HIGH FLYERS THINK TANK
Extreme Natural Hazards
University of Melbourne, Tuesday 30 October 2007
Discussion and reporting back
Chair: Professor Kurt Lambeck, PresAA, FRS
Australia unique but linked with other parts of the world opportunities for collaboration
Think Tank participants noted that many of the concerns that have been raised around the globe in response to natural hazard events are equally relevant within an Australian context. One illustration of such global links is that the United Nations has declared 2008 to be the International Year of Planet Earth, under the auspices of the International Union of Geological Sciences and UNESCO.33 As part of this International Year of Planet Earth, the hazards theme centres on the following key questions:
(1) How have humans altered the geosphere, the biosphere and the landscape, thereby creating long-term changes detrimental to life and the environment and triggering certain hazards, while increasing societal vulnerability to geophysical (geological and hydrometeorological) hazards (eg, human clearing of mangroves leading to coastal erosion; reservoir-induced seismicity)?
(2) What technologies and methodologies are required to assess the vulnerability of people and places to hazards and how might these be used at a variety of spatial scales (eg, remote sensing; GPS; synchrotrons)?
(3) How do geophysical hazards compare relative to each other regarding current capabilities for monitoring, prediction and mitigation, and what can be done in the short-term to improve these capabilities (eg, applying geo-referenced soil databases to improve sustainable land-use management)?
(4) What barriers exist to the utilisation of risk and vulnerability information by governments (and other entities) for risk and vulnerability reduction policies and planning (including mitigation) from each of the geophysical hazards (eg, adequate scientific information)?
While there are common issues that have been recognised, such as those addressed in the questions above, Australia also has locally unique features that influence the manifestation of extreme natural hazards. This means that Australia will need to consider how particular needs and frameworks can be sensitively balanced within such global contexts. This is especially critical given that diversity in policy instruments and policy-making styles can easily promote international differences.34
|Features in which Australia differs from other parts of the world
Features in which Australia differs from other parts of the world include:
International collaboration is needed to manage hazards, particularly in the context of improving international risk governance. The importance of community interaction and participation were stressed in the ICSU position statement, Natural disaster reduction: safer sustainable communities making decisions about risk (www.iugg.org/publications/reports/ICSUposition.pdf).
Other international research also indicates that:
...Sharing of best practices and lessons globally is certain to produce more efficiency and understanding in policy and decision-making.36
Think Tank participants recognised that some extreme natural hazard research might be more sensibly conducted overseas, in biolabs located internationally and within areas where the hazard already exists (eg, BSE in the UK). This is preferable to introducing dangerous organisms or substances to Australia for research purposes. In relation to this point, the Australian Academy of Science recently undertook an ARC-funded study, Maximising the benefits of Australia's formal linkages to global scientific activities, to examine mechanisms to enhance Australian involvement in global scientific programs.37
Basic data for science
Participants identified that basic data is lacking for many areas of Australia, this being of greatest concern in locations vulnerable to hazards. For instance, there is a need for a better understanding of the physics of tsunami sources in general, and the causes and wind fields of cyclones. In some cases, hazard zones are yet to be identified and perhaps this would be assisted by installing a better sensor network or deploying equipment into hazard zones during events (eg, flying data-collecting planes through cyclones).
Adding to this situation is the fact that there is no consolidated understanding of what data already exists. It may even be possible to reanalyse and access extreme meteorological event archives for the Australian region. Certainly, participants were quick to recognise that it is very difficult to obtain such data, especially in a commonly usable format. Thus data quality, exchange, and sharing issues need to be carefully considered, both when accessing extant data and during planning for future data collection.
They also noted that the longevity of databases needs to be considered so that there is adequate upgrading of systems, maintenance of datasets and monitoring programs. For instance, dredging activities in some localities, including areas prone to land slump, can be subject to rapid change. Related databases would require frequent updating to remain current and useful.
