GSD Blog


How Prepared Are We for Another Tsunami?

Five years after the deadly wave in the Indian Ocean, our ability to forecast and warn of a dangerous tsunami has increased considerably.

by Lord Julian Hunt


It is now estimated by the United Nations that the devastating Indian Ocean Tsunami of Boxing Day 2004 killed around 187,000 people, with approximately 43,000 still missing. The tsunami was the largest in the Indian Ocean for more than 700 years, triggered by the fourth-largest earthquake in the world since 1900.


As well as the terrible human cost, the physical and environmental devastation wrought was truly massive, with the impact disproportionately felt by the poor. In Aceh alone, hundreds of thousands of homes were flattened, around 800 kilometers of coastline was destroyed, and approximately 3,000 hectares of land were washed away, taking roads, ports, bridges and other vital infrastructure with it.


Five years on, there remains much left to learn about tsunamis, but our understanding of their risks and how to reduce them through forecasting, warnings, and better tsunami-resistant construction and design has advanced considerably.



Warning systems

One reason the Indian Ocean tsunami proved so catastrophic was the fact that warning systems in the region were virtually nonexistent. Since then, there has been progress in most aspects of warnings across the world, and the Indian Ocean itself now has a regional system in place.


The value of warning systems was underlined yet again this month when they were used very successfully after the Dec. 4 Samoa tsunami.


However, other countries around the world have not benefited in this same way. Warning systems tend to be more effective and reliable where natural hazards recur on a regular basis. Tsunamis are an example of an infrequent and variable type of secondary geophysical hazard, and thus warning systems are still not in place in all areas.


The further complication is that, even with a warning system in place, some communities close to epicenters still may not receive the relevant information in time. Indeed, had the current Indian Ocean warning system been in place in 2004, it may not have helped many of those who were earliest to be hit by the tsunami.


This is why 80% of tsunami casualties tend to occur before any official or technically based warning actually arrives, unlike the case of more slowly evolving and propagating hazards such as hurricanes or flood waves, which generally have limited numbers of casualties.


However, for more distant communities (e.g. the Kenyan fishermen community, where the tsunami arrived six hours after its initiation off Sumatra in December 2004), warnings can be communicated effectively. These warnings (which came through community groups, mobile phones and TV in Kenya) save many lives, as was shown most recently in Samoa. Research shows that the key is to distribute data quickly, openly and locally, so that it is available in the right form, at the right place and at the right time to prevent loss of life.




The tsunami warning systems in the ocean, which are currently coordinated by the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission, are not integrated between countries. However, there will be discussions about enhanced exchange of the data and forecasts as warning systems become more reliable. This will place a premium upon better forecasting.


Although early indicators of tsunamis have been identified, this has usually been after the event, and these are still not reliable enough to be widely used. Certainly, the standard seismic models did not predict the December 2004 earthquake that caused the tsunami and might not have predicted other tsunami sources such as submarine landslides or volcanic eruptions.


Perhaps the most promising research for enhancing our predictive capability is holistic geophysical forecasting. This makes use of the fact that the sizes of tsunami-related disturbances are so large and so powerful that they disturb the solid earth, the oceans and the atmosphere. These disturbances do not just lead to mechanical forces and release of heat, as in storms, but they also affect electrical, magnetic and molecular processes, especially higher up in the atmosphere.


Modern instruments have become so sensitive that they can measure magnetic fields one millionth of the strength of the earth's magnetic field, so that tremors in the lithosphere can be detected long before large earthquakes and tsunamis actually occur. Research at the Geoelectromagentic Research Center in Moscow also confirms that the motions in tsunami waves, once initiated, can be detected over many hundreds of kilometers from distant measurements of weak, slowly changing magnetic fields.



Resilient infrastructure

Even with better prediction and warnings, the Indian Ocean tsunami underlined the need for more resilient infrastructure and community planning. Since 2004, for instance, many people near coastlines in the region sleep at higher elevations to avoid surprise tsunamis at night.


