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Future shock

Bill McGuire

Drowned out by admirable but deafening calls for debt relief and an end to poverty, masked by the critical debate on climate change, and buried beneath news of the London bombs, the G8 leaders recently took the first steps towards establishing a global threat identification and warning system designed to ensure that we are never again caught napping by extreme geophysical hazards.

Drowned out by admirable but deafening calls for debt relief and an end to poverty, masked by the critical debate on climate change, and buried beneath news of the London bombs, the G8 leaders this month took the first steps towards establishing a global threat identification and warning system, designed to ensure that we are never again caught napping by extreme geophysical hazards along the lines of the Asian tsunami, or worse.

On the morning of December 26 2004, the Asian tsunami came as a bombshell to those caught up in it, but soon disbelief was replaced by angry demands for answers. Why was the earthquake risk not known and communicated? Why was no warning transmitted to communities under threat? There is one simple answer: inadequate appreciation of the nature and scale of the threat and an almost total absence of preparedness in the countries affected.

The relative geological serenity of recent centuries is illusory and misleading, and the Asian tsunami provides but a glimpse of comparable and greater catastrophes to come. Will we be ready next time, or will we again be faced with death and destruction on a biblical scale?

The G8 consensus is that mechanisms must be installed now to ensure that we are aware well in advance of any such menace, and that we have systems in place to guarantee that a major hazard is never again translated into a human calamity.

The British government’s chief scientific adviser, Sir David King, was directed to convene an ad hoc Natural Hazard Working Group, comprising some of the country’s top hazard scientists and disaster managers; their brief, to advise the prime minister on the mechanisms that should be established for the detection and early warning of global natural hazards.

The group was asked to focus on those events with a potential for high planet-wide or regional impact, either physically and directly or via knock-on effects on the global economy or social fabric.

Last month, the group published its findings, making three recommendations that the members felt would better place the global community to avoid, mitigate or manage future extreme geophysical phenomena. The first calls for an integrated warning system to replace the current disparate and incoherent schemes; the second urges both governments and international agencies to prioritise capacity building at the national level to incorporate scientific and technical methods into assessing and monitoring risk from natural hazards, and in developing effective and workable systems to warn of future hazardous events.

The report’s key recommendation, however, advocates the establishment of an International Science Panel (ISP) for natural hazard assessment. But what would this do? Don’t we already have enough agencies dealing with hazards and disasters? After all, the UN is currently developing an International Early Warning System, with the intention of reducing the impact of natural hazards in developing countries. And, a few weeks ago, it was announced that an Indian Ocean tsunami alert system is expected to be operational by July next year.

Concerned by big earthquakes in the Caribbean and the future collapse of the Canary Islands’ unstable Cumbre Vieja volcano, the United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration even plans to have an Atlantic tsunami warning system up and running in two years’ time.

Such initiatives, while essential and critical, however, are designed primarily to provide short-term warnings of known hazards that pose a threat to life and property.

An ISP on natural hazards would have a very different purpose. It would put hazard and risk science at the heart of the disaster-reduction process.

Preventing disasters is complex, involving reductions in exposure and vulnerability, improvements in risk communication and better education about the risks communities face. Potential threats that might lead to disaster must first be recognised, evaluated and understood, and this is where the panel would come in.

Ideally, the panel would also identify gaps in knowledge, and promote the application of science and technology in mitigating and managing extreme geophysical events and reducing exposure and vulnerability to them.

We already have much of the technology we need to forecast earthquakes and volcanoes. Teams of observers have been at work for years spotting and tracking asteroids that may pose a threat, while tsunami modellers predict the passage of the great sea waves to come.

On the other hand, only a few hundred of the world’s 3 000 or so active or potentially active volcanos are monitored, while at least 500 or so monster asteroids regularly hurtle past our planet undetected.

We need to end poverty and we have no choice but to tackle climate change. If we are not to be faced with accelerating levels of devastation from natural phenomena, however, we have to have a robust initiative charged with identifying, assessing and warning of potential catastrophes.

The G8 leaders pulled back from recommending the creation of an ISP for natural hazard assessment. The legacy of the Asian tsunami has spawned a desire to tackle future extreme hazards head-on, but it is a desire that will soon sink beneath a sea of other priorities. If we are unable to act now, we face condemnation, not only from the survivors of the December 26 cataclysm, but from relatives of the millions whose lives will be lost in catastrophes to come.—Â

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