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Learning to live with natural disasters — Cutting-edge data applications to the fore

Taiwan is located in a region where typhoons and earthquakes are frequent; learning from disasters is an urgent task

Taiwan is located in a region where typhoons and earthquakes are frequent. Learning from disasters is an urgent task for society here. (MOFA photo)

Taiwan is located in a region where typhoons and earthquakes are frequent. Learning from disasters is an urgent task for society here. (MOFA photo)

2022 was not a peaceful year. As a consequence of climate change, extreme weather events occurred in rapid succession, and news of natural disasters arrived from every continent.

Hurricane Ian battered the US and Brazil, causing more than US$100 billion of damage. Summer heatwaves hit Europe, leading to droughts and wildfires. Pakistan, meanwhile, suffered devastating floods that inundated close to one-eighth of the country. Just a few months into 2023, we have already prayed for the victims of the earthquake in Turkey and Syria. Nor is it so many years since the great earthquakes and tsunamis of 2004 and 2011 pummeled Southeast Asia and northeastern Japan. Such events can’t help but engender a sense of helplessness in all of us.

On this blue planet, we all gaze up at the same sky, and our fates are tied together. Where will the finger of God point next? No one knows for sure. All we can do is work hard to best prepare for natural disasters, respect the forces of nature, and learn to coexist with them.

We are nearing the start of the flood season in Taiwan, which stretches from May to November. It’s the time of year when rainfall is greatest and most frequent. Although this is a boon in terms of filling reservoirs and replenishing groundwater, it can also easily lead to flooding.

Chen Hongey, director of the National Science and Technology Center for Disaster Reduction (NCDR), has been out and about in recent months, visiting the governments of all of Taiwan’s 22 counties and municipalities. Aiming to ensure that the information the NCDR gathers on a regular basis is being transferred to local officials and put to good use on the front lines of disaster management, he is checking that all the relevant benchmarks are being met.

The canary in the coal mine

“Taiwan is on the ‘Ring of Fire’ around the rim of the Pacific Ocean, so earthquakes are inevitable.” The tectonic plates here are always in motion. That movement causes Taiwan to rise by five to seven milli­meters in an average year. With Taiwan’s 6 million years of geologic history, it should have risen to a height of 30,000 meters by now.

So why is Yushan, Taiwan’s tallest mountain, only 3,952 meters high? In 2003, Chen co-authored a paper with several Cambridge scholars for the journal Nature. It calculated the volume of material washed down by typhoons and rivers in Taiwan over the years.

“Although Taiwan, with its 36,000 square kilometers, occupies just 0.024% of global land area,” he explains, “it accounts for 2% of erosion.” The disparity bears witness to just how much of Taiwan comprises geologically sensitive areas prone to landslides and debris flows triggered by earthquakes or heavy rains.

Weather expert Peng Chi-ming gets right to the point: “Every year there are about 27 typhoons in the Western Pacific.” In recent years, few of them have actually hit Taiwan, but those misses have brought their own challenges, with reservoirs running worryingly low.

When air currents push up against Taiwan’s high mountains, the air cools and its relative humidity rises. That’s another source of Taiwan’s abundant rainfall. The weather station on Mt. Ximao in Yilan’s Nan’ao Township, for example, has recorded as much as 12,027 mm of rainfall in a single year. With increasingly extreme weather, there have been many instances of massive rainfalls in short periods of time.

“Climate change is causing extreme weather events around the world, but Taiwan is the proverbial canary in the coal mine,” says Peng. “The effects of climate change are happening earlier here, and records will continue to be broken.”

Data integration

Whenever a typhoon is predicted to affect Taiwan, the NCDR quickly releases an assessment of its potential impact and suggested responses. Chen is often invited to go abroad in connection with his expertise, and these trips have left him with the sense that Taiwan enjoys some of the fastest responses in the world. When the Central Emergency Operations Center (CEOC) is activated, the NCDR’s Disaster Information Service Platform provides real-time monitoring and forecasting data from around Taiwan, which enables warnings to be issued and resources deployed in a timely manner.

The NCDR has assembled a staff of experts in vari­ous fields with the mission of providing advice on disaster preparedness, response and recovery work. In normal times, they conduct research on disaster preparedness, disaster mitigation technology and other matters. They identify locations that are likely to be severely impacted by natural disasters and draw up preparedness and response plans in advance. These plans enable agencies to respond calmly and with confidence when disasters do occur.

Through the Disaster Information Service Platform, the NCDR provides monitoring data gathered by various government agencies, including the Construction and Planning Agency of the Ministry of the Interior, the Central Weather Bureau and Directorate General of Highways of the Ministry of Transportation and Communications, the Water Resources Agency of the Ministry of Economic Affairs, and the Soil and Water Conservation Bureau of the Council of Agriculture. “We integrate data from various government sources, adding value with visualizations to supply the CEOC with up-to-date data on weather, water, and soil conditions nationwide.”