Research is now leading to more ambitious solutions for building resilient infrastructures. At several research institutes, including Delft University of Technology, University College London, the University of Arizona, and HS Wallingford, work is under way to explain why, in December 2004 when the waves approached beaches, the sea retreated and then roared up the beach in a huge surge that drowned thousands of people and destroyed many buildings.


With specially constructed laboratory wave-makers, these events have been reproduced; but mathematical models and computations are now needed to turn the experiments into reliable estimates for engineers and for community planners to build tsunami proof-structures and plan more resilient communities. With global warming, these calculations also take account of the increasing danger as the sea level rises—which is happening three times faster in tropical seas where tsunami risk is greatest.


Originally published on the Wall Street Journal.




Copenhagen climate submit: Failure at such a grand level means we have to act locally

by Lord Julian Hunt


Post-Copenhagen, we may be heading towards a future in which no comprehensive successor to the Kyoto regime is politically possible. It is therefore crucial that the centre of gravity of decision-making on how we respond to climate change moves towards the sub-national level. The need for such a shift from "top down" to "bottom up" is becoming clearer by the day.


Over the last decade, records of weather and climate trends have revealed larger and more unusual regional and local variations – some unprecedented since the end of the last ice age 10,000 years ago. Among such warning signs are more frequent droughts in wet regions (such as the 2006 drought in Assam, India, previously one of the wettest places in the world) and floods in dry regions (as, recently, the worst floods in 50 years in north-west India).


Such extreme events threaten sustainable development around the world, as natural environments are destroyed irreversibly and economic growth is slowed. Forming loose collaborative networks enables regions, their experts and decision-makers to learn from one another and draw upon national and international resources, including the growing number of consortiums linking major cities, local governments and the private sector.


Experience shows that this "bottom up" approach works very effectively as it is only when smaller areas learn how they will be specifically affected by climate change that widespread, grassroots action can be mobilised.


Although regional variations in climate change are approximately predicted by IPCC global climate models, what is now needed are more local measurements and studies for government, industry and agriculture to better understand their climatic situation and develop adaptive strategies.


Hence, increasing numbers of regional monitoring centres are contributing towards local adaptation plans. Such as in China, where many provinces require targets for power station construction, regional environmental and climate change centres are now well developed.


Experience also shows that local actions can only be truly effective if measurements of climate and environment are widely publicised as well as information about targets, and projections of emissions. Such transparency is needed about what is happening, what is planned and how every individual can be involved – as the Danes show by their community investment in wind power. Localisation of action must be the post-Copenhagen priority if we are to tackle global warming.


Lord Hunt is visiting professor at Delft University and a former director general of the UK Meteorological Office


Originally published on the Guardian's 'Comment is Free' blog


McKinsey addresses the carbon productivity challenge


McKinsey & Company recently developed this paper to support the GLOBE International Legislator-CEO Dialogue. The work draws on research from McKinsey’s Climate Change Initiative, the McKinsey Global Institute, McKinsey’s work with Vattenfall on the global carbon cost curve, and research by various outside experts.


The purpose of this paper is to help frame the discussion for the GLOBE International Legislator and CEO Dialogue, offer some common language for the participants, and provide a background fact-base. The paper does not attempt to propose specific answers to the problems raised by climate change, but rather suggests a way to think about the issues, and raises a series of questions that we hope will be helpful to the participants in the discussion.


The complexity of the climate issue means that the paper inevitably does not discuss all issues—for example it does not discuss adaptation. Rather the approach use the interview process to guide us and we focused on issues that were a.) of most concern to the participants, and b.) most relevant to their positions as political and business leaders.


McKinsey takes sole responsibility for the paper’s content unless otherwise cited, and its contents do not necessarily reflect the views of either GLOBE International or BP. The discussion of the cost curve results represents McKinsey’s interpretation and does not necessarily reflect the views of Vattenfall.



