How Early Warning Systems Help Us Deal With Extreme Weather

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In April 2021, Southeast Asian island nation Timor-Leste It was hit by the worst floods in its recent history. Inspired by a tropical cyclone, the floods affected more than 30,000 homes and killed 34 people.

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Such incidents are becoming a sadly familiar story around the world, with climate-related disasters on the rise. But in Timor-Leste, a new climate adaptation project could help reduce this risk. NS Plan Focuses on building an early warning system in the country, alerting people in advance when similar extreme weather events occur in the future. It can make all the difference—allowing people to protect themselves and their possessions.

Such systems are considered an important measure to adapt to climate change. “We are already locked into acute climate impacts for the next decades or more,” says Stephanie Tye, a climate resilience expert at the World Resources Institute. “So it is now part of the reality that we need these systems to protect people and ecosystems.”


Early warning systems can alert local communities to things like hurricanes, cyclones, or landslides caused by extreme rainfall, where moving events forward even for a few hours can make all the difference, says Tye. They can also provide knowledge of slow onset events, such as a drought coming months away. “You use the system to notify people who will be affected by these events, so that they can take appropriate measures to prepare.”

In Bangladesh, for example, a country known for both its climate vulnerability and its sophisticated use of such systems, cyclone warning The number of deaths has decreased significantly over the past two decades.

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They are also skilled, according to one 2019 report From the Global Commission on Customization, their benefits far outweigh the costs. The report found that just 24-hour warning of an impending storm or heat wave could reduce damage to people and property by up to 30 percent.

There are many aspects to how these systems work. Ensuring accurate observational data is a key to delivering accurate and timely warnings, says Jochem Zoetlieff, head of the climate services and capacity building unit at the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), which is running the project in Timor-Leste. “People need to trust forecasts and warnings, because if they’re not accurate, and that happens too often, you’ll lose people.” Therefore early warning system projects often install equipment such as automated weather stations and radar systems, and strengthen the country’s hydro-meteorological services.

But another important part is making sure that the resulting information actually reaches the people who are affected. Actually, there is no point in sending email alerts if someone doesn’t have internet. Tropical cyclones can also wipe out communications infrastructure, so backups may be needed even if people have mobile phones. So each project has to look at the local context to decide on the best ways to spread information, which can be anything from SMS alerts or radio broadcasts to the person making the announcement with the megaphone in the middle of the village.

This time in another early warning system project being run by UNEP in five pacific islandsThe focus is on integrating traditional knowledge, says Portia Hunt, who also works in the Climate Services and Capacity Building Unit at UNEP. It aims to develop climate vocabulary that translates scientific information into local languages ​​and integrates with traditional means of forecasting weather and climate. Another major focus is on ocean observation, using instruments such as wave buoys to monitor ocean conditions, an important element for island communities that depend on fishing for their livelihoods.

Ground elements can be important. In the Gran Chaco region of South America, there has been a local initiative to set up an early warning system already had a huge impact On resilience against river floods. One benefit is that communities can use a local network they have been building together for decades in other ways to communicate warnings now. “The Chaco region is a very large area with very isolated communities, with pockets of population,” Ty says. “They’re able to reach even the far-flung people who would otherwise never know their city is flooding.” A bottom-up approach has enabled people of all kinds of backgrounds to have a strong say, Ty says, including women, youth and indigenous populations.

In addition to these scientific and communication aspects of early warning systems, however, people also need plans to actually act when warnings arrive. “Communicating the alert isn’t enough. You need to make sure people have a way of responding to it,” Tye says.

Bangladesh has made serious investments in building storm shelters across the country, Ty says, so that “every single community, no matter how small, once they get a warning, they have somewhere to go.” These buildings often have other uses, in some cases as schools, but are built high enough above the ground to ensure that people can take shelter when needed.

Other measures, says Zoetlieff, include preparing food supplies in the event of drought or letting farmers know they can take specific steps to protect their crops. In the case of Pacific islands, early warnings can help people understand when they shouldn’t go fishing in the ocean.

These are not the only optimization measures that are needed. Knowing just about one extreme event can help people prepare better for it, but that doesn’t mean they can minimize all of its effects. The increased climate information supported by early warning system projects could also inform other types of climate change adaptation, Hunt says. This can help predict which areas are most at risk of flooding so that disaster risk reduction approaches can be targeted.

Such information is still lacking in many countries. Of the 138 countries that provided data on early warning systems to the WMO, only 40 percent had multiple-risk early warning systems. “There’s a huge need for this and there’s also a big difference,” says Tye, noting that this is particularly the case in the global south, which is most vulnerable to climate change but has the least resources for adaptation.

At COP26, rich countries pledged to double their support for adaptation in poor countries to $40 billion a year, but far more funding is needed. Overall adaptation cost in developing countries is considered five to 10 times more compared to current expenditure. “If we don’t want every single country to have a worst-case scenario, we really need to find funding for climate adaptation,” Ty says.

But others shouldn’t be complacent, Hunt says. For example, the UK is seeing rising temperatures, more heat waves and the risk of flooding, while California and Australia are seeing a higher risk of wildfires. “Developed countries also need to strengthen their adaptation to climate change through early warning systems,” she says. “This is a global need.”

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