activity
in Greenland amongst other regions, have
discovered a new type of geological event;
called a Glacial Earthquake it is caused as the
pressure on the Earth’s crust below a melting
glacier shifts. When glaciers are melting at their
current rate and the world’s tectonic plates
are interconnected, it goes without saying that
alarm bells are ringing in some of our most
distinguished geoseismic research institutes.
Making matters yet more complicated is the
fact that there are seven billion of us and it’s
estimated that by 2050 there will be between
two and five billion more. While this presents
many resource challenges, one of the greatest
is land availability. Increasingly humankind is
destroying natural habitats that are imperative
for the survival of the planet’s inter-connected
ecosystems. Perhaps most alarmingly, as
we chainsaw our way through habitats that,
in some instances, have taken hundreds of
millions of years to evolve, we assume that our
own ideologies and technologies are better
than those of nature.
The Bionic City is a model I’m developing as
an alternative to the current built-environment
paradigm. Theoretical in approach, the hypothesis
transfers knowledge from Earth’s ecosystems
to a blueprint for a metropolis with resilience to
extreme meteorological and geological events.
Working to worst-case, not best-case future
scenarios, it’s an attempt to answer the question
“how would nature design a city?”
While ecosystem-resilience research remains
a heavily under-resourced science, it is
nonetheless a rapidly growing field. Likewise,
Earth Systems Science, which at one time was
treated as an underdog to the likes of Space
Science, is finally getting the recognition, and
therein the funding, it deserves. Simultaneously
fields heavily influenced by developments in
the Ecological and Earth sciences are fast
evolving, including Biomimetics (now more
commonly known as biomimicry), Resilience
Theory, Complex Adaptive Systems and Living
Architecture. Breakthroughs, in amongst
other fields, materials science, sensory and
information network technology, dynamic and
responsive architectures and civil engineering
extend the possibility of developing more
sophisticated built environments; built
environments not unlike natural ecosystems.
The greatest challenge when developing
The Bionic City is acquiring sufficient data on
ecosystem resilience. Traditionally species
are studied in an individual, not a whole-
systems context, meaning there’s relatively
scant knowledge of the nature of the symbiotic
(inter-dependent) relationships across species
communities and in particular complex
communities. However, in 2008 the Moorea
Biocode Project launched the world’s first
comprehensive inventory of all non-microbial
life in a complex tropical ecosystem. Since
then, the ‘Big Picture’ approach to ecosystem
research has been gaining ground. Globally
ecosystem resilience researchers are
mobilizing to build a body of knowledge that will
help us gain a far deeper understanding of the
dynamics of the Earth’s ecosystems, many of
them working against the clock, as the habitats
they are studying are threatened by the likes of
deforestation, pollution and over-fishing.
A scientist’s worst enemy is an assumption.
When I started my research I thought, as had
Mount St Helens PNR ecologists, that some
types of meteorological and geological event,
such as eruptions and tornadoes, posed more
of a threat to nature than others. However,
in practice this has not turned out to be the
case, for while the variables of a specific event
will determine its level of impact, natural
ecosystems’ resilience capacities are, it
appears, more or less universal in context,
regardless of the type of meteorological or
geological event.
How might The Bionic City look? While my
sketchbook is growing, it’s too early to be
certain as to the specifics of the aesthetic.
However, it’s already clear that in contrast
to the sprawling mass of disconnected,
static and inert structures that compromise
today’s cities, it would instead operate as a
seasonally adaptive collective of interconnected
and interdependent shape-shifting, colour-
changing, dynamic architectures, that are
sensitive to their surroundings, fused to form
a complex adaptive system in synch with the
Earth’s natural processes. Both Biomimetic
(mimicking nature) and ecosystem inclusive
(embedding natural technologies), the city
would bring together human and ecosystem
intelligence into one system: a fusion of low-
and hi-tech, man-made and natural.
The vision is ambitious, but then, to quote
Arthur C Clarke: “The only way to discover the
limits of the possible is to go beyond them into
the impossible.” n
About the author
Melissa Sterry is a PhD researcher at the Advanced Virtual
and Technological Architecture Research (AVATAR) laboratory in
London and a futurologist and transformational change strategist
to the construction, utilities, manufacturing, design and media
industries. A Visiting Fellow at University of Salford and member of
the International Bionic Engineering Society scientific committee
she has recently joined the presenting team of Earth 2 Channel,
which presents state-of-the-art solutions to some of humanity’s
most pressing problems. The creator of catalyst for rapid innovation
in sustainable design NEW FRONTIERS, she was the recipient of
the Mensa Education and Research Foundation International Award
for Benefit to Society 2011. Melissa is hosting a Bionic Cities event
at the International Bionic Engineering Conference in Boston, USA,
18th – 20th September 2011.
If you’d like to participate find details at:
The only way
to discover
the limits of
the possible is
to go beyond
them into the
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