The importance of early warnings
Late last summer, a heat wave in Europe killed more than 15,000 people in France alone. At about the same time, South Asia flooded and forest fires raged in Spain and Portugal. In the United States, East coast electrical power went out and West Nile virus spread widely.
It’s said that to be forewarned is to be forearmed. Mickey Glantz (ESIG) and Zhang Renhe of the Chinese Academy of Meteorological Sciences organized a workshop in Shanghai last October to study early warning systems for crises like floods, droughts, epidemics, invasive species, food insecurity, terrorism, and more. About 30 people from academia, government organizations, and private industry attended.
“As all of our usable science workshops have been, it was designed to be a high-impact workshop,” Mickey says. “We captured the attention of various governments, United Nations agencies, and organizations.”
Early warning systems can range from formal bureaucratic chains of command to informal coping mechanisms that have been passed down through the generations. An early warning system might be quantitative; for example, if high temperatures reach a certain level for a specific number of days, a heat wave warning is issued. Or it might be qualitative and rely on anecdotal evidence, like truck drivers returning from the countryside who report seeing famine-stricken villagers selling their possessions for food.
“There must be scores of definitions of an early warning system,” Mickey says. “People don’t know how to define it, but they know one when they see it. An early warning is any kind of notice that there is some impending change in current conditions.”
The goal of the workshop participants was to make early warnings more effective by gathering lessons from people who have developed and worked with early warning systems in different contexts. The participants would like to see government officials and others use these insights to prepare warnings and educate the media and public, making early warning systems more useful, credible, and reliable.
Some of the specific topics participants discussed include different types of early warning systems, how long before crises they should be issued, circumstances that lead people to ignore warnings, and how to measure the effectiveness of early warning systems. Participants emphasized the link between early warning systems and sustainable development. Governments can use early warning systems to encourage settlements to develop in more secure areas, as well as to make the post-disaster rebuilding process less likely to hold back economic development for years after a crisis.
“Sustainable development prospects, and even the stability of a government, are much more dependent on successful early warnings than most observers and governments realize,” Mickey says. “Governments pay lip service to early warning systems, but they really have to take them much more seriously.”
Participants pointed out that while early warning systems might always look effective on paper or in PowerPoint demonstrations, not surprisingly they run into bottlenecks in reality. For example, national meteorological services accurately forecast the heat wave in Europe, but the cascade of early warnings was clearly insufficient and didn’t reach people most at risk. Another problem is that disaster priorities in a given location vary over time as new hazards appear or existing hazards occur in new areas. Global warming in particular has the potential to change the location, seasonality, and severity of hydrometeorological hazards.
“Many of the impacts of global warming are still quite speculative, whereas the kinds of hazards we’re dealing with today are real and known,” Mickey says. “But we have a win-win situation by focusing on early warning systems, because if we can’t deal with extremes and variability today we won’t be able to deal with them under conditions of global warming in the future.”
NCAR, NSF, NOAA, and the Chinese Academy of Meteorological Sciences sponsored the conference. In addition to Mickey, other ESIG staffers who attended the conference included Qian Ye, DJan Stewart, and Anne Oman.