Research News

Earth Institute Centers Partner with UN to Monitor Natural Disaster Risks


posted: February 20, 2008

This week Earth Institute scientists began work on important research that will enable United Nations agencies to better anticipate and respond to natural disasters. This exciting new partnership, the Global Risk Update project (GRU), marks the end of a three year research and development phase. Art Lerner-Lam, Doherty Senior Research Scientist, Director of the Earth Institute’s Center for Hazards and Risk Research (CHRR) and co-PI for the project, said, “The work represents an important effort by the United Nations to engage scientists by deliberately including the most accurate and up-to-date scientific data on hazards in their work.”

The devastating effects of natural hazards have been witnessed repeatedly in recent years, including Hurricane Katrina, the Indian Ocean Tsunami, and the South Asian Earthquake. Led by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) with Earth Institute participation, the new GRU project is an effort to design and set in place a process for continually updating global natural hazard risk maps with new data and research results.

The project also includes an emphasis on setting international standards for acquiring data on disasters and their human impacts. Part of that effort includes establishing proper international peer review systems for hazards research results, and encouraging research on the analytical methods used to produce them. This rigorous approach ensures that the most accurate information on natural hazard risks is available to UN agencies responsible for natural disaster planning, prevention and response.

Brad Lyon, Research Scientist at the International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI) is co-PI for the project with Lerner-Lam and other contributing scientists from the Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN) include Staff Associate Cris Cromer, Senior Staff Associate Greg Yetman and Senior Staff Associate Meredith Golden.

Three years ago, CHRR, CIESIN and IRI, three Earth Institute centers, together with their partners in The World Bank, released a landmark report on the global distribution of population and economic exposure to natural hazards. By compiling and analyzing existing datasets, the report, which has come to be known as the “Hotspots” study, demonstrated that it was possible to objectively rank regional natural hazard exposure so that the development of mitigation and response strategies to potential disasters could be prioritized appropriately.

Since then, The World Bank, other regional development banks, and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP)—agencies which respond to the catastrophic impacts of natural hazards—have begun to mainstream disaster resiliency into their development programs, which requires a much more detailed evidence base for high-priority regions, such as those that have recently been devastated by natural disasters. Moreover, as we learn more about natural hazards and their impacts, scientists at the Earth Institute have begun to develop ways of distilling this new research into useful products for the agencies that prevent, prepare for and respond to disasters.

As an outgrowth of the “Hotspots” study and the growing need for more detailed data products on hazards, the new Global Risk Update (GRU) program aims to fill knowledge gaps in natural disaster risk research. The first GRU maps are due in early 2009, with successive updates released every two years. Like the Hotspots study, the GRU maps will trigger more intense studies of the riskiest places on the planet, and perhaps lead to the types of local pilot programs for hazard preparation and response that demonstrate the human importance and cost-efficiency of increased disaster resiliency.