Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Disaster Is On The Way

Science & Predictions

An article, by Nathaniel Rich, in The New Yorker says that advances in science have made it easier to predict disasters, such as the recent typhoon in the Philippines. Predictions, however accurate, are not the same as preparation, which are necessary to avoid the greatest possible damage to humans, animals and property.

Rich writes:
Nevertheless, our knowledge of how disasters occur, and how they will occur in the future, has never been more sophisticated. We are now able to prophesy impending cataclysms with a specificity that would have been inconceivable just several years ago. Several factors have contributed to this progress: a growing public anxiety about disasters; advances in disciplines as disparate as computer science, fluid mechanics, and neuroscience; and an infusion of funding from governments, universities, and especially corporations, which have figured out that disaster planning saves money in the long run. But the field remains in its infancy. Disaster prediction—like disaster science, disaster economics, disaster-response technology, disaster art, disaster cinema, disaster lit—is a growth industry. All indications suggest a growth curve that will continue to steepen well into the next century. Disaster is big business, and its prophets will profit.

Milestones in the past year include the March publication, by a team of U.C.L.A. scientists, of a new computer model that predicts where the next global pandemic will originate. The model gives the most favorable odds to Egypt’s Nile Delta and several areas in coastal and central China. One of these places is the most likely site for a particularly virulent strain of bird flu to jump species to human beings, creating a globetrotting virus that would kill more than six million Americans, according to a 2009 Department of Defense report that was declassified in September. In June, at a conference in Brisbane, an emergency-management specialist explained that Geographic Information Systems technology—which collects exhaustive data on land elevation, the condition of roads and buildings, water levels, population density, and meteorology—will help governments prepare for a flood years before it occurs. The technology will be used to determine when a flood is likely to happen, whether your house will be submerged, and whether you will survive if you don’t evacuate.
Such sophisticated modeling, using data and mathematical algorithms, seems useful in giving out warnings to residents of an upcoming weather event, like a hurricane, a flood or a typhoon. Human nature, being what it is, however, often ignores such warnings; all it would take is one error in the model, one wrong prediction, and all future predictions will be ignored by many people. The larger problem is that many people now reside in areas that such predictive models say will eventually be the target of some natural disaster. Such is human nature, which differs from the forces of nature in so many ways.

You can read the rest of the article at [New Yorker].

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