The opening lines of the Charles Dickens classic A Tale of Two Cities sum up the past few years: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness.” These have indeed been the best and worst of times, as Planet Earth has demonstrated just how dynamic and volatile life here can be.

Catastrophic natural disasters such as the 2004 Sumatra-Andaman earthquake and tsunami and the 2008 Wenchuan, China, earthquake, as well as a host of hurricanes, floods, and other natural hazards, devastated global and local...

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