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A better framework for disasters

A better framework for disasters

The end of the Northern hemisphere summer tends to be a good time to regroup from natural hazards, as the frequency and intensity of storms, as well as the incidence of wildfires, tends to trail off. At the time of writing, however, Hurricane Willa had just crashed into Mexico, while Typhoon Yutu has just hit the Northern Mariana Islands so hard that any equipment designed to record wind-speed had been swept away. Both storms rapidly strengthened, and the latter was described by the US National Weather Service as ‘likely [to] become the new yard stick by which future storms will be judged.’

Super Typhoon Yutu (24 October 2018) making its way towards the Northern Mariana Islands, a territory of the United States. (Photo: Joshua Stevens/NASA Earth Observatory)

What if we changed the way we think about such events, though? What if, instead of focusing on the wind-speed of a typhoon or the magnitude of an earthquake, the first points of discussion were about the human aspect and impact associated with a specific event. How would this summer’s events be framed? It’s a crucial distinction; natural disaster is in some ways a paradox in terms – although the hazard, or physical manifestation, of a hurricane or earthquake is natural, the impacts, and thus the disaster, are entirely a result of human exposure and vulnerability. Let’s first explore some of the most dramatic themes from this summer’s disasters, and then try and put them in this new human context.

What links this summer’s events?

The recent Hurricanes – Yutu, Willa, Florence and Michael – encapsulate well the intensity and frequency at which we’ve seen disasters come over the last few months. Earthquakes, storms, droughts and wildfires have all caused havoc in a hugely diverse spectrum of locations, and while the specter of natural hazards is always present in many parts of the world, there seems to be something more intense and urgent with respect to this summer’s catastrophes, especially in the media coverage.

The availability of smartphones and the proliferation of social media use means we can see ever more easily from the safety of our homes what others experience in terror during disasters; who could forget the scarring imagery from the earthquake and tsunami in Lombok in September, as houses were tossed about like toys as the ground turned to liquid.

Elsewhere, Japan experienced a plethora of hazards as flooding, typhoons, landslides, earthquakes and drought brought a whole range of challenging conditions which caused a large number of fatalities, despite Japan’s status as one of the best prepared countries in the world for natural hazards.

Much of the media discussion related to disasters has focused on the links between hazards and climate change, and whether the severity of events like Hurricane Florence can be attributed in part to anthropogenic emissions. While it has historically proven difficult to attribute the strength of different storms to climate change, this summer marked the first time scientists attempted it in earnest while an event was taking place – some researchers argued that the rainfall forecast for Hurricane Florence was 50% higher than it would otherwise have been, although such estimates are still in their infancy. What is clearer from scientific predictions of future climate change is that storms will likely be stronger, wetter and slower moving, suggesting similar intense storms could become more normal.

Beyond tropical storms, records were broken by other catastrophes. The Northern hemisphere wildfire season was among the worst we’ve ever experienced on record, at least in terms of acreage burned. Californian fires were so intense that smoke was noticeable on the East Coast, while the extent of fire in western Canada was second only to the cataclysmic fires last year. Abnormally warm temperatures in Scandinavia prompted wildfires to break out north of the Arctic circle, an extremely rare and concerning occurrence.

A different way to think about catastrophes

While it’s interesting and important to discuss the potential for increased storm severity as a result of climate change, it seems that this should only form a part of the larger discussion: how will trends in climate co-evolve with trends in human exposure and vulnerability to hazards? Similarly, why focus on the numbers associated with a disaster – the earthquake magnitude, the depth of flooding, acres of forest burned – when we could instead look at who has been impacted, and how to prevent this in the future.

It’s especially important to frame the ‘cost’ of a given event in this context. Often, we think of cost in either loss-of-life or financial terms, but it’s worth considering those as functions of exposure and vulnerability. For example, Hurricane Florence, which recently made landfall on the US eastern seaboard, is likely to cost  40-50 billion US dollars. Compare this to Hurricane Maria, which devastated Puerto Rico in 2017; some estimates for the cost of the storm were around 100 billion US dollars. While Hurricane Maria cost roughly twice as much as Florence, the relative impact on Puerto Rico was far greater than that value would imply. The vulnerability of the economy of Puerto Rico to a disaster of that scale was far higher than the mainland US; with a GDP of over 10 trillion US dollars, the US economy can absorb shocks like Florence, but the GDP of Puerto Rico declined by a massive 8% in the aftermath of Maria. It is worth noting that Puerto Rico is in fact a territory of the US, and received federal funding to assist with recovery – so the economic impact might even have been more severe without it.

U.S. Customs & Border Protection & FEMA personnel deliver food and water to isolated Puerto Rico residents after their bridge was destroyed by Hurricane Maria in the mountains around Utuado, Puerto Rico (Photo: U.S. Air Force/Master Sgt. Joshua L. DeMotts via FEMA)

We can build the same framing for loss of lives; countries with well-developed disaster response and recovery mechanisms suffer significantly fewer fatalities in the face of a similar magnitude event to a poorly equipped country, all things being equal. This kind of social vulnerability to disaster is difficult to quantify, and encompasses a range of aspects including cultural awareness of natural hazards and healthcare expenditure, but it has to be considered alongside the trends in hazard intensity.

