14 December 2010

Lessons from a year of disasters

Posted by mohi


Ash cloud from the eruption at Eyjafjallajokull April 17, 2010. Image courtesy of Arni Frioriksson

Meteorologist Julia Slingo spent her birthday recounting the lessons of what had to be one of the more eventful years of her life. Slingo, the Chief Scientist for the UK’s Meteorology (Met) Office spoke to a Monday evening audience at the Frontiers of Geophysics Lecture, session U15A-01.

“I was just getting over Climate-gate,” she said, “when all of a sudden Eyjafjallajokull went up, and its impact was massive. That was the first of them.”

Iceland’s volcano helped mute the political firestorm over climate science, but it produced an urgent demand for a new science. To get air traffic in Europe flying again required trustworthy and detailed volcanic ash forecasting. No one had ever done that before.

“It’s a massive amount of science that had to be done in about 5 days,” Slingo said.

The year also saw floods displace millions in Pakistan, more than 500 wildfires across heat-scorched Russia, and the first major storm of the new solar cycle which affecting U.S. air traffic control, media customers, and GPS services. Each event reinforced the lessons of the ash crisis for Slingo: Predicting the impacts of natural hazards demands collaborations between scientists and melding of their data never before attempted.

Slingo saw evidence that certain factors magnify the effects of natural hazards, making society “increasingly vulnerable to things that are really quite run of the mill,” she said. For instance, air travel just happened to blossom during a period in which Iceland’s volcanoes were unusually quiet, masking the volcanic threat to an essential global infrastructure. Pakistan’s floods were not unprecedented, but decades of population growth and migrations to flood-prone areas along the Indus River put millions in harm’s way.

Some tragedies could have been prevented with the right tools. For example, the Met Office forecast the Pakistan’s extreme rains days in advance, but they failed to realize that the data could be used by hydrologists to produce a parallel prediction of the extent of the floods. This extended approach to hazard prediction, one forecast feeding data into the next model, can save lives and prevent economic and social disasters to come, Slingo argued.

“This sort of modeling now is getting to the level at which it could be incredibly useful,” she said.

For example, the Met Office had data available in May that predicted elevated temperatures around Moscow in July. According to Slingo, wildfire warnings and disaster preparations should have been issued, preventing many of the impacts of those fires.

After such an extraordinary year, Slingo now drives the Met Office’s work towards creating just such an integrated and seamless approach to producing warnings about natural hazards. So on her next birthday, she hopes to be able to reflect on a year of disasters averted thanks to emerging forecasting techniques.

–Keith Rozendal is a science communication graduate student at UC Santa Cruz