Atmospheric Perils — a teachable moment

Cyclone Idai, from MODIS platform

In the field of applied risk and hazard research, it seems that there is always a teachable moment.

Whether it is the news concerning the devastating aftermath and loss of life from Cyclone Idai in Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe, severe flooding affecting homes, lives, crops and livestock in Centre-South Braziland the Central US, the impacts of drought on industry in Australia, India and Ukraine, or poor urban air quality in Delhi and Shenzhen, the importance of understanding and preparing for severe events which originate in the atmosphere should be top of mind. And these are just a few of the many types of aero-geophysical occurrences, which can subtly or acutely affect nearly all aspects of modern societal life. Atmospheric and geophysical perils such as these can exert both positive and negative impacts to human, economic and social systems, ranging in scale from sub-zip code to multiple countries across multiple continents. But 24-hour news cycles and ubiquitous weather information notwithstanding, there is still a widespread lack of preparedness for these events evident across the domestic and commercial landscape, which typically results in severe unfavorable outcomes.

When we think of the spectrum of potential risks, one of the primary differences with geophysical risks as compared with other types of exposures with ‘on-the-ground’ origins, is that the atmosphere and the ocean (and the sun) do not respect boundaries other than those governed by the principles embedded in fluid dynamics. Floods and droughts do not stop their progress at country borders. Severe heat and cold will not respect who does/does not have access to air conditioning or heating. Solar flares impact entire hemispheres. Water follows the path of least resistance, with deficits and surpluses more a function of geography than of economics or demographics. As these categories of atmospheric events are impacting countless lives on a daily basis, directly or indirectly, most people and businesses are not prepared to react once a forcing event is in motion. Therefore, for those of us involved in the physics-side of extreme event research and risk management, including the associated human impacts, we should use this as an opportunity to communicate the importance of preparedness and early action, as lives, structures and economies are all vulnerable to disruption.

Despite the combined best efforts of scientists, government agencies and the public and private sectors, in any given month of any given year, we can look at an extreme event somewhere on the planet and learn how to better identify, quantify and communicate hazard risk to the relevant stakeholders. For every life, dollar or structure saved, there is always more that can be done. More entities within the risk community should look to emulate the efforts of researchers/practitioners such as Dr. Marshall Shepherd, Paul Walsh, and Dr. Ryan Maue (to name a few) as examples of professionals who take the time to explain what we know, and more importantly what we don’t know, regarding the mechanics, the range of potential impacts and uncertainty with respect to pending physical hazards. In addition to the individuals, we must also rely on the efforts of the underlying technology and communications corporations, including Planet, Indigo, IBM/The Weather Company, Jupiter Intelligence, and Riskpulse, that are gathering, processing and disseminating models and data in real-time, and putting much of this in the public domain. We have come a long way over the last two decades, regarding risk identification, communication, and information transfer. Given the nature and the severity of impending weather, water, climate and geophysical risks against the backdrop of a growing and more interconnected global population, there is still much more to be done.

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