May/June 2005

Breaking Omori's Law of Public Awareness

As seismologists dedicated to studying one of the Earth's most dangerous natural phenomena, we are inured to the reality that public interest in our field surges after a significant earthquake and decays rapidly afterward to a rather low background level. This would be little more than a curiosity were it not for the fact that understanding earthquakes and their effects could make a big difference to the lives and livelihoods of much of that public. Moreover, the political will to make pre-emptive investments in monitoring, research, preparedness, and mitigation wanes with decreasing public interest. Ironically, we can point with increasing confidence to areas of habitation and economic production most exposed to earthquakes and other natural hazards, and we can even treat the issue in economic terms, evaluating risk reduction as an investment. What will it take to change the disaster management culture from one that relies on emergency response to one that promotes mitigation? Will sustained interest in natural hazard reduction accelerate the translation of research outcomes into practice? Will political interest continue to follow public awareness? Justified as they may still be, simply asking these old rhetorical questions is not enough. The Sumatra-Andaman Islands earthquake and Indian Ocean tsunami struck deeply into the heart of some of the central questions of our time: the gap between rich and poor, between those who benefit from advanced understanding of our natural world and those who haven't yet seen the impact of knowledge, between those who contemplate the relationship between man and nature and those who ignore it. This time may be different, and the science enterprise has the responsibility to recognize and act on the evidence that the policy environment has changed.

On the surface, the Indian Ocean tragedy is no exception to the Omori Law of Public Awareness. A recent analysis by Reuters found that print coverage of the disaster peaked ten days after the event and decayed predictably thereafter. One media observer declared the delayed peak to be the result of the "vacation effect." Others suggested that relief and response agencies and thus the press were slow to realize the scale of the impact. Our own reading of the benchmark paper in our hometown showed that front-page coverage was dropped by the third week of January (a significant duration by most standards of press attention). Not surprisingly, most of the coverage focused on the sheer geographic and human scope of the disaster and the developed world's response, but there was nevertheless a good dose of science and technology reporting. Some of the science reporting even described the extreme nature of the rupture. There were predictable questions about potential tsunami scenarios for U.S. coastlines. And there was a line of reporting focused on the technology of tsunami warning systems and how they might be expanded globally. While there will be an upsurge in reporting as some research results are published in the coming year, the story as a whole seems to have retreated from public discussion, and thus political interest, within two months after the event. Natural disasters such as climate change, drought, infectious disease, and earthquakes are part of the vicious cycle that keeps many stuck in extreme poverty. Another element of this cycle is that the voice of the poor is very faint at the World's bargaining table. We can jump to the conclusion that natural disasters and their pernicious effects on the poor have had their day in the court of public awareness and that public policy discussions have moved on to the more immediate issues. This conclusion is facile and may be wrong: The Indian Ocean disaster could be a turning point, particularly if we keep up the pressure.

First, the unprecedented mobilization of relief operations and response, reconstruction, and development aid has focused the world's development banks and other organizations on economic trade-offs between emergency response and preparedness. "Recovery plus" is being proposed at the highest levels as a slogan for the notion that reconstruction should lead to more sustainable societies that incorporate disaster resiliency as a core component. The earthquake-tsunami itself was largely responsible for this awareness, of course, but credit is also due to years of arguments by physical and social scientists, disaster professionals, development specialists, and the development organizations themselves, that reducing disaster risk is a necessary part of the global development agenda and a prerequisite for progress in reducing human suffering. It is clear to many of these organizations that science has a role in "recovery plus."

Second, multiscale geophysical observatory networks, with the dual goal of providing data for fundamental research and operational capabilities for natural hazard monitoring and reduction, are a reality in some fields and just a step or two away in others. Seismologists should be rightly proud of the twenty-year partnership among universities, the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Geological Survey that has led to the Global Seismographic Network. The California Integrated Seismic Network and the Advanced National Seismic System show how regional and local networks might be part of a coherent operational framework. Proposals for integrated global systems, such as GEOSS, are on the table. NOAA's Pacific Tsunami Warning Center has operationalized the integration of data from the GSN and oceanographic instruments to provide end-to-end tsunami warning: The framework could be adapted for global warning. Yet, this sparkling display of know-how could end up being of little benefit for much of the world's population. The geophysical community is as well positioned as it has ever been, intellectually and technically, to provide the scientific and operational complement to a global agenda of disaster risk reduction. The good news is that this point seems to be getting across.

The realization that something specific can be done about natural hazards has also gained considerable traction among policy makers. The relatively mature thinking about global observatories and the operational realities of existing networks already in place were key factors in enabling the rapid development of proposals for regional and global tsunami warning systems. These will be based on new or updated seismographic networks and on new deployments of deep-water monitoring buoys and coastal monitoring stations. Less than four weeks after the earthquake-tsunami, the coincidental (providential?) timing of the U.N.'s World Conference on Disaster Reduction in Kobe focused on the tsunami and provided a venue for strongly worded declarations on the importance of mitigation, preparedness, and warning systems for all natural hazards. Deeds are beginning to follow words, and the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission has launched an international coordinating effort. In the U.S., NOAA and USGS aggressively developed a warning system proposal; the very first hearing of the House Science Committee in the 109th Congress was devoted to it.

The fact that annualized risk of tsunamis is low compared to other natural hazards is not lost on the organizations and institutes furiously trying to implement regional or tsunami warning systems. An extreme event such as the Indian Ocean tsunami nevertheless warrants a strong response. Furthermore, it offers an opportunity to address other issues, such as improving the operational status of monitoring networks, meeting the technical and political challenges of exchanging data and information products, and improving scientific and technical capacity and options for collaborative research. Ultimately, these investments could provide the foundation of a newly energized international approach to multihazard preparedness and mitigation.

A lesson in all of this is that science, including technological frameworks such as global geophysical networks, provides the continuity that can keep an issue such as natural hazard risk reduction on the public agenda. It is therefore important for us to articulate the relationship between the science we do and humanitarian development goals. We have opportunities and responsibilities when facing obvious needs for scientific and technical support. With the development of a warning system that integrates data from global and regional networks of different seismographic and oceanographic instrumentation, we will have shown by example how building scientific and technical capacity can be part of the global development agenda. Not coincidentally, this process will also demonstrate the cultural power of open international science and how the sharing of data and knowledge can be a confidence-building cornerstone of international cooperation.

Arthur Lerner-Lam and Leonardo Seeber
Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University

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Posted: 23 July 2005