Subtitled Tales of the Earth - Four Events that Changed the World, this is an excellent, informative book that looks at earth science through the prism of four historical natural disasters. The four are the 1755 earthquake that hit Lisbon, the toxic fog that blanketed Europe in 1783 (linked to the eruption of an Icelandic volcano), the 1883 eruption of Krakatoa and the 1946 Hawaiian tsunami.
Each individual disaster is explored using scientific reports and first person accounts from survivors. In each case, the author then demonstrates how the specific event forwarded the science in the field and looks at policy decisions that can make disasters worse (such as removal of coral reefs or mangroves that can both protect coastlines against storm surges).
The Lisbon earthquake established the protocols of international humanitarian response and lead to the development of the science of seismology (and the construction of the first earthquake proof buildings).
Benjamin Franklin had been thinking about the possibility of global climate change since 1760 and his presence in Europe in 1783 (as US commissioner to the court of France) enabled him to investigate whether the toxic air of that year had a direct link to the excessively cold winter of 1783-84. This work lead to the beginning of the serious study of climate change, which of course has only become more important in recent years.
The eruption of Krakatoa was the first natural disaster to happen in times when it could relatively rapidly become global news. Study of the blast lead to significant advances in vulcanology and meteorology- the studies of its global after effects lead to better understanding of the workings of the upper stratosphere. In addition, the recolonisation of Krakatoa by small animals lead to vital understandings about ecological recovery:
"This question, which is still known as the Krakatoa problem, goes right to the heart of understanding the dynamics of ecological recovery: how exactly do ecosystems restore themselves after major calamities...? Does life only ever return from outside .... or are there any particularly hardy species ... that can withstand the stresses of a paroxysmal blast?"
The book was published around the time of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami and includes observations on the effectiveness of the Pacific Tsunami Warning System (that had been put in place in the wake of the 1946 Hawaiian tsunami).
The book ends with some thoughts on how best to mitigate the effects of future major natural disasters - having the right technology can only work if combined with public education and policies to prevent disaster including better town planning and conservation of natural elements that buffer against storm surges.
This is a fascinating and very readable book for anyone interested in natural disasters and the development of science.