Science and Urgent Problems in society Workgroup Symposium

Symposium ” Riding the storm: Can science keep us in the saddle? “,
16 July 2006, Euroscience Open Forum, Munich, Germany

The third joint symposium of Euroscience Working Group “Science and Urgent Problems of Society”and the GeoRisk Commission of the International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics on topic of urgent problems of society was held in Munich, Germany, during the Euroscience Open Forum from 15 July to 19 July 2006 (the first and second meetings took place in Budapest, Hungary, 2002, and in Stockholm, Sweden, 2004).

Meeting Report
Dr. A. Ismail-Zadeh (Chair of the Euroscience WG “Science and Urgent Problems of Society” and President of the IUGG GeoRisk Commission) opened the symposium and spoke on recent extreme natural events, which resulted in great humanitarian tragedies because of weak preventive disaster management. He considered several factors (natural, economical, political, awareness and preparedness) brought about the humanitarian tragedies of the early XXI century.

Dr. F. Wenzel (Director of the Geophysical Institute and Professor in Geophysics, Universität Karlsruhe, Germany) presented the talk on extreme events that disrupts civil life, social systems, regional stability, etc. Recent events that have been counted into this category are the 26. December 2004 tsunami in SE-Asia, the August 2005 hurricane Katrina in the Gulf of Mexico, but also the August 2002 1000 year floods in Germany, Austria and Czech Republic. Their occurrence raise fundamental questions such as: To what degree can we ‘understand’ them? Are these events predictable? What have phenomenological different events in common? Is our vulnerability to Extreme Events growing? What controls the vulnerability? Can Extreme Events be tamed or managed? Can we protect ourselves? To what extent, what is the prize? In terms of natural disasters extreme events are understood as extreme risks for society, which grows – independent of the extreme natural event – by increasing exposure of people and values and increasing vulnerability of society. It is difficult to prepare societies for extremely rare events. However, Wenzel considers that scientists need to improve earth system monitoring and the capacity for early warning. On this basis more realistic statements on forthcoming extreme events and their impact are conceivable and can be used as input for public safety policy.

Dr. H. Moderassi (Chair, IGOS-Geohazards Initiative) spoke on the need for information on the current state of the Earth System. The effects of a growing population and an increasing economic development has led to public and political awareness of the human and economic significance of the changes in the environment. The international scientific community is now collaborating at a global scale to better understand and monitor the current state of the Earth and its environment and to predict its evolution. An effective monitoring of our planet on a global scale requires a multi-disciplinary and multi-national co-operation.

Dr. V. Kossobokov (Research Professor, Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow, Russia) spoke on quantitative earthquake predictions. He mentioned that earthquake prediction is widely recognized as one of the global challenging problems facing the mankind in the 21st century. The recent scientific advances in understanding the hierarchical nature of the lithosphere and its dynamics did result the design of reproducible earthquake prediction technique. The real-time experimental testing aimed at prediction of the largest earthquakes worldwide from 1992 to the present proved statistically a possibility of practical earthquake forecasting although of an accuracy of 1-5 years and 5-10 times the anticipated source dimension. He discussed how to use earthquake prediction of limited accuracy to the benefit of population living in seismic regions, as well as feasible perspectives of developing a new generation of earthquake prediction technique of higher accuracy.

Dr. A. Smolka (Chair of the GeoRisk Department, Munich Reinsurance, Germany) spoke on risk management from an insurance perspective. The growing loss burden from natural disasters requires a cooperative effort from all parties involved in order to mitigate and reduce the losses from future events. An approach to managing the risk emanating from natural disasters is introduced. Under the heading of “risk partnership”, the roles played by the persons and entities affected, the financial sector and the state, are described from an international perspective based on actual business practice. The potential role of the insurance sector in risk mitigation is addressed specifically, and some examples of private/public partnerships are presented. The specific challenge posed by extreme natural events is discussed from an insurance perspective, and along the lines of the approach to more common hazards.

Dr. J. Paterson (Professor of Law, University of Aberdeen, UK) discussed the relation between disaster risk management and governance. As the UNDP notes in its 2004 report, Reducing Disaster Risk: A Challenge for Development, ‘today we live with the accumulated risk of past development pathways’. In other words, all else equal, the magnitude of an earthquake or of a hurricane is a given, but the impact of such an event varies according to decisions taken regarding settlement location, land use planning, building design, and so on. It is not surprising, then, that the same organization in drawing conclusions from its survey of disaster and development and in making recommendations states that ‘Most fundamental is the role of governance at all scales from the local to the global’. Where political power lies and how it is exercised can accordingly make a significant difference to the impact of a natural disaster. Science is a key component in the human response to natural hazards, but it can only fulfill its potential in this regard if it is married to appropriate governance structures. He examined some of the principal themes in the sometimes fraught relationship between science and politics and considers whether there are legal instruments that could assist in cementing and guiding that relationship in the field of disaster risk management.

The symposium was followed by a press-briefing where more than 30 representatives of European media agencies were present.

    • The WorkGroup together with the Commission on Geophysical Risk and Sustainability of the International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics (IUGG) organized the workshop “Risk Science, Society and Sustainable Development” which was held on 26-27 August 2004 in Stockholm during the 2004 EuroScience Open Forum. The workshop was sponsored by the NATO Science Program, IUGG, and EuroScience. More than 30 participants from 17 countries took part in the workshop. Talks and discussions addressed mainly the question of how science can help in reduction of risks and in sustainable development of our society. See the Stockholm Workshop programme.
    • The article “A Focus on Risk Science and Sustainable Development” by A. Ismail-Zadeh and T. Beer was published on 2 November 2004 in the weekly newspaper of the American Geophysical Union and reports on the workshop “Risk Science, Society and Sustainable Development”.
      Read “A Focus on Risk Science and Sustainable Development”:

    • The workshop provided an invaluable insight into the relationship between risk science, society and sustainable development in a world that becomes more turbulent since beginning of the century. The participants at the Workshop were conscious of the need to define a way forward in order to reinforce the social and vital link between the scientific community and the public so as to provide a general guide for scientists to deal with risk and sustainability
      See the Stockholm Workshop report:

    • General Report on the Workshop “Science for Reduction of Risk and Sustainable Development of Society, Budapest, 15-16 June 2002.

    • A book containing peer-reviewed papers and case studies derived from the Workshop presentations has been published.  See more info and table of contents: