How Technology Can Save the World From Natural Disasters

Sintia Radu

Technology to Fight Nature

Earthquakes, storms, heat waves and floods have been leading causes of death from natural disasters during the past year, affecting all regions around the world. The most recent figures show that natural disasters caused losses of $131.7 billion in 2018 and affected millions of people around the world. While Mother Nature is unpredictable, several technologies promise to help with forecasting and prevention and allow responders to act sooner rather than later.

In 2015, the United Nations said that about 90% of all natural disasters are weather related. To help reduce the loss of life, scientists today employ a wide array of technological tools to better anticipate natural disasters and improve weather forecasting.

"One of the key things that we are always looking to do is to enhance prediction of weather globally in order to reduce those impacts that it has on the population, allowing populations to be more resilient in the face of high impact weather," says Kevin Petty, director of Science & Forecast Operations from The Weather Company, a subsidiary of IBM.

With technological advancements such as artificial intelligence and machine learning making it easier for scientists to process and interpret a large amount of data, weather prediction and its impact on populations can now be better addressed.

The following is a look at the technology options available for counteracting the top five natural disasters that caused the biggest toll on human lives last year, all solutions that are either being used or are on the verge of being deployed.

5. Landslides and Earthquakes

What happened: Earthquakes and landslides were quite common in 2019, according to the International Disaster Database, or IDD, put together by the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters in Belgium. Landslides caused dozens of deaths in China, Bolivia, Peru, Indonesia, Uganda, Cameroon, Chad, Ethiopia, Morocco, Myanmar, Malawi, Papua New Guinea and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Additionally, earthquakes last year struck Pakistan, Indonesia, the Philippines, China, Chile, Peru, El Salvador, Iran, Albania and Ecuador.

Technology solutions: Predictive solutions for earthquakes now make use of artificial intelligence and machine learning, technologies capable of processing and interpreting a large quantity of data. A recent solution developed by experts at Cornell University is able to better forecast so-called "slow-slip earthquakes," a type of tectonic motion of much lower intensity that can last for hours or days. While prediction is a tricky word for those studying seismology, advancements in artificial intelligence may help scientists find patterns otherwise impossible to track.

4. Storms

What happened: According to the IDD, several tropical cyclones caused hundreds of deaths in 2019, affecting people in countries such as Japan, China, India, Mozambique, North and South Korea, Bangladesh, Thailand and the United States. It was one of the most common natural disasters last year and the cost for economies was significant. For instance, typhoon Hagibis cost the Japanese economy $10 billion in damages and insured losses.

Technology solutions: Weather prediction currently does not rely on new technology -- if anything, it uses rather old technology such as radars that were first used in World War II. Despite the rather conservative methods of collecting data, innovation may improve forecasting. Advances in artificial intelligence promise to allow for a larger quantity of weather data to be analyzed faster, more accurately and in greater detail, making weather predicting outcomes more accurate, as well. At the same time, only sophisticated algorithms will soon be able to handle in-depth analyses of data coming from multiple domains, such as geophysics, from the atmosphere, ocean, or the biosphere.

3. Extreme Temperatures

What happened: About 160 people died during the Japanese heat wave in the summer of 2019, according to the IDD. In the months of July and August, more than 18,000 people sought medical attention due to extremely high temperatures that rose above 105 degrees Fahrenheit (41 degrees Celsius). Unusually high temperatures also affected India and Western European countries such as France, Italy and the United Kingdom, causing multiple deaths.

Technology solutions: Forecasting models use complex algorithms that can assess the onset, duration and demise of an upcoming heat wave. One such model was developed in India, at the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology. The system identified problematic regions and predicted the rise in temperatures that posed risks. According to the study, predicting heat waves is becoming increasingly important around the world, as their frequency is growing and the losses they bring are overarching. Heat waves not only cause the loss of human lives but also cause health issues, increase economic spending, affect agricultural production, energy and infrastructure.

2. Floods

What happened: About 1,600 people died in India between July and September 2019 due to flash flooding, shows the IDD. In March, torrential rain forced more than 4,000 Indonesians out of their homes in the Papua province. Floods also heavily affected places such as Nepal, Myanmar, China or Bangladesh.

Technology solutions: Floods caused by natural causes, such as increased rainfall or storms, can also be predicted with sophisticated technological models. Artificial intelligence can help technologists better interpret a growing amount of data and create forecasting models that can automatically alert authorities. In September 2019 Google announced it had begun implementing a flood forecasting model in the Indian region of Patna. The U.S. tech giant built an inundation model that can predict the water level rise in a particular area and assess the "water behavior," or what areas can be flooded very quickly -- a phenomenon known as flash flooding. Google partnered with several institutions on the ground that provided it with real-time data.

1. Epidemics

What happened: According to the IDD, a measles epidemic killed around 4,000 people in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The plague began in January 2019 and lasted for about nine months, affecting the North Kivu and the Ituri provinces.

Technology solutions: Several methods are currently used to forecast the spread of particular emerging epidemics. Forecasting models can identify hot spots of emerging diseases and predict trends regarding where the problem is most likely to expand. Experts surveil the internet, looking for health care reports, correlate environmental data such as soil components, a rise in temperature or humidity -- all factors that can help a disease spread more quickly. Satellite imagery can also be used for tracking the path of specific insects that transmit certain diseases.

Technology Can Save Us From Natural Disasters

Several technologies are used for anticipating and assessing the negative impact of:

1. Landslides and earthquakes

2. Storms

3. Extreme temperatures

4. Floods

5. Epidemics


Sintia Radu is an international affairs and global technology reporter at U.S. News & World Report. She previously reported on business and technology for the Washington Post and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She served as the managing editor for Esquire Romania. She graduated from the Bucharest Academy of Economic Studies, and earned her Master of Arts in Journalism at the University of Missouri. She is a fellow of the National Press Foundation for a program on the impact of artificial intelligence. She was part of the 2016 Women in STEM cohort at Chicago's 1871 technology and entrepreneurship center, and helped design a multiple award-winning iOS/watchOS app profiled in the 2017 Associated Press report on The Future of Augmented Journalism. She is a Fulbright scholarship recipient and gave a TEDx talk on immigration and diversity. Follow her on Twitter, connect with her on LinkedIn, or email her at sradu@usnews.com.