Monterey County firefighters deal with several blazes near Upper Lake, Calif., in August. (Stuart W. Palley for The Washington Post)

What makes a natural disaster?

Lucy Jones knows — she spent three decades as a seismologist with the U.S. Geological Survey. Today, she leads the Dr. Lucy Jones Center for Science and Society, an organization that helps communities adapt to disaster. She defines “disaster” as an event in which a community’s ability to respond is outpaced by one of Earth’s natural forces.

On Thursday, Jones will discuss the history of natural disasters at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Northwest Washington. In “The Big Ones,” she will consider how past disasters can help societies become more resilient today. (Those outside of the District can tune in live via the Carnegie Institution’s website or Facebook page.)

You’d think societies would adapt following fires, tornadoes, tsunamis, earthquakes and more. But Jones says there is a major hurdle to overcome: human psychology. When we survive disasters, it’s easy to believe that we can withstand worse events.

Such normalization can keep us from adapting. That’s dangerous — and expensive.

Between 1980 and 2017, the United States suffered 219 disasters costing about $1 billion, according to an agency of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The cumulative costs of those events exceeded $1.5 trillion.

And as the world becomes more vulnerable to drought, floods and catastrophic fires related to climate change, future disasters could have even more dramatic financial, human and physical costs.

If we don’t adapt, that is.

Jones’s message is grim — adapt now or pay the price later — but her focus on resilience is hopeful. Past disasters (and disastrous responses to those events) could hold the key to our future survival, if we’re willing to learn their lessons.

The Carnegie Institution will open its doors at 6 p.m. (The talk starts at 6:30.) Seating for the free lecture is first-come, first-served, but an overflow room with screens will be available once the lecture hall reaches capacity.