Think Tank participants indicated that it may also be difficult to prescribe an appropriate grid size for surveys since this is dependent on topography. A high resolution is required for complex landscapes like reefs and mountains whereas low resolution may be okay for a flat plain. This means that a much higher resolution is required for coastal areas, which are also often the key areas for which potential impacts must be determined. Unfortunately, for these areas in the coastal zone, there is a significant lack of bathymetry and elevation data: that is, data from deep water to onshore environments. Updating these databases will therefore be quite an expensive undertaking. Consequently, a stepped approach may need to be considered, where areas of high value are surveyed first, followed by less crucial areas.
Participants also identified a need for the new maps to include scenarios for climate change consequences in, for example, 2010, 2020, and 2050. These should take into account slower processes such as gradual erosion resulting from an increase in sea level as well as more rapid responses such as landslides.
In these contexts, timescales to prediction need to be considered as well as the value of forecast reliability. For example, earthquakes have high uncertainty associated with their prediction and, coupled with these difficulties, is the consideration that the costs of false evacuations are high. In this case forecast reliability might be improved with better data coverage and in this regard, while Australia has experienced very few severe earthquakes in recent times, the geophysical record if there was a fuller picture of it might reveal something very different on a longer time-scale.
If a comprehensive geophysical record were to become available that allowed more accurate long-term forecasts, there would be policy costs associated with preparing for these events. For instance, if a large earthquake centred underneath a major capital city was likely to occur once every 10,000 or 50,000 years, then it may not be considered worthwhile changing existing infrastructure to deal with this particular postulated event. Thus there are questions such as: Should governments change building regulations in these particular areas for circumstances which may or may not occur within our lifetime or our children's or grandchildren's lifetime?
Participants went on to mention that in Cairns, a high cyclone risk area, they have new legislation for building codes. This works well for the new houses but all the older homes are still at risk from category 5 cyclones. So in this way the new legislation ignores the potential for retrofitting or alternative plans for managing older structures. Thus there needs to be a better assessment of standards (like building and planning standards) to more fully account for the possibility of more extreme conditions.
Another problem identified by participants was that complacency and ignorance develop due to the infrequent nature of extreme natural hazards. For example, a tsunami event may only occur every few generations. Historic events pass out of living memory, and consequently are perceived as less likely to recur. Low probability events can quickly be downgraded in routine preparedness planning processes. To overcome this problem, it may be helpful to develop a generic earthquake hazard response. Such types of response systems already exist for cyclone and tsunami/earthquake warning systems. Perhaps these should be expanded to include other hazards and be extended to draw upon experiences contained in global databases.
An additional and important way to address this lack of mindfulness is to use scenario analyses. These tools can reduce complacency and explore possibilities that are otherwise easily overlooked. For instance, scenario analysis can be used to consider auxiliary hazards. Auxiliary hazards are not in themselves local effects from extreme natural hazards; they result directly from such hazards occurring in other areas. Some climate change scenarios may for example generate an auxiliary hazard of refugee influx from highly impacted areas into lesser-impacted areas which have social and political consequences in the receiving area.
Therefore it will be important to model natural disasters as impacts on systems rather than as individual components. At the moment, most natural hazard or risk assessments examine how impacts affect a particular component such as a certain river or region. However, there is a need to look at how the event impacts the entire system, especially focusing on critical thresholds beyond which the system might completely collapse. For example, a river which runs completely dry during drought may have the consequence that all the fish perish, and the populations cannot recover without restocking.
|Case study 2: Critical infrastructure modelling and analysis
An Australian computer program to better prepare businesses and communities for natural or manmade disasters is now 'open for business'. The world-leading Critical Infrastructure Modelling and Analysis (CIPMA) program identifies any areas of vulnerability within our critical infrastructure and gauges the flow-on effects if one part of it is compromised.
'The CIPMA capability is a unique collaboration between government and industry, and is initially concentrating on four sectors: communications, energy, water, and banking and finance.' This means that these sectors can now 'task' the program to examine a scenario or potential disaster, and advise on the flow-on effects across sectors.
'These 'virtual insights' will feed into the decision-making processes of business and government and will contribute to more targeted and cost-effective policies…The success of CIPMA relies on the supply of data and information'.38
Participants recognised that these models will depend on the quality and quantity of data available and thus more extensive and robust data, that adequately consider the effect of data uncertainty on the predicted impact of an event are required. There is also a need for sensitivity analyses, which determine the relative importance of various factors. These results can guide future data collection to the most influential factors. This in turn will improve understanding of important system components, and allow decision-makers to differentiate between uncertainties that exist because of the natural variability of the world, and uncertainties that exist because of imprecise measurement of the world.
