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Global Change and Natural Hazards

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Session Description: 

Overview & Relevance:
Despite our improved scientific understanding and technical means, changes in the number and distribution of the Earth's population place increasing pressures on resources and land use, and result in increased vulnerability to natural disasters. This situation is further exacerbated because changing climatic conditions may make large numbers even more susceptible to major disasters such as storms, storm surges, floods, fires, drought and landslides.

In 1988, Dr. Frank Press, then Head of the National Academy of Sciences, proposed an International Decade on Natural Disaster Reduction (IDNDR), a concept subsequently adopted by the United Nations and supported by the United States. The objective of the IDNDR is to marry the scientific and technical means available to combat natural disasters with the operations being carried out to mitigate them. The US is one of over a hundred nations which have formed National Committees for the IDNDR; indeed, we have two - the Board on Natural Disasters of the National Academy and the Sub- Committee on Natural Disaster Reduction (SNDR) organized under the OSTP/FCCSET/CENR structure. The latter Committee has published a comprehensive, integrated federal Strategic Plan entitled, "Reducing the Impacts of Natural Hazards." Under IDNDR auspices, a World Congress on Natural Disaster Reduction took place in Yokohama, Japan in May, 1994. These are only a few of the many activities prompted largely by the IDNDR on the national and international levels.

The problems in disaster reduction are inherently multi-disciplinary, involving both physical and social sciences. Many of these factors closely parallel similar aspects involved in the study of Global Change. The relationship to Global Change was the subject of a Symposium on Natural Disasters and Global Change hosted by Dr. Raphael Bras at M.I.T. This concerned the changing patterns of land cover affecting landslide, fire, and flood vulnerability; changing frequency of storms and increased coastal flooding and erosion, and annual-to-interannual changes in ocean/atmosphere interactions resulting in flooding and drought.

While this earlier meeting provided a scientific foundation for the developing concepts concerning global change and disaster reduction, the AGCI workshop was instrumental in bringing together the various disciplines involved in natural disaster reduction on the national and international levels.

The goal of the AGCI workshop was to produce specific recommendations on public policies and programs that ought to be instituted or expanded to reduce the impacts of future natural disasters. As such, the workshop differed from typical scientific meetings in which the intent is simply to present new research findings and to indicate areas of future research. Here, the premise is that, while we still do not know everything we ought to know, we now know enough to make a significant difference if we purposefully develop and apply that knowledge. Thus, suggestions for high priority research were a secondary objective of the workshop.

While considering the links between disasters (those social occasions involving major disruptions of community life) and hazards (potentially dangerous physical agents which often give rise to disasters), the AGCI workshop focused on what might be done about reducing the negative effects of disastrous occasions, especially those of a relatively sudden nature. This included the full span of disaster planning; that is, mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery.
The Aspen Global Change Institute provided the ideal format in which persons of differing professional and scientific backgrounds could interact, meld their knowledge and perspectives, and produce proposals for concrete steps that should be taken in the future. There was also an assumption that there can be little progress in implementing disaster programs and policies without a clear understanding of the potentials and limitations of technological and social dimensions involved. Thus, the workshop brought together technologists, physical and social scientists, and representatives of the public and private sectors who have some responsibility for planning and implementation of disaster reduction measures.

Six topics were identified as themes for the workshop. These were:

1. Activities of citizens and public perceptions regarding disaster reduction;
2. Technological innovations/developments and the opportunities and possible impediments they present for disaster reduction;
3. The role of the private sector in disaster reduction;
4. The political aspects and governmental dimensions of disaster reduction;
5. Natural disaster reduction goals and programs: the economic, sociological and technological nexus;
6. Long-term physical and social trends affecting the occurrence and nature of natural disasters and efforts to predict and reduce them.

While the major focus was on natural disasters and their effects in the United States, "human-made" or "technological" disasters were also considered, and attention was given to cross-national and international aspects of disaster reduction.

Workshop Topic (s): 
  • Climate Variability and Change (including Climate Modeling)
  • Ecosystems
  • Human Contributions & Responses
  • Water Cycle