Climate Science: Understanding the data about global warming

by Lord Julian Hunt


As John Stuart Mill so lucidly explained (in the Darwin year of 1859), liberty requires that opinions and practices , even those most central to government policies should be thoroughly questioned. There must be discussion to show how knowledge and experience are to be interpreted. Climate change science and policy need questioning in just the same way.


There have been three strands of questioning by sceptical politicians, as well as by some engineers and scientists. The first is that since the earth’s surface has been cooling on average over the past few years, there is no need to worry about global warming. The second, (see The Sunday Times of 6 Dec), is that ‘scientists are struggling to to explain the fact that, against their predictions, temperatures have not risen to new highs over the past ten years’. The third is that since there are doubts about how scientists have interpreted measurements, in order to produce their graphs of the variation of global temperature over the past 100 years, it means that projections about future temperatures are not to be trusted, and therefore no action should be taken to curb global warming.


All these points can be answered by experts engaged in research and in policy aspects of climate change. But there are different emphases in the answers. The Royal Society will publish a consensus statement next week. My own views are influenced by my research in fluid mechanics and meteorology, and my experiences as an administrator, communicator, and politician (I wrote an article in Engineering Sustainability in Sept 2009).


The first question, related to the second, is that atmospheric science from the 19th century studies of Arrhenius onwards has shown, from molecular theory and now satellite measurements, that even a small increase of carbon dioxide, methane and other ‘green house gases’ leads to trapping of out going radiation from the earth’s surface . Prof Harries of Imperial College has explained how recent (2007) measurements of radiation reaching satellite instruments, situated far above the atmosphere, show incontrovertibly that this trapping is occurring ever more effectively. The atmosphere and the surface layers of earth therefore are gradually warming up (by about 0.23 deg per decade).


The reason why the earth’s surface is not exhibiting a steady rise (queried by the Sunday Times) is because, every 10-20 years, currents in the oceans bring huge amounts of cool water to the surface, particularly in the Pacific to the west of South America. This lowers the average temperature at the ocean surface and affects the whole atmosphere. There are other periods when this cool area is covered by warm water (although computer models, aided by better instruments in the ocean and on satellites, can describe many of these features, they cannot yet predict their arrival or duration). This is why, over the present decade and probably subsequent decades, there will be periods when the surface temperatures will be flat. However, the average land temperatures during this period have continued to rise (and not due to local urban effects), as Prof Hansen has pointed out. There should be more publicity of these land based temperatures, such as the display on the UK Hadley Centre web site.


Climate scientists emphasise quite rightly that the average global temperatures for this decade are the highest on record (as stated by the World Meteorological Organisation at COP on 8 December); but this does not necessarily convince sceptics about the need for action on global warming. They say that perhaps this is a natural fluctuation and it will decrease. That is why, in my experience, non-scientist are more convinced about the need for action when they see the steady rise upwards of global land temperatures, which has happened during this decade-though it has levelled out over the past two years.


There are parts of the world where changing local weather patterns cause the temperature rise to greatly exceed the global land average, such as China which has risen by 1 degree Celsius in the past ten years. A comparable rate of rise has been measured, and predicted for the Antarctic peninsular. Even more serious has been the effects of these variations in local weather patterns on rainfall; in Assam India, one of the wettest places in the world, in 2006, there was no rain in many districts, while in the normally dry desert of NW India there were floods unknown for at least 50 years.


As to the third question about doubts in interpretation. These are not unknown in all branches of science and many distinguished scientists have made such errors in the past, often with some bias in their judgement based on certain convictions. This is why scientists in my experience are always very sceptical of other scientists, at least as much as the public is reputed to be. So in all fields there are many duplicated experiments and interpretations. Climate science has developed in the same way. All the data points and interpretations have been checked by other groups and more importantly by other techniques. There used to be several temperature graphs of global mean temperature. It was convenient for policy making to consider a single curve, as plotted in IPCC reports. So if there is any possible doubt about a particular groups interpretation, it seems likely to be very small.