A modelling tool that can provide sufficient and reasonable data integration (subjective and objective) and strategic assessment (diagnostic and prognostic) including scenario and sensitivity analyses that was suggested by one participant uses Bayesian belief networks. These are also useful for engaging the community with policy and facilitating self-learning and adaptive management.
Impacts from population dynamics and the need for scenario planning
Think Tank participants recommended that research should specifically consider the implications of increased population growth and the consequent capacity to respond. It is disappointing that scenarios often continue current trends in local population growth and immigration rather than the possibility of policy shifts that can cause rapid changes, or those that account for possible international events. Fortunately, some scenarios account for increased destabilisation in the future due to factors like climate change and other factors that could make populations more vulnerable to extreme events.39 For these reasons it will be important to identify capacities and thresholds of populations to absorb shocks, and highlight the consequences for resource vulnerability to extreme natural hazards under various scenarios.
Some trends are well established, for example more people are moving into disaster prone areas: recent cyclones are affecting more people than before because more people are moving into coastal areas. The characteristics of Hurricane Katrina (2005) were not much different from Hurricane Camille (1969), however Camille was less destructive because the land it passed over was mostly mangroves and wetlands.
These observations by participants led to the suggestion that local conditions should be examined and planning zones re-examined to better ensure that land is viable for human habitation and, if areas are not suitable, perhaps legislation should be introduced to prevent habitation in some areas. For example, some planning authorities may decide that certain coastal areas are unsuitable for development. There may also be a need to introduce various standards for managing these zones (eg, mandated water retention within a property where it could be illegal to have runoff beyond a certain amount see Case study 4). Indeed, there may be a need to revisit some building codes and ensure that they are locally applicable. Certainly there is a general need for better planning and hazard maps to assist with this process.
|Case study 3. New street-address-based online services a natural hazard risk profile application and a natural hazards risk web service that summarise natural hazard threats to individual Australian properties
Risk Frontiers has recently released a 1 to 5 ranking for each address/property around Australia for each natural hazard. This new product targets individual properties.
Risk Frontiers Natural Hazards Research Centre at Macquarie University has recently launched two new services Street Address Hazard Profiles and an accompanying web service that summarise natural hazard threats to individual Australian addresses.
Aimed at raising community awareness of natural hazard risks to property and life, these services provide 'threat by peril' risk ratings for bushfire, hail, earthquake, tropical cyclone and, where available, river flood. They also provide information on an address' distance from the coast and elevation.
While no substitute for a property inspection, these products are expected to become a standard part of the due diligence in property transactions to assist mortgage providers and insurers make risk-informed decisions and help emergency managers more efficiently allocate and manage resources.
The products will be marketed and distributed by MapData Sciences and can be accessed at www.mapds.com.au/solutions_risk_frontiers.aspx
|Address risk rating
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Participants indicated that these maps are likely to encourage better practices and the avoidance of more risky settlement sites. They also anticipated that there will be even more comprehensive hazard maps for all inhabited areas around Australia in the near future. Participants suggested that these should all contain some measure of uncertainty and provisos since it is especially important to emphasise the limitations of the data and how it may be improved in the future to further assist with better decision-making.
When considering such hazard mapping services, a further recommendation made by participants is that they should be nationally consistent. For example, with regard to inundation from flood waters, many of the experts have very different ways of doing the same studies. Once hazard areas are nationally mapped, they can then be provided to decision-makers and organisations responsible for implementing plans (like local councils). All such programs will need to be carried out carefully.
