The Major Failures of Weather Disaster Technology

Kate Fraser - Teen Aspect - July 28th, 2022
An Indonesian neighborhood following a tsunami warning failure (The New Yorker, 2018)
 

It is safe to say that technology surrounds us constantly in the 21st century. While this fact is often the talking point of conversations among older generations, which often causes teens to roll their eyes, technology has been a crucial factor in our management against an ever-worsening climate crisis. As we are being catapulted into severe times of uncertainty, having a stable framework of data and information can provide us a sense of relief, giving us an idea of what might be thrown at us.


Extreme weather is just one of the many environmental factors that have been projected by climate scientists amidst this crisis. Severe weather events have grown in both frequency and, arguably most important, strength.


In battling these severe patterns of weather, weather disaster technology has been crucial in keeping millions of people alive and safe, informing citizens on locations, means of evacuation, safety details, etc. Yet, in the same way a personal laptop might unexpectedly shut down the day of an exam, a multi-million dollar data framework may also shut down the day of a tsunami.


A prime example of a faulty technological warning system is the Indonesia Tsunami Early Warning System, also known as InaTEWS. Despite the fact that data analysts are on-call 24/7, tsunami after tsunami has wiped out large populations and settlements across the country. Indonesia sits on the Ring of Fire, making it a prime location for both seismic and volcanic earthquakes. The seismic activity from an earthquake can displace the water column, sending out large waves that increase in height as they approach the shore. A tsunami hit Indonesia in 2018, killing 2,300 people and destroying infrastructure (1). This high rate of damage and fatality can be linked to a lack of a sounding alarm. So, where does the warning system go wrong?


InaTEWS largely struggles with communication timing, as well as a critical absence of data. If seismic activity is detected, the analytic team passes this on to regional authorities who ultimately have the final say in whether or not a warning should be issued. This passing on of information is rather high-risk and time-defective. The system also does not detect volcanic earthquakes, which is inherently dangerous as the Ring of Fire is home to 75% of the world’s active volcanoes (2). In 2006, government officials did not issue a tsunami alert as they feared an “unnecessary” or false alarm. This led to 341 deaths and several hundred more injuries (3).While some warning systems are not sensitive enough, some are over-sensitive, leading to countless false alarms.


For example, the National Weather Service has had 3 out of their 4 tornado warnings be false alarms (4).


Because severe weather events are far more likely now than they were years ago, weather experts tend to err on the side of caution. This has led to an increase in false alarms, which has developed what University of Washington professor Susan Joslyn calls the “Cry Wolf Effect.” We have already seen a general distrust in climate science, so faulty weather warning systems can harbor an increase in this skepticism exponentially. When people are forced to pack up their lives in a matter of hours before an earthquake hits and are eventually met with clear skies, it’s easy for cynicism to occur. Not only will this lead to even less authority being granted to scientists, but it will also increase the deaths that will occur from climate change.


The world needs stronger, more accurate severe weather event detection systems that are accessible, cost-effective, and timely. This will ensure certitude in the anxiety-ridden times that comprise our future in the face of climate change.


Harman, S. (2019, March 1). Why doesn't Indonesia's Tsunami warning system work? YouTube. Retrieved July 14, 2022, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CAXzCLK0IaQ


National Geographic. (n.d.). Ring of fire. Education.NationalGeographic.org. Retrieved July 14, 2022, from https://education.nationalgeographic.org/resource/ring-fire


CBC/Radio Canada. (2006, July 19). Jakarta didn't sound tsunami alert, fearing 'unnecessary alarm' | CBC news. CBC.CA. Retrieved July 14, 2022, from https://www.cbc.ca/news/world/jakarta-didn-t-sound-tsunami-alert-fearing-unnecessary-ala rm-1.570722


Stirling, S. (2015, May 27). Three out of every four tornado warnings are false alarms. FiveThirtyEight.com. Retrieved July 14, 2022, from https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/three-out-of-every-four-tornado-warnings-are-false-alar ms/

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