February 18th, 2013 by Joshua S Hill
Deadly storms strike the coast, snow blankets the interior, drought cripples rural communities, and flooding inundates the poor. Scientists expect natural disasters such as these — and worse — to grow in magnitude and increase in regularity as global warming takes its toll on the planet, and in many situations there is not much we can do about it.
But Stanford Woods Institute Senior Fellow Chris Field believes that we can reduce the risk of weather-related disasters with a little preparation.
Speaking at the annual American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) meeting in Boston this past weekend, Field noted that without adequate preparation for extreme weather, “even a modest event can trigger disaster.”
Scientists have yet to make any specific link between climate change and tornadoes and hurricanes, but weather events like heat waves, heavy rains, and droughts bear all the hallmarks of having been affected by increasing atmospheric temperatures. In his talk to the “Media: Communicating Science, Uncertainty and Impact” symposium, Field explained that the risk of climate-related disasters is tied to the overlap of weather, exposure and vulnerability of exposed people, ecosystems, and investments. Subsequently, unprepared communities can be severely hit in the event of a major disaster — especially in communities already suffering other stresses or repeated extremes — but similarly, communities who take steps to prepare can avoid the bulk of the damage in even severe events.
Over the past 30 years the cost of weather-related disasters has increased due primarily to the rising cost and density of infrastructure and development in the path of such disasters.
However, much to the chagrin of humanity, we often forget the real impact of these disasters; happy to value the cost of any disaster in purely financial terms, ignoring the impact on communities, lives, and lifestyles. One need only look at the difference between Hurricane Katrina — which wreaked havoc throughout a mixture of poor and rich states and took the lives of 1,836 — compared to Hurricane Ivan — which hit Texas and Florida and took the lives of only 124.
This is a very US-centric example and ignores the varying intensities of both storms, but you need only look at the death tolls of natural disasters in Asia to see just how an impoverished nation will suffer. Field notes that the overwhelming number of deaths as a result of weather-related disasters occur in developing nations.
Field believes that a combination of disaster preparation, early warning systems, and well-built infrastructure are key to withstanding the increasing frequency of weather-related disasters. Good strategies require a variety of actions, rather than one hopeful cure-all: actions such as communicating risk to local communities, implementing a multi-hazard management approach, linking local and global management, and allowing for an iterative approach to disasters, rather than relying on one master plan to suit all disasters.
Most important is that last point — allowing for learning as you go and questioning the status-quo of a situation. Each disaster faced will most likely bring it’s own set of specific challenges, not to mention the site-specific challenges brought on by community separation.
With a world apparently going to hell in a hand-basket, we can only hope that work done by experts like Field reach the levels of bureaucracy and government necessary to start implementing these ideas.
Source: Stanford University
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