Another consequence of releasing these types of hazard maps and predictions is that they can increase the risk of litigation against government and depress local land values. For this reason, there may be some merit in examining whether such maps should be available only for new areas that are about to be developed, or whether they should also be used to re-examine populated areas. Wherever attention is focused, these maps will need to be regularly updated to reflect changing patterns of land use and development.
|Case study 4. Lifestyle trends: stormwater run-off in urban environments
Changes in lifestyle in urban environments have the potential to exacerbate natural hazards. Houses in urban areas are now occupying a greater proportion of their block of land than was once the case. This is largely the result of larger homes, combined with a reduction in space for urban expansion, and changing lifestyle patterns.
In addition, the great Australian backyard, once populated with gardens and substantial areas of lawn, have given way to large paved outdoor living areas, with large driveways, carports and sheds. Pools and spas, with accompanying paved areas, are also prevalent. Likewise, the growth in urban shopping centres, in addition to other commercial centres, has also decreased the amount of permeable land. This trend has resulted in a loss of soil permeability in many urban areas. In addition, the drying out of soil as a result of drought has reduced the ability of soil to retain moisture and has led to problematic soil chemistry such as rising salinity.
The large surface area of roofs, driveways, patios, swimming pools, spas, etcetera, means that in the event of a sudden torrential downpour water is rapidly directed onto streets and into over-burdened drains. The problem is also one of volume: more water is transported into public areas faster. The result is flash flooding with the potential to cause injury and death, particularly among children and the elderly. Severe property damage also occurs in these circumstances, especially to parked vehicles.
In response to the threat of local inundation, it is proposed that houses and businesses invest in increasing the capacity of the block to hold water. Since this cannot often be achieved by traditional means such as gardens and lawn, the use of rainwater tanks to collect rainwater should be advocated. This has the additional benefit of capturing water on the property, which can be used afterwards for a variety of cost-effective purposes. Thus, while rainwater tanks are increasingly advocated as a response to severe water restrictions in urban areas, they also form part of the solution to flash-flooding and hazardous run-off.
Forward-thinking councils in Australia have also sought to address water management and permeability issues by mandating the fitting of rainwater tanks in new dwellings. One such council is Huon Valley in Tasmania. Rebates are also offered by councils and water authorities around Australia for fitting water tanks.
There are problems, however, inherent in rebates, especially since demand may force up prices, thus negating the rebate's benefit. A better plan is to ensure that all new homes or commercial facilities are equipped with water tanks of an appropriate size for the hard surface area. Better education about the financial benefits of fitting tanks should also be implemented. In addition, 'basins' located under lawn areas can be fitted to act as reservoirs, thereby also decreasing stormwater run-off on a property and helping on-site water retention. As with all such schemes, collective action is necessary if an overall positive mitigation strategy is to be realised.
Think Tank participants recommended that research should also consider some specific planning scenarios to explore important ramifications. Agricultural expansion can exacerbate the threat of existing low-risk events by changing fire and flood regimes amongst other parameters, and increasing economic and social investment in cyclone-prone areas. For instance, moving agriculture northwards as a response to drought hazards can have substantial implications for the management of extreme natural hazards. In some cases, it may even trigger hazards with, for instance, large outbreaks of pests and tropical diseases. Thus there is a need to explore these potential outcomes and plan programs to control such pests, diseases and invasive species.
They also thought that programs designed to anticipate the biological effects of extreme natural hazards should perhaps include stockpiles of vaccines or biocontrol agents for communities as well as other strategic resources. There should also be special processes put in place for high priority drugs to cope with epidemics these could involve rapid approval for processing and production within dedicated government laboratories.
Secondary and indirect effects (auxiliary hazards)
Many Think Tank participants thought that research attention should not be confined to primary effects (ie, the impact of the hazard alone) but should also concentrate on secondary effects. For instance, salt damage from previous cyclone events affects roof clips, and can undermine subsequent cyclone responses. This is because people believe that the measures that have been installed will protect them, even though these are rarely adequately maintained. So rather than evacuating to safe shelters people stay in their homes with unsafe roofs, expecting them to be adequate.
They also recognised other secondary effects which may result from water restrictions associated with drought. These lead to stressed and dead plants that are more vulnerable to large bushfire events. Alternatively, there may be increased pest attacks and disease outbreaks affecting already stressed plants and environments. Further examples include the installation of patios leading to increased severity of flooding or the removal of mangroves adjacent to reclaimed land which increase the vulnerability of developments to storm surges. These situations emphasise the importance of multiple risks and compounding effects.
