Science for disaster risk reduction and response: Role of the Commission’s in-house science service

Brussels, 8-12-2012 — / — Disaster resilience, and in particular prevention and preparedness measures, are increasingly high priority on the global political agenda. Science and technology offer key solutions to improve preparedness and response to natural and man-made disasters, including those related to climatic change.

The European Commission’s in-house science service, the Joint Research Centre (JRC), is very active in this area, working with the European Commission’s Monitoring and Information Centre (the operational heart of the EU Civil Protection Mechanism) and with national and international partners on crisis management technologies, analysis and application of remote sensing data, natural hazard modelling, information mining/analysis for vulnerability assessments and civil engineering.

Through its wide range of activities in disaster prevention and response, the JRC is backstopping the European Commission’s overall approach on disaster management. It provides vital tools for the Emergency Response Centre which is being built by the Commission to provide a coherent, successful and cost-effective response to disasters.

Initiated by Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science, the JRC hosts a meeting of senior officials of the Carnegie Group countries, South Africa, the World Bank and United Nations on 6 December 2012 in Brussels. The scope of this high level meeting is to reflect upon fostering partnerships to advance international scientific collaboration on improving disaster anticipation and resilience.

This Memorandum provides an outline of relevant JRC projects and activities.

Disaster Early warning at a global scale

The Global Disaster Alert and Coordination System (GDACS) is a web-based platform jointly developed with the United Nations that provides global multi-hazard disaster monitoring and alerting for earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, volcanoes and tropical cyclones. In the event of major disasters, GDACS automatically sends alerts via e-mail, fax or SMS to the international first responders’ community. GDACS combines information on the event, the population in the affected area and their socio-economic vulnerability to estimate an alert level that indicates the potential for a catastrophic situation with needs for international humanitarian intervention. GDACS also includes JRC’s Tsunami Assessment Modelling System, which can quickly estimate wave height and travel time of tsunamis based on its global historical tsunami scenario database, helping to provide a rapid assessment of the potential for a tsunami.

Responding to disasters and recovering from them

After a major disaster rapid and reliable information about the location, extent and severity of damage is crucial for rescue and reconstruction efforts. The JRC technically coordinates the “emergency management service” (GIO-EMS) of the Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES) programme, which provides all actors engaged in civil protection and emergency response with timely and accurate disaster geo-spatial information and maps on the basis of remotely sensed data complemented by in-situ data when available.

In 2008 the European Commission, the United Nations Development Group and the World Bank established a platform for partnership to strengthen coordination for early response capacities, as well as for recovery planning. The JRC contributed to this process with the development of a “guide to a multi-stakeholder needs assessment recovery framework (PDNA)” for decision-makers to use during the early phases of disaster recovery planning. The guide includes the JRC’s approaches for damage assessment from remotely sensed and other data sources, as well as sector specific tools developed by the partners of the joint initiative.

One of the first major disasters where the PDNA framework made notable use of scientific-based evidence drawing upon remotely-sensed and other in-situ data was the Haiti earthquake disaster in 2010, where the JRC, together with international partners, produced a rapid damage assessment, followed in the next weeks by detailed damage assessments and statistics for the most affected locations, which fed into the Action Plan for National Recovery and Development of Haiti.

Droughts, floods and fires – Natural hazards do not have national boundaries

The JRC monitors and assesses regional and global desertification, land degradation and drought through the European Drought Observatory (EDO). When fully operational, this system will present a timely and consistent picture of droughts in all parts of Europe, while national, regional and local authorities will provide more detailed information at their geographical scales.

The European Flood Awareness System (EFAS) is a flood early warning system that complements the national forecasting systems of EU member states by predicting the potential for floods in Europe up to ten days in advance. EFAS has developed into a fully operational system, run by various international, national and regional entities. Based on the experience of EFAS, the JRC has also developed the Global Flood Awareness System (GloFAS), which is able to predict large-scale floods with more than 15 days of lead time at a global scale. GloFAS in combination with the Global Flood Detection System (GFDS), which provides up-to-date information on the impact and extent of floods occurring across borders using real-time satellite observations, are key instruments for the coordination of international aid.

Forest fires occur regularly all over Europe and it is very likely that the damage they cause will increase in the future. The JRC has developed the European Forest Fire Information System (EFFIS), which covers the full cycle of forest fires events and provides fire danger predictions up to six days in advance, as well as daily updated information on active fires and fire damage in Europe. It is a vital tool for the EU Civil Protection Mechanism, which is regularly activated by EU Member States and other countries when they need to mobilise international assistance to cope with forest fires.

Improving infrastructures can save lives and money

The prediction of the location and intensity of future earthquakes is scientifically impossible. Much can be done however to enhance the safety of buildings. Most human casualties following earthquakes are due to the collapse of inadequate constructions. In its European Laboratory for Structural Assessment (ELSA), the JRC assesses the vulnerability of buildings and other civil infrastructures and develops appropriate methodologies to make them more resistant to earthquakes, as well as to explosions and other accidents.

JRC scientists also investigate the vulnerability of energy, communication and transport networks and of industrial facilities. This includes research on the impact of space weather events, like geomagnetic storms, and on global navigation satellite system (GNSS) receivers, which are key for precise timing and synchronisation in many critical infrastructures.

Improving preparedness with timely information

While some natural hazards are difficult or impossible to predict, there is a lot that can be done to avoid casualties through early detection, forecasting and warning. The JRC develops tools to detect emerging threats and to identify the most vulnerable populations, generally those in slums and rural areas. Its open source intelligence systems Europe Media Monitor (EMM) and Medical Information System (Medisys) monitor the Internet for information on socio-political instability and for potential threats to public health. The Global Human Settlement Analysis system provides information on urbanisation and physical exposure.

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