Issue 5 Online Extra: What can governments do to better prepare the population for extreme weather events? by Dr. Victoria E. Lee

This article is a companion piece to The New Idealist Issue Five: Doomsday Edition which you can download here.

Please note: This article was originally published in The New Idealist section of The Intelligent Review site in May 2014 before being transferred to this new site in July 2015.

At first glance, it might seem that data collection and analysis is a top priority in modern societies.  From the corporate craze for Big Data analysis to maximize profits, to controversial government surveillance programs tracking personal communications, to the proliferation of personal health technologies such as wearable activity trackers, it is widely understood that prosperity, safety, and well-being can be obtained by measuring and scrutinizing human-generated data.

Data measurements of planet Earth receive less attention and appreciation, but are also crucial for maintaining the well-being of societies and individuals.  This is particularly true when it comes to extreme weather events.  The human misery and economic damage wreaked by various types of extreme weather — such as floods and droughts, cold snaps and heat waves, localized tornadoes and extensive hurricanes — can be mitigated by measuring the ever-changing movements of air, water, and heat throughout the Earth.  Wise decision-making in preparing for and responding to extreme weather events rely on these data because they help answer the essential planning questions:  When and where might an event happen?  How intense will the event be?  How frequently will extreme events occur?

Funds are needed to safeguard the availability and continuity of Earth data collection required for extreme weather preparation.

Central governments in wealthy nations play a crucial role in gathering the necessary scientific data for two major reasons.  The first is the ability to support the costs and coordination of large-scale projects.  Towards the expensive end of the cost spectrum are Earth-observing satellites, which gather data used in computer models to generate accurate weather forecasts.  Here in the US, the estimated lifetime cost for the Joint Polar Satellite System is $11.3 billion for operations through 2025.  Relatively low-cost measurements can also depend on public funds for upkeep, since even critical data can lack commercial interest.  An example is the US network of stream gauges, which monitor the amount of water flowing in rivers and streams, generating data used in managing flood and drought responses.  The operating costs for the national network of gauging stations totaled $165 million last year – a mere two percent of the $8.2 billion in annual US flood loss damages, or about one percent of the $14 billion in US taxpayer costs due to the 2012 drought.

The organizational stability and longevity of governments is the second reason why they are suited to undertake the data collection necessary for extreme weather preparations (in contrast to fleeting commercial ventures).  With proper planning and prioritization, governments have the wherewithal to ensure that crucial scientific instruments will be actively operating when an extreme weather event occurs.  Continuous data records over a long period of time also have the greatest scientific value.  A decades-long record provides a solid basis for comparison to present-day patterns.  A record free of data gaps more readily enables accurate identification of trends and out-of-the-ordinary changes.

Without the current coverage, predictions for Hurricane Sandy’s devastating track would have been far off course.

Funds are needed to safeguard the availability and continuity of Earth data collection required for extreme weather preparation.  A data gap in US polar satellite coverage is expected starting in 2016; research demonstrated that without the current coverage, predictions for Hurricane Sandy’s devastating track would have been far off course.  On the ground, hundreds of US stream gages were shut off last spring due to sequestration-related federal budget cuts.  These recent cuts are part of a larger, troubling trend of network breakdown – between 1995 and 2008, 948 gauges with 30 or more years of data were also discontinued.  Although UK and European networks remain healthy, we in the US are slowly going blind as to what is happening in our own backyards.

By planning and paying for scientific data collection now, governments can provide the foundational information needed for decision-making about how best to prepare and respond to extreme weather events to come.  Measurements of the entire Earth system – land, oceans, air, and space – are as essential an investment for society as data from human systems.

Dr. Victoria E. Lee is a scientist who studies planet Earth. She has conducted research at Columbia University, first as a NOAA Climate & Global Change Postdoctoral Fellow, and currently as an Adjunct Associate Research Scientist.  She also previously worked at the University of Oxford.  Dr. Lee earned a Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley in Earth & Planetary Science, and a Bachelor of Science from Yale. 

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