Participants outlined how some events seem to cascade and the need to identify possible linkages between systems to better maintain system functionality after impacts from extreme natural hazards. They made the point that recovery plans have to consider direct effects as well as auxiliary hazards. To adequately address these issues, there is a vital need to ensure some ability to rapidly update models. This is because a landscape can be substantially affected by, say, a bushfire (removing vegetation and increasing surface instability) only to be shortly followed by a flood event (with much greater run-off than that modelled with a vegetated surface). Models based on pre-bushfire conditions may therefore greatly underestimate the risk of landslides and mudflows.
Aside from multiple risks and compounding effects for a particular event, there are also risks associated with post-disaster events such as various water-borne disease outbreaks. In some cases, it may not be possible to resettle people on their land because of toxic waste contaminations. Often waste dumps are built to function under normal to slightly disrupted conditions but cannot cope with extreme events.
Social effects: the importance of education and communication
Participants recognised that there is a general need for improved awareness of natural hazards worldwide. This is because different groups of people have different risk thresholds. Partly for this reason, organisations will need to learn more about the causes of deaths from disasters and how these might differ between regions. This information can then be used to increase the perception of risk in various communities by making more public the practices that are considered risky. The community would particularly benefit from greater awareness of the extreme risks that are rare but have high consequences.
The Think Tank participants indicated an important need for education about all extreme natural hazards to be introduced to schools and other organisations. In terms of flooding, for example, there is a lot of information available and there is knowledge about which properties are exposed to flood hazards but there is less education carried out for flooding than there is for bushfires. In another example, it is not well known that cyclones cause more water-linked deaths than wind-associated deaths. This is because people drive into swollen rivers or there are deaths at sea. Cyclones also cause more losses and deaths than bushfires, but they are less emotive and so they do not receive the media coverage that bushfires do. Consequently, there are a lot of people who are not aware of the issues associated with cyclones.
Australia should include lessons on such natural hazards in schools, and not just on the hazards considered important at the time. This type of knowledge will also need refreshing, since awareness will need to be kept up. There is also a need for a standardised national education program that perhaps includes drills.
In some of these education programs, it might be useful to present information about a number of extreme natural hazards on a common scale, highlighting their impacts on communities and infrastructure, together with environmental effects. This could assist with prioritising hazards amongst organisations. Some verbal scales of uncertainty terms already exist.40
However, it must be recognised that just because effects are measurable, such information cannot necessarily be used for decision-making. For example, there was a large study on the impact of disasters on the Australian banana industry. When a local member of a farming community from Queensland asked an economist associated with the study about impacts to their particular locality, the response was: 'It's generally not a problem, because while the price of bananas declines in one area say the devastated area of Coffs Harbour the price of bananas goes up in the Ord River…so in national terms, it all balances out.' This type of insensitive comment highlights how distributional effects are one of the main underlying problems associated with natural disasters. It also indicates that communities are highly sensitive to local effects and that there needs to be compensatory mechanisms in place to cope with such spatiotemporal patchiness.
A related issue involves the philosophy that natural capital can be easily replaced by technological capital. So far the debate has been dominated by a technological capital perspective. However, after some extreme natural hazard events, the importance of not undervaluing natural capital is being realised. For instance, the value of wetlands as a means of reducing flooding impacts; and the valuable use of mangroves to reduce the impact of tsunamis can be much greater than expensive infrastructural works.
|Case study 5. Geoscience Australia Education Centre
Geoscience Australia (GA) runs an Education Centre on-site to provide a variety of hands-on activities to a range of school-aged audiences. Students are invited to explore the many aspects of geoscience, including natural hazards, through hands-on experiments and activities using scientific instruments, computers and teaching materials. The Education Centre is staffed by a small team of professional geoscience eductors and general programs are offered at all levels. For more information, see www.ga.gov.au/education
Geoscience Australia also hosts a natural hazards web page (www.ga.gov.au/hazards), which contains a variety of information on a range of natural hazards for the general public. For example, it is possible to link directly into Geoscience Australia's earthquake database and produce a map of Australian earthquake epicentres for any period covered by the database.