But as the world considers this huge issue, it is vital that everywhere in the world, down to individual communities, should measure and understand their own weather and climate; and of course relating that to national and international trends and predictions. How people and communities deal even locally with disease and their economy, should have a parallel in how they face up to climate. This is one of the themes being promoted by Globe.


Comments and suggestions are very welcome.


Lord Julian Hunt, Member of the House of Lords and former Head of the UK Meteorological Office.


Originally published on the GLOBE International COP15 Blog


Climate Change Research and Policies in China – Report of a visit to China May 11-16, 2009

by Lord Julian Hunt

UCL, Univ. Cambridge, House of Lords (vice president of Globe), Arizona State University

(Inst Plasma Physics, Hefei; Beijing Normal University and ASU funded this visit)



  1. Climate Research

(Based on a visit to China Meteorological Administration; the Beijing Climate Centre (BCC) and the Remote Sensing Centre)



(See BCC annual report for 2008;

  • The temperature over China has increased steadily, by more than 1deg C, since it began its steady rise after 1980 (p13). This is more than 40% greater than the global average over land areas. Note that this figure might be higher (by up to 1C according to the report) if the air pollution over China was absent.
  • The average  depth of the winter frozen soil over the Tibetan Plateau decreased suddenly in 1985; but over 30 years it has decreased by 10% (p28).
  • Recent climate events have been severe but not unprecedented; e.g. 1970’s drought was worse.
  • There has been a 10% increase in frequency in tropical cyclone reaching China (Hong Kong informed me in Dec that the strength is increasing too)



  • Recent seasonal predictions over China for 3 months ahead have agreed with observed trends - more precipitation over south/east China and less over India. This gives BCC some confidence about longer range seasonal and climate predictions.
  • I was informed that when seasonal predictions are issued by BCC (with some indication of probability like that of the UK Met Office), they are based on a combination of statistical and deterministic methods. The results of their statistical studies of tele-connections with El-Nino-La Nina, and Indian monsoon are taken into account.
  • In this annual report (for wide distribution inside and outside China, presumably including UNFCCC?) two scenarios beyond 2100 of a stabilisation of future green house gas concentrations  are emphasised, namely a doubling of GHG to 550ppm CO2(equivalent?) (x2 pre-industrial emissions) and 720ppm  (x2.5).                  


[Comment: Note that IPCC and others recommend that these are too high to avoid irreversible changes to significant elements of the global environment – ice caps, mountain snows, ecology, desertification etc - a point that is not mentioned here or in general discussions. These tipping points or bifurcations in regional climate appear to be of greater concern to European and US scientists and policy makers – a valid point made by the UK Embassy. I was reminded that one of the lead authors of the recent IPCC report is from CMA; I had the impression that he did not agree with everything in it.]


  There is a small mention of the significant change in the atmospheric ‘Walker’ circulation over the Pacific in the 1970’s that may have been associated with a drought in N China.


Different IPCC emission scenarios are considered about reaching these concentration levels. It is concluded that over China (not the global average over land and sea) the temperature will rise in the range 3 to 5 deg., but after stabilisation (at the above levels) the temperature would continue to rise by a smaller amount of 0.4 deg per 100years - which is still serious. These figures could well be an underestimate since the models do not allow for the release of methane from the melting permafrost and rapid loss of arctic sea ice.


    Average precipitation is predicted to rise by about 10%, which will ensure the major Eastern Rivers continue to flow even with loss of Tibetan plateau snow, which the report does not refer to. Its eventual melting over 300 (?) years, as Chinese experts on rivers have commented, will lead to the loss of the rivers emptying into the western deserts, with very adverse consequences for that region.


   The report also gives estimates of the reduction in temperature caused by aerosols, in the range 0.1 to 1 degree. This would imply that, if air pollution is reduced, the temperature rise over this century would be larger than the previous estimates?


