Early warning systems

by Maryam Golnaraghi

Every year, disasters caused by weather, climate and water-related hazards impact on communities around the world, leading to loss of human life, destruction of social and economic infrastructure and degradation of already fragile ecosystems. Statistics from the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED) at the university of Leuven, Belgium, reveal that from 1992-2001, about 90% of natural disasters were meteorological or hydrological in origin; the resulting economic losses were estimated at $446bn, or about 65% of all damage caused by natural disasters

It seems likely that worse things are in store. According to the Third Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), climate change could result in more severe and more frequent natural hazards in the future.

Natural disaster risk management is of particular importance to the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO), which operates the global infrastructure for observation, research, monitoring, detection, forecasting, early warning and exchange of information related to natural hazards. Alongside educational and capacity-building services they provide backbone capabilities to enable national meteorological and hydrological services (NMHS), particularly in developing countries, to work at the frontline to meet national needs for hazard information. While the disaster statistics of the last decade are sobering, it is important to realise that loss of life and property would have been even higher without preventive services.

One of the most important areas to be addressed is the need to help nations understand the benefi ts of shifting more investments from post-disaster recovery to risk management and prevention. Many countries, particularly the least developed, need to put greater emphasis on the various steps involved in proactive prevention.

One of the most effective measures for disaster preparedness is a well-functioning early warning system that delivers accurate information dependably and on-time.

WMO’s programmes related to monitoring the atmosphere, oceans and rivers provide crucial time-sequenced information that underpins forecasts and warnings of hydrometeorological hazards. The global network of Regional Specialised Meteorological Centres and World Data Centres provides critical data, analysis and forecasts enabling NMHSs to issue early warnings and guidelines for various natural hazards such as tornadoes, winter storms, tropical cyclones, cold and heat waves, fl oods and droughts.

For example, WMO’s global network proved highly effective in 2004, during one of the most intense hurricane seasons in the Atlantic and Caribbean. Atmospheric data collected via instruments on-site and in space were transmitted to the US National Hurricane Centre, where forecasts and hurricane advisories were developed round the clock. These advisories were transmitted via the Global Telecommunication System, facsimile and the internet at three to six-hour intervals to NMHSs in countries at risk. National forecasters used the hurricane advisories to produce specifi c hurricane warnings, which were dispatched immediately to newspapers, radio and television stations, emergency services and other users. Thanks to this information, many lives were spared through timely evacuation. The challenge is to ensure that all countries, particularly the least developed, have the systems, infrastructure, human capacity and organizational structures to develop and use early warning systems to reduce risks of natural disasters.

Looking beyond short-term early warnings for specifi c events, WMO is working on the development of new products that provide information on the state of the climate and natural hazards with longer lead-times. When there is evidence of a developing El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) condition, WMO coordinates a global scientific consensus, involving a collaborative process to review best available evidence and predictions. The outcome is an El Niño Update, a unifi ed global statement on the expected evolution of ENSO for the months ahead, which is issued to national meteorological and hydrological services and the world at large.

Regional Climate Outlook Forums (RCOFs) are regularly held in regions affected by ENSO and a degree of knowhow has developed for forecasting ENSO impacts. In Africa, three regional centres catalyse and coordinate the climate forums. The Drought Monitoring Centre (DMC) in Harare, Zimbabwe, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) Climate Prediction and Applications Centre (ICPAC) in Kenya, and the African Centre of Meteorological Applications for Development (ACMAD) in Niger, develop and disseminate climate outlooks, particularly related to drought monitoring and drought alerts, to each of the NMHSs, and arrange for interactive discussions and interpretations with representatives in the disaster risk management community and other sectors.

There is considerable need for sector-specifi c climate information and early warning systems to be developed. Examples of such activities are WMO collaboration with the World Health Organization (WHO) to develop Heat-health Warning Systems for coping with deadly heat waves and malaria; and work with the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) on monitoring and developing early warnings of locust swarms.

NMHSs use various formal and informal mechanisms, from traditional approaches to more advanced technologies, to disseminate information to authorities and the general public, particularly the public at risk. While in some countries, the national centres rely on public broadcasting systems – via the internet, television and radio – in others sirens, balloons, fl ags and beacons are most effective in warning communities that are remote or do not have access to the latest technology. However, this information is only effective if there is a corresponding capacity to respond to the information through prevention, preparedness and response activities at the national and community levels.

Efficient international and national satellite-based data-distribution systems provide timely and reliable access to weather, water and climate data. Two examples among many others are the Emergency Managers Weather Information Network (EMWIN) operated by the National Weather Service of the United States and the satellite-based telecommunications system operated by the China Meteorological Administration.

Beyond these activities, the premise of WMO research is to develop seamless end-to-end operational systems for early warning of natural hazards from next-hour to climate change timescales. Research programmes are extending the range of skilful forecasts to timescales of use in decision-making. WMO’s international research programme on weather and new climate strategy over the next 10 years aims to speed up improvements in the accuracy of one-day to two-week high-impact weather forecasts, and to develop prediction capabilities at longer lead-times.

However, while technical and scientifi c capabilities are advancing year-to-year, there is a need for stronger, more coordinated activities among government leaders, risk managers in both the public and private sectors, organizations at the national, regional and international level and the scientifi c community, to develop capabilities to support proactive strategies for natural disaster risk reduction.

Dr. Maryam Golnaraghi is the Chief of the Disaster Prevention and Mitigation Programme of the World Meteorological Organisation in Geneva.

< Previous  |   Next >