The social scientists amongst the participants saw the need to ensure that public responses to warnings about extreme natural hazards are appropriate. This means managing complacency, adequately communicating the possibilities associated with various scenarios and ensuring that reports are non-sensationalist.
All participants recognised that in some cases, policy can be part of the problem by making communities feel disempowered: people will wait for help and resolve that there is nothing that they can do in response. For example, relief policies that say: 'If a disaster strikes and you lose everything, then we will help you rebuild in exactly the same risk domain' might not be the best approach for all areas. Thus there is a need to develop policies that help communities prepare themselves and boost their adaptive capacity.
Some policies already encourage local action (eg, retrofitting rebates, stay and prepare information kits for coping with bushfires) or act to give people responsibility (microcredit and HECS schemes) which also have positive effects. In another example, some of the Cooperative Research Centres (CRCs), particularly those working in the environmental sphere, provide quite a nice framework for dealing with 'hard' sciences that have social aspects. CRCs empower people because many of the stakeholders who are potentially going to be affected by the research outcomes are invited to comment on the challenges, major issues and problems. This is because CRCs have a dedicated research program and an integrated education program that deliver social science and economic perspectives as well as identifying how the biological or physical sciences can contribute. They also involve ongoing processes within this integrated framework.
This type of multifaceted approach can help fill a research gap that exists in understanding how society perceives and reacts to extreme events. For instance, people in the US are likely to react quite differently from people in the Pacific Islands. In a recent example, before Hurricane Katrina people were fairly confident that the authorities would deal with the problem, because they were behind levees. However, had the same cyclone happened on a Pacific Island, people would have been fully aware that they were vulnerable and would have reacted in different ways. There are also plenty of examples when warnings go out for various tsunamis, for instance, where people actually go down to the coast to watch it rather than evacuate. So we really need to do research specifically on how Australian society would respond to warnings, to emergency preparation and so on.
One of the examples raised by participants was that people evacuating or leaving the area after Cyclone Tracy may have hampered the recovery effort during that event. It was suggested that decisions to evacuate were based on logistics rather than applying a more integrated approach. If there was another event like Katrina or Tracy, it is now suggested that people might be better off staying in the community rather than trying to evacuate and drive away; which is likely to be more dangerous. It might be safer because, even if the buildings are damaged, the infrastructure can act as protection. Also there could be safety aspects associated with the roads, if people tried to mass evacuate from different areas.
It was suggested that there should be a focus on people's vulnerability within an event. An example is that elderly people with fewer social networks are more likely to die in heatwaves. This example illustrates that when looking at vulnerability, issues do not just involve people's property, but include the wider facets of people's lives.
Participants concluded that installation of communications trees can be a valuable measure to help build social networks. These networks involve people being issued with lists of local contacts in much the same way as neighbourhood watch systems operate. People can call contacts, friends and community fire groups before, during and after fires, helping people to prepare for an event and look after their own properties.
During the Canberra fires, there were power and telephone outages (because they were using new machines rather than older analogue systems), and radio systems were also down, so there was very little information being provided during the event. Thus the issue of ensuring that there are at least some forms of communication during extreme natural hazard events is an important one that needs much greater attention.
Interactions between and within organisations
Think Tank participants identified many benefits that can be gleaned from improved communication between researchers, government and emergency management organisations. In many cases researchers may be unaware that they can bring pertinent issues to the attention of their state or federal chief scientists as an avenue for feeding key concerns and ideas to policy- and decision-makers. Similarly, governments may not be aware of the information that can be made available to them from researchers or scientific organisations.
Some complicating issues include intricacies in the way that various emergency services work. Participants recognised that it is difficult to apply benchmarks when there are multiple unique systems. For example, the US civil defence system operates at the county level. Australia by comparison has a unique structure. Nevertheless, we need more national standards and national guidelines, since hazards are not limited by state boundaries. Calls for international assistance should be anticipated and predetermined to avoid problems associated with times when staff are overwhelmed and a boost in staff sourced from overseas is urgently required. In some cases it can take two and a half months to sort out the details and paperwork (MOUs, insurance documentation etcetera) before international support teams are permitted to arrive. Thus participants recommended that there should be pre-determined mechanisms in place within organisations so that there would be no need for such delays involving paperwork and administrative procedures. Similarly, emergency equipment should not have to be ordered but should be ready for rapid deployment (eg, portable pontoon bridge units to cope with collapsed road infrastructure so that emergency vehicles are not hampered in attending scenes).