The platform also analyzes data from satellites, such as Taiwan’s own Formasat-7 and the Japan Meteorological Agency’s Himawari 8, as well as those of the European Union’s Copernicus program and the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Demonstrating just how much information the network provides, Chen shows a Powerpoint slide detailing how the network had collected typhoon track forecasting data from at least five different nations before Typhoon Nissa made landfall in 2017. These revealed potential paths spread across a corridor 150 kilometers wide.

“Before it landed, we had prepared forecasts predicting which counties and cities would be impacted by Nissa depending if it veered east or west. And we got this information to local governments as soon as possible, allowing them to start making preparations in good time.”

The NCDR also puts social media to good use for disaster response. With the growth of social media and big data, the center has developed social media intelligence platforms to gather information about disasters. Leveraging data mining, it collects information shared by the general public, lessening the time required to create situation reports and enabling rapid adjustments to the deployment of rescue and relief personnel.

In addition to regular warnings about earthquakes and destructive winds, other information affecting ­people’s everyday lives—including data about air quality, rainfall, reservoir levels, potential volcanic hazards, and low temperature warnings—all feature in themed maps on the platform.

Learning from disasters

Learning from disasters has always been an important part of disaster research and disaster preparedness efforts. In 2001 the oil spill from the cargo ship Amorgos caused an ecological catastrophe in Kenting National Park. To avoid further such incidents, the NCDR now tracks vessel movements in the waters around Taiwan and issues warnings advising captains to take avoiding action or shelter in harbors when typhoons approach.

Commissioned by the Council of Agriculture and using data from the Central Weather Bureau, the NCDR provides warnings about impending low temperatures, so farmers can take timely precautions to mitigate losses to agriculture and aquaculture such as the NT$4 billion hit that farmers took when an extreme cold front arrived in 2016.

As well as integrating data online, the NCDR doesn’t neglect to promote its use offline. The UN’s Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015–2030 stresses the need for every country’s disaster preparedness and mitigation measures to address the needs of its physically and mentally disabled citizens.

Lee Hsiang-chieh, head of the Policy and Socio-Economics Division at NCDR, explains that since 2020 the NCDR has invited disabled people to work with them to design perpetual calendars for disaster preparedness. These efforts have won recognition from the UN-supported Zero Project, which promotes the inclusion of disabled people.

The disaster information website has so far been browsed a total of 4.31 million times. When disasters strike, the NCDR uses push technology to distribute relevant information to the general public online and by text message. Providing this information openly fosters greater concern for the environment, raising people’s awareness of disaster preparedness in their daily lives.

Open data, public–private cooperation

Learning to live with natural disasters — Cutting-edge data applications to the fore
Peng Chi-ming describes Taiwan as “the canary in the coal mine” when it comes to extreme weather events resulting from climate change. Their rising frequency has become obvious here first, so we have no choice but to learn how to live with them. (Taiwan Panorama photo)

As chairman of Taiwan’s Open Data Alliance, Peng Chi-ming advocates open access to maximize the value of information and to support the private sector in pursuing diverse innovations. He cites the National Science Council’s data service platform Civil IoT Taiwan, which has set up many environmental monitoring devices throughout Taiwan and allows public access to the data they generate.

“Letting the private sector access and disseminate this data only adds to its impact. It can help to foster industrial clusters and broaden understanding.” Apart from civil engineering firms and suppliers of emergency kits and fire extinguishers, Taiwan’s disaster preparedness industry includes companies that engage in research and data analysis, applying software and hardware in environmental monitoring systems that enable better responses to natural disasters.

Peng explains that earlier disaster response research employed data analysis, but the data couldn’t be gathered and processed in real time. With the Internet of Things and 5G networking technologies, data transmission speeds are getting faster and faster. “The increasing abundance of information will usher in a new stage of data management, with reduced risk of errors caused by human misjudgment.” Artificial intelligence will enable more efficient big-data analysis, and Taiwan is well placed to lead the way in applying these innovations to disaster preparedness and response.

Living with natural disasters

“Live with the disaster.” Peng says it’s the only appropriate response to extreme climate events. Many years of practical experience in the field have taught Chen Hongey one thing in particular: “Man can’t beat nature.”

Reflecting on Typhoon Soudelor from 2015, Chen says, “The day before the typhoon made landfall it was cloudless and stupefyingly hot. Based on past experience, this kind of weather is an important warning sign.” Chen made the call for the NCDR to recommend that residents of the Atayal indigenous community of Hbun-sinqumi in Taoyuan’s Fuxing Township leave for safer ground before the storm hit.

With debris flows that night sweeping away 24 homes, the warning proved prescient and saved many lives. In fact, he recalls that the prediction the recommendation was based on had an accuracy rating of only 30–40%. “But it is gratifying to have saved so many. If no disaster had occurred, people would have complained. But that’s no big deal. I can handle a scolding.” Chen has the right attitude. The test we face from extreme weather is growing. Only by responding to disasters with humility can we create a more sustainable future.

Learning to live with natural disasters — Cutting-edge data applications to the fore
Advance warning of low temperatures can help farmers reduce crop losses. (Taiwan Panorama photo)