Natural Hazards

, Volume 72, Issue 2, pp 565–595

Undersampling power-law size distributions: effect on the assessment of extreme natural hazards

Original Paper

DOI: 10.1007/s11069-013-1024-0

Cite this article as:
Geist, E.L. & Parsons, T. Nat Hazards (2014) 72: 565. doi:10.1007/s11069-013-1024-0


The effect of undersampling on estimating the size of extreme natural hazards from historical data is examined. Tests using synthetic catalogs indicate that the tail of an empirical size distribution sampled from a pure Pareto probability distribution can range from having one-to-several unusually large events to appearing depleted, relative to the parent distribution. Both of these effects are artifacts caused by limited catalog length. It is more difficult to diagnose the artificially depleted empirical distributions, since one expects that a pure Pareto distribution is physically limited in some way. Using maximum-likelihood methods and the method of moments, we estimate the power-law exponent and the corner size parameter of tapered Pareto distributions for several natural hazard examples: tsunamis, floods, and earthquakes. Each of these examples has varying catalog lengths and measurement thresholds, relative to the largest event sizes. In many cases where there are only several orders of magnitude between the measurement threshold and the largest events, joint two-parameter estimation techniques are necessary to account for estimation dependence between the power-law scaling exponent and the corner size parameter. Results indicate that whereas the corner size parameter of a tapered Pareto distribution can be estimated, its upper confidence bound cannot be determined and the estimate itself is often unstable with time. Correspondingly, one cannot statistically reject a pure Pareto null hypothesis using natural hazard catalog data. Although physical limits to the hazard source size and attenuation mechanisms from source to site constrain the maximum hazard size, historical data alone often cannot reliably determine the corner size parameter. Probabilistic assessments incorporating theoretical constraints on source size and propagation effects are preferred over deterministic assessments of extreme natural hazards based on historical data.


Extreme natural hazardsCatalogEmpiricalPower lawUndersamplingParetoProbability

Copyright information

© US Government 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.U.S. Geological SurveyMenlo ParkUSA