Participants recognised that in some cases compatibility between organisations has already improved. Some examples include Emergency Management Queensland (EMQ) and Fire and Emergency Services Authority of Western Australia (FESA). FESA supports bushfire brigades managed by local governments including: career fire and rescue service stations; volunteer fire and rescue service brigades; state emergency service units; volunteer marine rescue service groups; volunteer emergency service units; and volunteer fire service brigades. These organisations have combined their fire, emergency services and search and rescue operations into one group. In this way they have been able to cut down barriers to effective communication and operation. They have already dealt with many administrative problems and have their logistics and legalities sorted. They have also provided compatible and robust communication systems with various backups.
Nevertheless, participants recognised that there are still issues related to maintenance and ensuring that equipment is robust. Some equipment is known to have failed during cyclones when information from data loggers is most needed, rather than being accessible four days after the event. Power failures and poorly designed battery systems also often contribute to a breakdown in communication systems, reducing access to information during a natural hazard event. Thus there needs to be more R&D to improve the robustness of equipment, and more monitoring stations to ensure that when some fail or are destroyed there are sufficient alternative systems.
Sometimes, desirable functionality is not available in off-the-shelf commercial systems because of limited diversity of supply. The failure of both cell- and land-line telephone systems in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina is one recent example in which a lack of back-up capability led to a serious loss of telecommunication service with devastating health and social consequences, after initiation from a foreseeable storm event.41
A similar situation occurred after Cyclone Larry in Australia.
Participants reported that in some cases emergency systems are at the mercy of communications providers. This hampers real-time monitoring and data delivery. For this reason it may be better to rely on a diversity of information delivery systems.
The McLeod report identified a number of ways in which the ACT had not been best prepared for the 2003 bushfire emergency…One of the major failures in preparedness was in the communications systems. (There was) overwhelming of the communication centre, congestion on various networks, inadequate ground-to-air communication, insufficient amounts of equipment, and difficulties with interoperability between the various units involved. This was partly between units within the ACT service, and partly between the ACT (which follows Australian Federal Police nationally determined standards) and NSW, which uses a different government standard. The question of interoperability is one that needs to be addressed by all Australian emergency services as a matter of urgency, since many emergencies will involve cross-jurisdictional aspects.
At the height of the emergency, reports from fire observers on the ground could not be heard by all because of the overload, and the Police Operations Centre had difficulty securing a phone line to the Emergency Services Bureau. In the end, one line was left permanently open and a single phone handset was passed from person to person within the Police Operations Centre...
Gingera was quite accessible, but was not tackled by the ACT services because it was thought (incorrectly) to be in NSW.42
Research on critical infrastructures should focus both on the risks associated with individual infrastructures and the risks associated with the increasing interdependence between them one such critical infrastructure being information and communication technology. This highly complex 'system of systems' is crucial for effective response and recovery actions.
|Case study 6. Highly complex 'system of systems' expanding
Factors that have promoted greater interdependency among, and tighter integration or greater vulnerability of critical infrastructures are multifaceted in nature and include:
Participants recommended that feedback systems be used to loop valuable lessons learned back into programs and action plans. They cited that it has been invaluable for some organisations like BoM and GA to return to the sites of natural hazards after events to interview communities about the effectiveness of their warning systems, collect suggestions and make observations about the nature of various collapses. These findings can then be considered when developing future design codes or standards and providing resources for investigation.44
Participants also found that some more fundamental research is required to re-analyse past events, collect data and produce consistent catalogues. In this context, there needs to be a better notion of probability and likelihood, as well as an improved expression of uncertainty in conveying the risks associated with extreme natural hazards. So there is the need for more basic research to better understand these processes and linkages that lead to extreme natural hazards.
