San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Experts Seek Better Flash-Flood Warnings

Evidence seems to point to an increase in the number of natural disasters in recent years.

While scientists disagree about the causes – global warming or cyclical climate change – for the apparent increase in bad weather, meteorologists around the world are trying to find ways to improve the forecast of weather-related natural disasters with the goal of saving as many lives as possible, according to Bruce Stewart of the United Nation’s World Meteorological Organization (WMO).

Driven by this aim, more than 100 experts from approximately 80 countries came to San José this week to participate in the first International Workshop on Flash-Flood Forecasting, held at the Ramada Herradura Hotel.

Paulo Manso, director of Costa Rica’s National Meteorological Institute (IMN), described the conference as an opportunity for the international community to learn from each other about forecasting of flash floods, a type of flood that, as its name suggests, strikes rapidly.

“The essential objectives of the conference are to provide a general vision of the possibilities that exist to predict flash floods in regions that are likely to suffer this phenomenon,” he said in a statement from IMN.

Stewart, who explained that flash floods may include mudslides and usually allow people limited time to react, said the experts aim to make sure flash-flood monitoring, forecasting and warnings systems are all in sync.

The idea is to be able to warn people and get them out of danger in time, although evacuation depends on individual and regional circumstances, he told The Tico Times during the workshop.

“Educating the community on how to respond is crucial,” Stewart said, explaining that in Australia, most flooding accidents are caused when people drive across rivers during floods, and so they need to be educated not to do this.

During the conference, which began Monday, experts also presented information about different techniques used for flashflood forecasting around the world, such as satellite-based forecasting, the system used in Costa Rica, according to IMN meteorologist Rosario Alfaro.

The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) donated equipment and training for implementation of this system after Hurricane Mitch struck Central America in 1998.

Alfaro, who delivered a presentation called “Experience and Challenges of Using the Central American Flash-Flood Guidance in Costa Rica” on Tuesday, told The Tico Times Costa Rica was chosen to house the antenna that captures the satellite images from Satellite Goes 12, which are then analyzed to estimate amounts of rainfall and forecast floods. The system provides data to all Central American countries.

Participating experts were brief in their responses regarding whether global warming is bringing about increased natural disasters. Alfaro said it’s because this question has become politicized and polemic in recent years.

While population growth, the resulting increase in communities at risk, and the advancement of communications have contributed to the recent apparent increase in natural disasters, it remains unclear whether they are a result of climate change, said Stewart, from Australia, one of the countries which, along with the United States, did not ratify the Kyoto Protocol – a multilateral agreement that took effect in 2005 in more than 140 participating countries and is meant to restrain global warming through reduction of greenhouse gas emissions (TT, Feb. 25, 2005).

Other experts, such as Roberto Villalobos, Costa Rica’s national climate change coordinator, say that though people are reticent when it comes to defining their position on the controversial topic, the reality is that climate change is worsening natural disasters.

Villalobos cited the example of hurricanes, which feed off of the temperature of the ocean surface where they form. The hotter the ocean surface, the greater their intensity, he explained.

Some Flash-Flood Forecasting Workshop participants, including Stewart, traveled to Mexico City for the Fourth World Water Forum, from March 16-22, which will include a segment on flash floods with information gathered from the Costa Rica workshop, which concludes today.


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