Early warning systems offer best hope for disaster prevention

The earthquake and tsunami that struck the north-eastern coast of Japan on 11 March, was a tragedy for the thousands of people who lost their lives and livelihoods. From the photos and videos documenting the devastation, it would have been difficult to imagine a worse outcome. Yet, just after the Disaster, the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction Secretariat (UNISDR) said it could have been worse had it not been for the country’s long history of disaster preparedness and planning dating back to 1896.
Margareta Wahlstrom, Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Disaster Risk Reduction as UNISDR, said in a statement, “While it may be hard to draw solace from the current state of affairs, perhaps we can take some measure of comfort in knowing that even more lives would have been lost, and damage been more widespread, had the Japanese Government not made disaster reduction a high priority over a long period of time.”
From earthquakes to cyclones and tropical storms, landslides, volcanic eruptions, floods, and avalanches, no nation is immune from the threat of natural disaster. But why are some countries more prepared than others when disaster strikes?
Early warning systems remain key
The answer comes down to the quality of early warning systems. Early warning systems attempt to assess risk and reduce threat to life, property and general environment, by pulling together the available scientific research.
Meteorological surveys, geological surveys, and satellite monitoring can be combined with historical records of past events and statistical modelling of current probabilities to give detailed early warning information for many natural disasters. Slight changes in the environment will often alert scientists and officials to a potential real time threat.

According to Aon Benfield, the international warning systems in place before the Icelandic volcano and ash cloud in April 2010, were an example of a success story that saved lives. Carina Fearnley at the Aon Benfield UCL Hazard Research Centre said, “The fact that flights in Europe were halted before any damaging encounters with the Eyjafjallajokull ash cloud demonstrates how well the warning system worked.”

But this type of monitoring comes at a high cost and long-term investment, which is why it tends to be wealthy, industrialised countries tend to have the best early warning systems. Less developed countries have fewer funds to invest in technology, and a less developed communications network to enable rapid decision-making and swift evacuation plans (though the UNISDR continues to encourage international cooperation).

For example, from 1980-1988 tropical cyclones caused 23 deaths per event in Japan, compared to 196 in the Philippines and 1341 in Bangladesh. There were more deaths in countries that could not afford sophisticated early warning systems and disaster preparation.

Meanwhile, there are other examples of how scientific information as well as preparation saved thousands of lives. In 1975, the Chinese town of Haicheng was hit by an earthquake with a magnitude of 7.3. 90% of the town was destroyed but a small number of inhabitants out of the 100,000 were killed because of an exact and timely warning and strict regulations that enabled successful evacuation.

Future hope: Technology
Advancements in satellite and computer technology are already delivering dividends for predicting natural catastrophes and mitigating damage.

To date, continuous monitoring of volcanic activity through satellites has enabled scientists to successfully predict numerous episodes of volcanic activity including Vesuvius, Etna, Kilanea and Mt. St. Helens.

Speaking to a recent conference in Brussels, Musa Manarov, a Russian cosmonaut, said that last summer’s devastating fires in Russia which killed thousands of people would have been even worse had scientists not had satellite technology. He said, “Without the system of monitoring, prediction and warning that was deployed through space technology, the situation would have been much worse.”

Satellite technology is useful not only to mitigate the consequences of earthquakes, floods and other natural disasters but also to predict these events, and it will be increasingly so as the technology becomes more sophisticated.

Meanwhile, at a conference this month at the University of Bristol, Professor Satoshi Matsuoka, Head of High-Performance Computing at Tokyo Institute of Technology, said that computational modelling research is increasingly being used to help predict and model natural disasters. He said a supercomputer called Tsubame 2.0 can now be used for high-resolution natural disaster simulations.

Expect the unexpected
Even with the most sophisticated early warning systems available today, exact hazard predictions will always be difficult because some events simply cannot be predicted.

“Black Swans” or the “Unknown Unknowns” are events that are impossible to predict, carry a massive impact and their shock value is stunning because people could never conceive of such an event occurring.

Dealing with these types of events has always been a challenge, not just for scientists but for the insurance industry that must find ways to quantify even unknown risks. The Lloyd’s market updates its Realistic Disaster Scenarios annually, with the aim of trying to imagine and prepare for disasters that can seem unimaginable.

Lloyd’s Chairman, Lord Levene, summed up the challenge when he said, “Expect the unexpected. But how can you prepare for what you don’t expect?…What I’m really suggesting is that to be a good risk manager, you need to get into the habit of thinking about the unexpected, and gradually that thinking will start to inform your business strategy and improve your risk awareness.”
“You can’t expect the unexpected but you should always try,” said Levene