Other suggestions from Think Tank participants were that social scientists and legal advisors need to be embedded within research organisations that play key roles in decision-making (eg, GA, BoM and CSIRO). For instance, CRCTREM successfully involved stakeholders and consequently the new CRC was able to involve both reef and land components (www.reef.crc.org.au/research/catchment_to_reef/index.html).
It was also widely recognised that there is a need for better risk assessments and plans. Perhaps organisations should explicitly state natural hazards in their research priorities and these could be internationally focused to encourage adequate cooperation.
In many cases it may be helpful to run through preparatory evacuation plans for organisations by conducting drills, simulations and audits. These can be used to improve response plans. This is a low risk method of obtaining feedback for the trialled strategy. There could even be a special team that carries out such exercises and travels from organisation to organisation operating at all levels of government.
Participants noted that local governments and councils will need adequate funding and resources to better distribute such control measures.45 Alternatively, extension officers and liaison officers from state and federal governments could be sent to help with the growing list of new duties associated with managing effects from climate change and extreme natural hazards where local councils are expected to prepare for and handle impacts.
In addition to problems with available resources to cope with hazards, organisations often suffer from a lack of corporate memory about the management of events because extreme natural hazards are generally rare. Some hazards may occur every few generations. For this reason it is important to maintain and regularly update training programs, databases and response kits.
|Policy options in dealing with extreme natural hazards
Policy options that could be considered include:
The application of a general principle to adequately diversify portfolios in terms of resources, communication systems and options should be coupled to these approaches. This means that managers of research and infrastructure systems should attempt to resist fads and take a longer term view that is ultimately directed at building resilience and robustness. An implication is that there will be an increased need to maintain basic science and research programs that are sufficiently broad so that a range of options will be available when required (rather than a few specialised avenues) (Figure 3).
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Participants recognised that some natural hazards are already expertly handled by organisations like the Bureau of Rural Sciences (BRS), Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), Bureau of Meteorology (BoM) and Geoscience Australia (GA). For example, recently the BRS has:
...established the Australian Centre of Excellence for Risk Analysis to research methodologies for determining biosecurity risks; developed a climate based system that better predicts the impact of introducing pest animal or plant species to Australia; collaborated with state and territory agencies to develop data protocols for national projects, including web feature services, metadata and emergency mapping.47
The CSIRO has released 'the findings of Australia's most extensive study to date of the behaviour of high-intensity bushfires in eucalypt forests Project Vesta provides valuable new tools and information for fire managers across Australia.'48
Geoscience Australia continues to undertake a range of scientific activities, including natural hazard risk and impact analysis (see www.ga.gov.au/hazards/ ). It is involved with a variety of projects, including natural hazard maps, and the Joint Australian Tsunami Warning Centre, Sentinel bushfire mapping program and Global Disaster Alter Coordination System.
Thus the frameworks that are already in place will form an ideal base for further development and refinement as Australia improves its management of extreme natural hazards.
Participants were keenly interested in federal government plans to:
- ensure Australia's disaster mitigation plan guidelines are overhauled to take into account increased severity of weather and storms;
- factor the effect of climate change into disaster planning;
- update and improve the disaster mitigation plan taking into account severe weather and storms due to climate change;
- set up an expert scientific panel to advise federal, state and territory governments and local councils on how to prepare for more severe climate change-related natural disasters; and
- provide region-specific information to local councils on the impact of climate change on their community.50
It is hoped that such initiatives 'will ensure assistance and information on long-term planning for construction and residential building in low-lying coastal areas affected by increased sea levels as well as other areas where extreme weather could impact such as low and heavy rainfall.'51
Given that coastal vulnerability is such a focus, perhaps a national digital elevation model for the Australian continent and marine areas to the continental shelf should become a national innovation priority. This could help identify natural disaster hotspots and potentially deliver information to householders.52 Some indicative costs include airborne radar at $50 per square km; LIDAR at $100–150 per square kilometre down to $60 per square kilometre for very large areas. It is notable that the global insurance industries are key stakeholders and potential partners that have already made some considerable investments in this area for their own risk assessment purposes.