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The World's First Warning Research Center Has Opened

The only research center on the science of warnings has launched.

Key points

  • Warning research can and should create the agenda for actions to save lives.
  • Warnings are fundamentally a social, not technological, process.
  • Warning systems should not be separate from daily life, instead supporting everyday activities to improve life and livelihoods.

A new research center, the world’s only one devoted to the science of warnings, was launched today at University College London. The Warning Research Centre (WRC) brings together global expertise to explore the role of warnings in managing vulnerabilities, hazards, risks, and disasters. The focus is to prevent adverse disaster impacts through improved warnings.

Failures of warnings have meant that huge disasters happen, from the 2004 and 2011 tsunamis through to the COVID-19 pandemic. We need to deepen warning science and ensure its applicability and usability, which is the purpose of devoting a research center to this topic.

Founded and led by Carina Fearnley, with me as Deputy Director, the Warning Research Centre sits within the Department of Science and Technology Studies at University College London. Members and affiliates have joined from across the university and around the world.

Fearnley brings years of experience in research and practice, as a geologist, in the London financial sector, and in leading research on volcano alert level systems and using art to understand and communicate environmental hazards.

Screen capture
Mami Mizutori, the head of the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR), launches the UCL Warning Research Centre
Source: Screen capture

The launch event's keynote came from Mami Mizutori, the United Nations Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Disaster Risk Reduction and the head of the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR). She highlighted the importance of the next generation of professionals working in the disaster risk field and the need for more communication of this field’s science to people who can use it.

Two panels complemented these key topics. The first, “Exceptional versus expected events,” covered different types of risk indicating the need for different forms of warning. The second, “Warnings for organizations,” brought together government and private sector representatives to work through their experiences of needs and actions for warnings within their sectors.

The presentations and discussions demonstrate the importance of warning research creating the agenda to generate actions to save lives. So many detailed queries were raised, often without enough information yet available to answer them—showing that we must continue to pursue this research.

In addition to all the unfortunate and horrifying failures, though, plenty of success stories show what warnings can do. Numerous hurricanes, cyclones, and tornadoes resulted in few casualties because warnings led to successful evacuation and sheltering. Earthquake warning systems have given enough seconds to shut down high-speed trains and electricity plants while letting people drop, cover and hold--provided that their building stands up.

Examples from the participants further showed what warnings might have and should have done. Soon before Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the COVID-19 pandemic starting in 2020, large-scale exercises had simulated similar scenarios. Texas displays a long history of cold winter weather leading to plenty of recommendations for ensuring that its energy system could withstand extreme temperatures, yet a disaster still resulted in February 2021. Often warnings are there, yet only some people consider them and implement available knowledge.

So much history exists to learn from in order to move toward what panelists and the audience raised as “future-proofing." Ultimately, it is not just about learning lessons, but is also about applying the lessons to avoid major problems.

We were told that “warnings are not gift-wrapped." We need to get them right, entailing vigilance, readiness, alertness, and preparedness, working with everyone, and being flexible. We must draw on new knowledge and new ideas without neglecting the old and existing wisdom.

This returns to the point of preparing future risk professionals. The day ended with short videos from students showcasing their own disaster research. Topics included health care in remote settings, precipitation in Oman, the relationship between power and vulnerability, mosquito surveillance in Brazil, and gender, disaster, and climate change in the Himalayas.

Principles emerge from the center’s launch and the day’s proceedings. Warnings are too often seen as being about data and technology, yet they are fundamentally a social process. Rather than telling people what to do—which adopts a top-down perspective assuming that actions can be foisted onto people—we should listen to each other’s needs and respond to them. We must learn, teach, lead, and follow each other.

Ultimately, warning systems should not be separate from daily life to be invoked only when a threat manifests. Instead, warning systems can support people in their everyday activities to improve life and livelihoods.

We hope to produce innovative, original science. It must still be useful and useable so that science serves society.

References

Garcia, C. and C.J. Fearnley. 2012. Evaluating critical links in early warning systems for natural hazards. Environmental Hazards, vol. 11, no. 2, pp. 123-137.

Kelman, I. 2006. "Warning for the 26 December 2004 Tsunamis". Disaster Prevention and Management, vol. 15, issue 1, pp. 178-189.

Kelman, I., B. Ahmed, M. Esraz-Ul-Zannat, M.M. Saroar, M. Fordham, and M. Shamsudduha. 2018. "Warning systems as social processes for Bangladesh cyclones". Disaster Prevention and Management, vol. 27, no. 4, pp. 370-379.

Kelman, I. and M.H. Glantz. 2014. "Early Warning Systems Defined". Chapter 5, pp. 89-108 in Z. Zommers and A. Singh (eds.), Reducing Disaster: Early Warning Systems for Climate Change, Springer, London, U.K.

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