Friday, May 20, 2011

The science of disaster prediction

The whole idea of disaster prediction didn't just emerge this week. There have been numerous disasters - the Mississippi River floods, the Japanese earthquake, the Schwarzenegger marriage woes, and countless others. After these disasters have occurred, people have asked if there was any way to predict them.

Salon recently posted an interview with Len Fisher, who asserts that our ability to predict disasters has become greater, thanks to technology:

(Salon) What has changed that allows us to make better predictions now than in the past?

(Fisher) We have not had these very powerful computers that could put in the work to make the signals show up against a very noisy background. We’re in a similar position now as we were in the old days of television: You knew a picture was there, but you weren’t quite sure what it was about. As it improved, it became sharper and the background became less murky and snowy. The same thing is happening with the analysis of the fluctuations in different situations.

Fisher speaks of the types of warning signs that signal an impending disaster:

One of the signs is more extreme conditions. In a relationship, for example, you might get a period when you have violent arguments and then periods when you’re lovey-dovey. If you get these extremes, or these things happen more frequently, that’s a warning sign that you’re getting very, very close to collapse.

Another thing that happens is quick fluctuation between different states, like, for example, when the cod fisheries collapsed in Newfoundland. The fishermen wouldn’t believe it because they had one or two years of good catches, but if they had been aware of [the warning signs] before that ultimate fluctuation between high fish stocks and low fish stocks, they would have said, "uh oh."

The third warning sign is loss of resilience. When something happens to disturb the situation, it can be very hard to recover. I like to think of that in terms of a relationship: You think you’re getting along OK, you’re agreeing and you go out to a party. Then something happens. One person gets offered a drink and takes it, and the other gets mad. Rather than recover from the situation and apologize, they glower at one another all night, and it gets increasingly hard to recover from the disturbance.

Of course, the problem is that we don't necessarily know what signs are important. If my dog starts running around strangely, perhaps that means that an earthquake is about to happen. Or perhaps that means that she sees a fly and wants to play with it.
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