Extreme Events: Developing a Research Agenda for the 21st Century

Workshop Proposal

A project proposal from Columbia University's Center for Science, Policy, and Outcomes, in collaboration with the National Center for Atmospheric Research's Environmental and Societal Impacts Group. Daniel Sarewitz and Roger Pielke, Jr., Principal Investigators.

Extreme events are perturbations of ambient conditions1 that disrupt social and environmental systems. Formal definitions of the term "extreme event" call on various statistical, contextual, and outcome-based perspectives. But one need look only to the news headlines over the recent past to find a range of extreme events and gain a sense of their impacts on society and the environment:

  • catastrophic flooding and landslides in Venezuela and Nicaragua
  • cyanide contamination of the Danube River from a mining accident
  • destructive earthquakes in Turkey
  • collapse of multi-billion dollar "hedge funds"
  • oil spill off the coast of France
  • satellite failure that shut down a global communications system
  • outbreak of an unexpectedly severe strain of influenza in the U.S.
  • prediction of a one-in-a-million chance of a major asteroid impact with the earth later this century.
Workshop Overview

Integrated Summary

Workshop Participants

Other Workshop Attendees

Workshop Agenda

Workshop Logistics

Contributed Papers

Breakout Groups

Appendix: Research Topics

Workshop Proposal

Workshop Background

Extreme events such as these cause tens of thousands of deaths, billions of dollars in economic losses, irreversible environmental damage, and erosion of societal stability. At the same time, some of these same events can have beneficial impacts, for example, enhanced ecosystem health related to periodic flooding. As a consequence of the vulnerabilities and opportunities created by extreme events, society supports research in the hope that knowledge can contribute to mitigation of negative impacts and enhancement of positive impacts. (In this context, some have suggested that the Y2K experience was a successful mitigation of an anticipated extreme event.) Conversely, extreme events provide scientists with opportunities to test hypotheses and advance knowledge.

New frontiers of scientific research and technological innovation offer new possibilities for understanding, anticipating, mitigating, and responding to the impacts of extreme events. Integrated models of natural and human systems, coupled with sophisticated computational technologies, promise powerful new insights about event causation, probabilities, and impacts. Advances in remote sensing technology, combined with innovations in communication and information systems, support the possibility of progress in warning and response strategies. Research on decision making in the context of uncertainty, complexity, and risk contributes crucial perspectives to improved understanding of the causes and consequences of extreme events. Lacking, however, is effective integration of these disparate efforts with each other and into the broader context of societal needs. Lack of integration is a fundamental obstacle to both the progress of science and its beneficial application to societal needs.

Increasing societal and environmental vulnerability to extreme events highlights the crucial importance of moving toward such integration. Growing vulnerability reflects such factors as migration of populations to coastal and urban areas, and proliferation of high technology communication and information networks.. Moreover, while the phenomena that cause extreme events remain highly disparate, there are many commonalities of effect. (For example, earthquakes and solar storms can each cause disruption of vulnerable communication networks; floods and toxic chemical releases can each lead to contamination of water supplies.) These commonalties are also likely to increase in a world that is growing more economically, technologically, and culturally interdependent.

Despite these commonalities, the research and policy communities have tended to organize their responses to extreme events around specific types of phenomena, e.g., weather and climate; solid earth; environmental; technological. Mission and research agencies alike devote considerable effort to prediction, understanding and response, again, typically organized around event type. These efforts are supported by the obvious sponsors, such as the National Weather Service and Federal Emergency Management Agency, but by other sources as well, such as the Departments of Defense and Housing and Urban Development. In the private sector, industries as diverse as insurance and aviation focus much attention on extreme events. And in the research community, it is difficult to identify a discipline that does not include researchers who focus on extreme events of one kind or another.

Society's pluralistic approach to understanding and responding to extreme events is both a strength and a weakness. Strength derives from the multitude of perspectives and considerable bodies of knowledge that are available to decision makers. But with such diversity, efforts to understand, prepare for, and respond to extreme events may become Balkanized, and existing bodies of knowledge – much less future advances in understanding – may not be effectively used in society. Disunity may occur not only because of intellectual or organizational activity based on event type (e.g., activities related to hurricanes versus earthquakes), but also because of separation between different activities related to a single type of event (e.g., disciplinary research, communication of knowledge, mitigation of risk).

The growing importance of extreme events to society and environment thus presents both a great opportunity and an urgent need to rethink research organization and priorities with an eye to greater integration, application, and evaluation of knowledge. Moreover, given the global significance of extreme events, this process is likely to be most productive if undertaken in light of international perspectives and resources. Such a rethinking can set the stage for the development of a research agenda targeted at the needs of both decision makers and researchers in the 21st century.

The focus of this project is a workshop that will begin to define and develop a blueprint for a more unified intellectual and policy enterprise centered on extreme events. We will initiate discussions over what form(s) such a unified perspective might take by assembling a diverse group of experts for three days of discussion, learning, and creative group thought. The goal of this workshop is to develop specific recommendations for a program of knowledge generation, dissemination, and use centered on extreme events.

Questions that the group might address include:

  • How and for what purposes should "extreme events" be defined?
  • How and for whom might societal and environmental vulnerability be recognized and measured, particularly in the context of the considerable suite of remote sensing technologies currently under development?
  • What social, physical, and biological factors underlie vulnerabilities to and opportunities from extreme events?
  • What are the most promising areas of knowledge and research integration? What are the obstacles (intellectual, methodological, organizational, etc.) to achieving better integration?
  • What are the limits of predictability of extreme events? How can the nation's computational infrastructure be better targeted to improve knowledge of extreme events? In what decision contexts are scientific and policy-relevant alternatives to prediction most appropriately applied?
  • How can we better recognize and use existing knowledge relevant to the needs of decision makers?
  • How can we better organize, prioritize, and capitalize research relevant to the needs of decision makers and the priorities of society?

Shortly after the completion of the workshop, we will provide a report summarizing findings that emerged from the group's deliberations. The report will be posted on a website and additional ideas and comments via the web will be solicited. These contributions will be integrated into a final report.

The workshop will include about 35 people drawn from a very broadly construed array of relevant fields and sectors. While the workshop will focus on discussion of questions such as those listed above, it will also include a small number of plenary presentations aimed at challenging the group with provocative ideas and perspectives that can help stimulate creative dialogue.

1. That is, "normal" conditions relative to human life-cycle scales, or other societal/environmental frames of reference.

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