I would argue that coverage of (and research related to) disasters needs to shift away from the headline numbers, like skyrocketing costs or the increasing intensity of storms and wildfires, and instead discuss whether disasters are hitting harder in places that are more vulnerable, or whether the relative economic or human exposure to a given type of disaster is worsening or not. While it’s fascinating to see images of multiple hurricanes over a single basin, it’s an incomplete picture unless the risk is incorporated.

Flash flood impacts in Peru after torrential rain in 2013 (Photo: Galeria del Ministerio de Defensa del Perú via Flickr)

Reframing our vision of disasters would put the focus squarely on where inequality and climate change interact; if more vulnerable developing countries or regions are expected to be more exposed to disasters under a changing climate, then there is real potential for inequalities to be exacerbated – and this is indeed what the UN anticipates will occur. More fundamentally, reframing would help us shift away from a coldly analytical perspective of ‘disasters by the numbers’ and instead consider where the worst impacts would be, and who the people at risk are. While trends in the developed world indicate fewer and fewer deaths from disasters over the last 100 years, many countries don’t have the same capacity to absorb shocks.

The human tendency to dwell on the extraordinary, and the ephemeral nature of modern news coverage certainly encourages reporting to focus on the records broken by a given event. Perhaps it’s futile to add another voice to the many that have already asked for more context and temperance from such coverage, but it seems important to highlight that there may be other ways to cover disasters; those affected may benefit greatly, in both the long and short term.

Robert Emberson is a Postdoctoral Fellow at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, and a science writer when possible. He can be contacted either on Twitter (@RobertEmberson) or via his website (https://robertemberson.com/)

Editor’s note: This is a guest blog post that expresses the opinion of its author, whose views may differ from those of the European Geosciences Union. We hope the post can serve to generate discussion and a civilised debate amongst our readers.

Imaggeo on Mondays: Small scale processes, large scale landforms

Imaggeo on Mondays: Small scale processes, large scale landforms

This picture was taken in a sea cliff gully landscape at the Portuguese coast. It shows the microrelief which small scale wash and erosional processes produce in these poorly consolidated sediments. These small scale landforms could be interpreted as initial stages of larger scale gully landforms, which can be seen in the back. This highlights the importance of regarding scales and scale linkages in the geosciences.

Description by Jana Eichel, as it first appeared on imaggeo.egu.eu.

Imaggeo is the EGU’s online open access geosciences image repository. All geoscientists (and others) can submit their photographs and videos to this repository and, since it is open access, these images can be used for free by scientists for their presentations or publications, by educators and the general public, and some images can even be used freely for commercial purposes. Photographers also retain full rights of use, as Imaggeo images are licensed and distributed by the EGU under a Creative Commons licence. Submit your photos at http://imaggeo.egu.eu/upload/.

October GeoRoundUp: the best of the Earth sciences from around the web

October GeoRoundUp: the best of the Earth sciences from around the web

Drawing inspiration from popular stories on our social media channels, major geoscience headlines, as well as unique and quirky research, this monthly column aims to bring you the latest Earth and planetary science news from around the web.

Major story

In October, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a landmark report and summary statement that detailed the severe consequences for our environment and society if global warming continues unabated. The special report, also known as the SR15, was compiled by 91 authors from 40 countries, and cites more than 6,000 peer-reviewed studies.

“There’s no doubt that this dense, science-heavy, 33-page summary is the most significant warning about the impact of climate change in 20 years,” said Matt McGrath an environment correspondent for BBC News.

The  EGU announced its support of the IPCC report in a statement published last month. In this address, EGU President Jonathan Bamber said: “EGU concurs with, and supports, the findings of the SR15 that action to curb the most dangerous consequences of human-induced climate change is urgent, of the utmost importance and the window of opportunity extremely limited.”

The IPCC was first commissioned to produce this report by the UN Convention on Climate Change following the Paris agreement, where world leaders pledged to limit global warming to well below 2ºC above pre-industrial levels and “pursue efforts” towards 1.5ºC. The goal of the report was to better understand what it would take for the world to successfully meet this 1.5ºC target and what the consequences would be if we are unable to reach this goal.

The report illustrates the two different outcomes that would arise from limiting global warming to 1.5ºC or allowing temperatures to rise to 2ºC.

While a half-degree doesn’t come across like a pronounced difference, the report explains that additional warming by this degree could endanger tens of millions more people across the world with life-threatening heat waves, water shortages, and coastal flooding from sea level rise. This kind of warming would also increase the chances that coral reefs and Arctic sea ice in the summer would disappear. These are just a few of the impacts detailed in the report. Recently, Carbon Brief has also produced an interactive graphic that does a deep dive into how climate change at 1.5ºC, 2ºC and beyond will impact different regions and communities around the world.

