ICSU Dark Nature


Aims, scope and workplan

IGCP 490



Abstracts and abstract volumes from meetings

A session on "Archaeological and Geoarchaeological Records of Natural and Human-Induced Disasters" will be held at the Geological Society of America (GSA) meeting, Philadelphia, USA during October 22-25, 2006. Abstracts should be submitted online at http://www.geosociety.org. Abstract Deadline is July 11, 2006

Photos from the Como meeting

A message from Whitehorse- conference declaration on rapid landscape change in the North, Declaration - the impact of megafloods - from the Mozambique meeting

Succesful Yukon meeting attended by over 75 participants [Report - Photographs - Web site - Canadian Broadcasting Company news story]

International Conference on Rapid Sea Level Change - a Caspian Perspective May 2-9, 2005 Rasht, Islamic Republic of Iran: http://www.caspiansealevelchange.org. The abstracts of the conference can now be consulted at the website. The conference was very successful and was excellently organised by our Iranian hosts at Guilan University, the Iranian National Centre of Oceanography, Tarbiat Modarres University in Tehran, and the Geological Survey of Iran. A Special Issue of Quaternary International with the proceedings of the conference is in preparation [photographs].

Photographs from Argentina meeting, March 2005.

Declaration, Abstracts (html),Abstract volume (pdf) and Report from Mozambique megafloods meeting now on-line

At the International Geological Congress, Florence, August 20-28 2004 there were two sessions directly related to environmental catastrophes

- topical symposium T16.04: Geoarchaeology for climatic changes and catastrophic events in human history. Cremaschi M. and Leroy S. A. G.

- a general symposium G03.12: Rapid and catastrophic geological changes and societal response. Berger A. R. and Leroy S. A. G. (August 23)

Abstracts for these two sessions are now available as a pdf file [download]

At the 2003 INQUA congress, Reno, USA, Suzanne Leroy organized a symposium and poster session on "Holocene environmental catastrophes and potential societal impact" - session 84, 12 papers, see http://inqua2003.dri.edu/inqua_home.htm

The project

This a new ICSU-funded project for 2004 and 2005, awarded to a consortium of organizations headed by IUGS (International Geological Sciences through its GEOINDICATOR Initiative), and including IGU, IUGG, INQUA, IGBP.The project is under the scientific direction of Prof. Suzanne Leroy.


There is no doubt that human actions are forcing major changes to climate, landscapes and the environment. Contemporary discourse holds that environmental havoc is chiefly caused by humans and that if only we could manage our impacts on water, air, climate, the oceans and biodiversity, nature would be in fine balance, providing a benevolent ecosphere. However, despite the widespread influence of human actions, nature is also capable of rapid and dramatic change. Throughout our planet's geological history, its capacity for abrupt environmental change has provided the background and, commonly, the drivers for evolution. Such natural (i.e. non-human) actions have shaped the physical (abiotic) environment through its interference with lake and sea levels, river channels and sediment load, slope stability, ground subsidence, frozen ground activity and desertification. ›

Sudden sweeping change may be beneficial to life, with many environments requiring regular disturbance by hurricanes, wildfires or floods to maintain their ecological biodiversity. But occasionally natural disturbances affect too large an extent, act with too excessive an intensity, or simply occur too fast or too frequently to be transient catalysts for environmental opportunism. Such changes, extreme examples of which are giant volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and floods, can inflict long-lasting harm on both people and the environment. Between these opposing conditions of non-equilibrium sustainability and environmental wipe-out (collapse) is a continuum of natural disturbance with which communities and ecosystems have to cope (e.g. migration, adaptation, mitigation). ›

Here, we refer to the potential for the natural environment to inflict harmful damage as "dark nature", and highlight that these actions can occur on timescales of concern to society - that is, over a period of 100 years or less. Such "rapid" environmental disturbances to ecosystems and communities include not only instantaneous catastrophes but also slow-onset,›more pervasive changes to the environment, such as climate change.

› Today, any recognition of the reality and importance of rapid changes of non-human origin appears to be sidelined by a geopolitical climate of "anthropoblamism". It is clear that acknowledging the importance of environmental change that is "natural" (i.e. not human-induced) does not make political and policy decisions, such as on Kyoto, any easier. If nature is inherently chaotic and unpredictable then, the general public and industry can argue that they might as well continue business as usual.›But environmental policies and attitudes based on the flawed notion of nature in steady-state, equilibrium, or stasis are no bases for sustainability. Achieving any kind of sustainability requires a better ability to understand, forecast and mitigate or adapt to natural changes that harm people and ecosystems. Unraveling the effects that rapid environmental changes have had on past human societies and ecosystems over recent millennia may offer valuable lessons in how to, or how not to, deal with contemporary global change. In short, the traditional view that "history trumps environment" in driving societal change is as much in question as the opposite pole of environmental determinism; not nature in balance, but nature in flux! ›

In addressing rapid environmental change, this project will have important implications for current environmental attitudes and polices. In particular, it relates directly to key matters such as ecological integrity, ecosystem restoration, climate change, natural-hazard mitigation, and is at the very core of the idea of sustainability. Two fundamental issues underpin our project: ›

  1. In reducing harmful human impacts on the environment, to what extent can we disentangle the results of human actions from those due to natural processes?››
  2. In striving for sustainability, how can non-equilibrium natural change best be acknowledged by, and accommodated within, environmental and ecosystem management and policy?
Project aims, scope and workplan

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