Public Release: 

Fires, floods, and freezes: New ways to keep disaster at bay

National Center for Atmospheric Research/University Corporation for Atmospheric Research

BOULDER--What can be done when wildland fire scorches the urban frontier, a hurricane soaks eroded hillsides, or an ice storm hits a major travel hub? Each of these sobering scenarios is being examined in new ways. Using end-to-end analysis, scientists are looking at each point and each participant in the chains of events that can turn a natural hazard into human catastrophe.

Four scientists in the vanguard of this new approach will be on hand in Denver on Saturday, February 15, at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. In their presentation "Fires, Floods, and Freezes: Next-Generation Tools for Disaster Prevention," and at a press briefing the same day, the four will describe some of the most critical environmental threats now emerging and the most promising means of addressing them.

-- Parts of Australia's capital city, Canberra, were devastated by a wildland fire last month. In the past four years, U.S. wildfires have swept into the sites of two national laboratories and destroyed hundreds of "exurban" homes built between cities and the edges of national forests. "Development is roaring into the hills," says Robert Harriss (National Center for Atmospheric Research, NCAR). Although a national fire plan has recently taken shape, says Harriss, "it is not appropriately structured to deal with urban areas at the frontier regions of the country." As population continues to climb, he says, "the problem is going to get significantly worse." The good news: new knowledge and technology can help land managers and community planners shift from short-term fire prevention to long-term strategic planning.

-- The powerhouse Hurricane Mitch had weakened to a tropical storm when it hit Honduras in October 1998, but the resulting floods and landslides killed more than 9,000 people. U.S. scientists had feared this potential disaster in advance of the hurricane landfall. Yet in this case, as in others, the warnings prior to landfall had emphasized wind rather than rain, and weak communication links kept hazard warnings from getting through to many residents. "The United States now has the elements of science and technology that can make a profound difference in these potential disasters," says Randall Updike (U.S. Geological Survey). He and Joseph Golden (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) are among the principals in a USGS-NOAA-NASA proposal to create a comprehensive prediction system for heavy rainfall, flooding, and landslides in the Caribbean region and eventually in other vulnerable parts of the world.

-- Each year weather is the culprit behind 25 percent of all U.S. airport delays, as well as highway accidents that kill more than 6,000 Americans and injure almost half a million. Ice and snow are largely to blame, according to Marcia Politovich (NCAR). She and colleagues are working to reduce the impact of winter weather in the skies and on the roads. One initiative has produced high-precision maps and plots, updated hourly, that identify areas of potential aircraft icing produced by cloud droplets, freezing rain, and drizzle. A separate system, being tested this winter in Iowa, helps highway officials decide when and how to treat or plow roads. The scientists behind both projects have gained new insight on the physics driving snow and ice, while producing weather data and forecasts tailored for the skills and needs of users in both government and private industry.

-- About the presenters

Joseph Golden has chased tornadoes, predicted hurricanes, and flown near waterspouts during his nearly 40 years of weather research. A senior meteorologist at NOAA, Golden is considered the world's preeminent expert on waterspouts, and he founded the first organized tornado intercept project while at NOAA's National Severe Storms Laboratory during the 1970s. He received his doctorate in meteorology at Florida State University. (Golden will be present for the press briefing but not the panel.)

Robert Harriss has long worked at the interface between science and public policy. A civil engineer, he has directed the NCAR Environmental and Societal Impacts Group since 1999. Before joining NCAR, Harriss founded and directed the Sustainable Enterprise Institute, taught at several universities, and spent over a decade at NASA as a senior scientist and science division director. A fellow of the AAAS, Harriss received his Ph.D. at Rice University.

Marcia Politovich has studied weather hazards at NCAR since 1987. Part of the FAA's Aviation Weather Research Program since it began in 1990, she now leads the program's in-flight icing team. Politovich's research has also included analysis of icing precursors and the use of remote sensors to diagnose icing. A fellow of the American Meteorological Society, she received her doctorate in atmospheric science from the University of Wyoming.

Randall Updike saw the effects of Hurricane Mitch first hand as the USGS project chief in the relief effort sponsored by the U.S. Agency for International Development. Currently the acting regional executive for geology for the USGS in Denver, Updike has headed several other USGS programs dealing with landslides and earthquakes in his 15 years at the agency. He earned his doctorate in volcanic geology from Arizona State University.


The University Corporation for Atmospheric Research manages the National Center for Atmospheric Research under primary sponsorship by the National Science Foundation. Opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

Writer: Bob Henson

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