It should be noted that while limiting warming to 1.5ºC is the better of the two pathways, it still isn’t optimal. For example, under this warming threshold, the authors of the report project that global  sea levels would still rise, coral reefs would decline by 70-90%, and more than 350 million additional people would be exposed to severe drought.

Furthermore, the report goes on to explain what action (and just how much of it) would be necessary to limit warming to 1.5ºC. An article from the Guardian perhaps put it best: “there’s one simple critical takeaway point: we need to cut carbon pollution as much as possible, as fast as possible.

The report authors emphasise that limiting warming would require a massive international movement to reduce emissions and remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere; and additionally this effort would need to happen within the next few years to avoid the most severe outcomes. They warn that if greenhouse emissions are still released at their current rate, the Earth’s temperature may reach 1.5ºC some time between 2030 and 2052, and reach more than 3ºC by 2100. Even more so, they concluded that the greenhouse gas reduction actions currently pledged by various countries around the world are still not enough to limit warming to 1.5ºC.

Measures to reach this temperature target include reducing global carbon dioxide emissions by 45% from 2010 levels by 2030, and reach a ‘net-zero’ by 2050. and making dramatic investments in renewable energy. They conclude that 70-35% of the world’s electricity should be generated by renewables like wind and solar power by 2050. By that same time, the coal industry would need to be phased out almost entirely.

Moreover, the authors say that we would need to expand forests and develop technology to suck carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The report notes that climate action needs to be taken on an individual level as well, such as reducing the amount of meat we eat and time we spend on flying airplanes.

The authors report that we have the technology and means to limit warming by 1.5ºC, but they warn that the current political climate could make reaching this goal less likely.

“Limiting warming to 1.5ºC is possible within the laws of chemistry and physics but doing so would require unprecedented changes,” said Jim Skea, Co-Chair of IPCC Working Group III, in an IPCC press release.

Still have questions about the recent report? The IPCC has released a comprehensive FAQ and Carbon Brief has published an in-depth Q&A that addresses questions such as why the panel released the report, why adaptation is important, what the reaction has been, and what’s next.

What you might have missed

BepiColombo approaching Mercury. Credit: ESA/ATG medialab; Mercury: NASA/JPL

Last month the science media was also abuzz with a series of space agency news. On 20 October, the European-Japanese mission BepiColombo successfully launched from French Guiana, starting its seven-year long journey to Mercury, the smallest and least explored terrestrial planet in the Solar System. The probe is poised to be the third mission to travel to Mercury.

Once it arrives in 2025, the spacecraft will actually separate into two satellites, which will orbit the planet for at least one year. One satellite will investigate Mercury’s magnetic field while the other will take a series of measurements, including collecting data on the planet’s terrain, topography, and surface structure and composition. The researchers involved with the mission hope to learn more about Mercury’s origins and better understand the evolution of our solar system.

While one mission has started its journey, another’s has come to an end. Last month NASA’s planet-hunting Kepler space telescope has officially been retired after running out of fuel. Over its 9-year life span, the telescope has spotted more than 2,600 planets outside our solar system, many of which are possibly capable of sustaining life.

“As NASA’s first planet-hunting mission, Kepler has wildly exceeded all our expectations and paved the way for our exploration and search for life in the solar system and beyond,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “Not only did it show us how many planets could be out there, it sparked an entirely new and robust field of research that has taken the science community by storm. Its discoveries have shed a new light on our place in the universe, and illuminated the tantalizing mysteries and possibilities among the stars.”

However, even though Kepler’s planet-scoping days are over, NASA’s new space observatory, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) mission, which launched in April 2018, will continue the search for habitable worlds.

NASA’s Kepler space telescope, shown in this artist’s concept, revealed that there are more planets than stars in the Milky Way galaxy. Image credit: NASA

Links we liked

The EGU story

Earlier in October, we announced the winners of the 2019 EGU awards and medals: 45 individuals who have made significant contributions to the Earth, planetary and space sciences and who will be honoured at the 2019 EGU General Assembly next April. We have also announced the winners of the Outstanding Student Poster and PICO (OSPP) Awards corresponding to the 2018 General Assembly, which you can find on our website. Congratulations to all!

This month, we also opened the call for abstracts for the EGU 2019 General Assembly. If you are interested in presenting your work in Vienna in April, make sure you submit your abstract by 10 January 2019, 13:00 CET. If you would like to apply for a Roland Schlich travel grant to attend the meeting, please submit your abstract no later than 1 December 2018. You can find more information on the EGU website.

Interested in science and art? After successfully hosting a cartoonist and a poet in residence at last year’s annual meeting, we are now opening a call for artists to apply for a residency at the EGU 2019 General Assembly. The deadline for applications is 1 December. You can find more information about the opportunity online here.

And don’t forget! To stay abreast of all the EGU’s events and activities, from highlighting papers published in our open access journals to providing news relating to EGU’s scientific divisions and meetings, including the General Assembly, subscribe to receive our monthly newsletter.