  1. Policy discussions

These were held, in a very open spirit, with policy experts at Normal University as part of an EU-China seminar on risk and global system dynamics for policy, with Chinese, Russian and US nuclear fusion scientists at Prof Jiangang Li’s Academy of Science Institute for Plasma Physics at Hefei, and at CMA with Prof Xu Jianmin (XJ) and some of his younger technical staff - who are very interested in China’s climate policy. [XJ is also a member of the National People’s Congress, an expert on weather satellites and the technical member of the China team, which comes to meetings of international legislators organised by GLOBE (http://www.globe/].


Both groups emphasised that China’s policy over the next 40 years is to improve the efficiency of fossil fuel power generation (per unit of power produced), while increasing the total amount of power. This is China’s only significant target in relation to energy and climate change. They are not it appears committed in any way to agreeing to have policies based on limiting emissions so as not to exceed a target value for the global level of concentration. Even if China’s efficiency target is met, it is estimated that emissions will increase by a factor of 2 by 2050. If not, the emissions will increase by a factor of 3. The cost of this increase in efficiency is estimated as about equal to the whole of China’s GDP in 2006 (which implies a cost of significantly less than 2% per year over the next 40 years). XJ commented that the efficiency improvement will be achieved more readily if there is a substantial transfer to China  of technology for clean power and Carbon Capture and Storage. But there are difficulties for foreign companies to maintain ownership of IPR at the same time as helping the new technologies develop in China, as the UK embassy explained.


    During this period the GDP is expected to increase by a further factor of 8 (by comparison for western countries of a factor of 3?). The population will increase by 40 % and level out by 2050 at about 1.4bn. It was emphasised that the one child policy will continue, which is a major contribution to holding down the consumption of food and demand for electrical power.


     Other measures of conservation do not have the same emphasis as they do in the West. The Chinese comment that western countries have huge opportunities for energy saving through changes in power used in housing and buildings. In China most housing South of the Yangtze has no heating - which makes them very cold in winter! Energy in the form of methane is produced extensively in villages from individual biomass reactors using human, vegetable and animal waste. It was also explained that a further significant contribution to reducing GHGs, is the massive planting of trees which are not cut down by villagers because of their new access to biomass energy. Tree coverage is now back to the levels in the 1960s. These aspects need to be considered when assessing China’s net contribution to global GHG concentrations.

       Over the next 40 years various new non-fossil technologies are being introduced. But it is expected that their net contribution will be small; with renewable energy for electrical power at about 1% (though in Hefei almost every house has a solar water heater), and nuclear power rising to 10% at most.

           However by the end of the century, nuclear power may contribute so significantly that the current predictions of GHG emissions can be reduced. This planning scenario could be factored into current negotiations on national emissions, given that China has an exceptional track record in delivering on nuclear and other technology projects, and in sticking to international agreements over the past 10 years. For example in the post-Kyoto negotiations developed countries could agree with China that its future reductions will occur and then make their own reductions in emissions on the shorter time scale of 20-30 years. This could maintain global warming below the dangerous levels defined by the global geophysical and biological systems (eg Schellenhuber et al 2003-conference at Exeter).


       But a massive expansion of China’s nuclear energy programme to achieve its future objective would require more fuel than is available for conventional fission power plant, and more waste processing than can be accommodated. Prof Li and the China’s commercial nuclear industry are now planning a new technology demonstrator of a combined system using fission and current fusion technology to overcome these problems. It is planned for the next 10-15 years. Similar technological plans are being developed in the USA at the University of Texas and elsewhere.


         This development could change the future and thereby change the present!


         The confidence in China about its future is unparalleled in my experience. It is based on security that the state will provide, especially food. Risks associated with climate change, extreme climatic events or untried technologies are not central to discussions about the future of their country (say unlike the Netherlands), although following the earthquake in Szechuan in 2008 there is now more interest by central and regional governments. 

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