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Number 555 • October 21, 2010 | Past Issues













1) Bone Dry: Drought, Waterworks, and Pipe Dreams in the Time of Climate Change

All over the globe, countries have taken different views about where and why water should flow. But regardless of the hubris or high-mindedness of those views, scientists think most may soon face an entirely different outlook—one in which that flow could turn off tighter than a bathroom tap.

Scientists at National Center for Atmospheric Research published a study this week predicting that increasing temperatures caused by climate change could spur global droughts in the next 30 years unlike any before.

“We are facing the possibility of widespread drought in the coming decades, but this has yet to be fully recognized by both the public and the climate change research community,” author Aiguo Dai stated in a press release. “If the projections in this study come even close to being realized, the consequences for society worldwide will be enormous.”

The study used more than 20 climate models, a comprehensive index of drought conditions, and numerous other published studies to reach its conclusion, according to the release. Areas expected to be hit hard include the Southwestern United States, Latin America, Africa, Australia, and Southern Asia, including China. Although some areas, such as Northern Europe, Russia, and Canada will see wetter conditions, that won’t alleviate the widespread drought.

“The term 'global warming' does not do justice to the climatic changes the world will experience in coming decades,” Richard Seager of Columbia University’s Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory is quoted as saying in the press release. “Some of the worst disruptions we face will involve water, not just temperature.”

The question that spans continents is how can already overtaxed arid-region water distribution systems do anything to respond to this newest drought prophecy.

The U.S. Southwest is struggling with the 11th year of a drought that has drained Lake Mead—which holds water allocated by the 1922 interstate Colorado River Compact to Lower Basin states Nevada, Arizona, and California—to unprecedented low levels. As of late September, water managers were about eight feet from calling it a "shortage," a condition that for the first time would invoke a 2007 emergency management plan because the terms of 1922 Compact can't be met, according to a New York Times article.

“We’re approaching the magical line that would trigger shortage,” Bureau of Reclamation Lower Colorado Regional Director Terry Fulp told the Times. “We have the lowest 11-year average in the 100-year-plus recorded history of flows on the basin.”

Thanks to a plan that would divert more than the usual amount of water from Lake Powell in the Upper Basin, that final magic eight feet of Lake Mead's shoreline may not appear. This reprieve in determining which Lower Basin taps to turn off comes courtesy of a 60-foot gain Lake Powell has been able to make after a serious low six years ago. Regardless, if Lake Mead can't regain a reserve and continues past the shortage threshold, it enters the range where Las Vegas' pipes will have trouble reaching the water and where Hoover Dam could stop producing electricity, according to the Times article.

Australia, another soon-to-be-drier country, may be closer to comprehensively rebalancing water use in one of its major basins—although not without a high social price.

The Murray-Darling Basin Authority plan would cut the amount of water allocated for irrigation from the Murray, Darling, and Murrumbidgee rivers by about a third, according to a Reuters report. Although the water would go a long way towards replenishing the long overtaxed rivers, detractors say it will be a severe hit to Australia’s prime agricultural region.

“Cutting water use … will reduce the supply of food and fibre and increase the number of farmers leaving the land, resulting in the destruction of farm and rural communities,” Victorian Farmers' Federation President Andrew Broad told Reuters.

But supporters of the plan say those economic and social losses are miniscule compared to those from environmental failure if the plan doesn’t go through, especially under future drought conditions anticipated with climate change.

“We've known for years that the (irrigation) system has been over-allocated, now it's time to get the balance right," Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young is quoted as saying. “We need a sustainable river system—it's the only way to keep communities around the river sustainable as well.”

But if one lesson that might be generalized from the American and Australian experiences is that it's very hard to build enough water infrastructure to keep ahead of a growing population in arid lands, let alone under drought conditions in a changing climate, China is choosing to disregard that lesson.

China is building a lavish system to divert water across thousands of miles to supply the swelling capital of Beijing, according to the Los Angeles Times. The multi-channeled system, which is expected to cost $62 billion, has been likened to the Great Wall.

Some don’t think the massive infrastructure project is at all great, saying that it will decimate everything from ancient architecture to ecosystems to entire villages.

"They are robbing the water of the rest of China to supply Beijing—and it probably won't work anyway," Dai Qing, a water issues activist, told the Times.

Dai Qing said the project was doomed by lack of clean source water and the likelihood of pollution in transit. The government has conceded that water from a portion of the project might be too toxic even for agriculture, according to the article. An especially ambitious piece of canal work actually travels 180 feet beneath the Yellow River, which is too polluted to use for drinking.

No matter the local approach to water stewardship, awareness of our climate plight will be important at all levels. Indeed, Aiguo Dai points out that lower greenhouse gas emissions might well affect his drought projections.

In the absence of successful climate change mitigation efforts, however, the increased probability of drought and a burgeoning population present a sobering prospect for a future that leaves us all high and dry.

“We have a very finite resource and demand which increases and enlarges every day,” Colorado River Water Users Association President John Zebre told the New York Times. “The problem is always going to be there. Everything is driven by that problem.”

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2) Fire by Numbers: Toned-Down Wildfire Map Colors Policy Debate

If extreme fire risk fell upon a forest, but no one saw the color-coded map, is it any more likely to burn down? A map long-hidden from public view has some wondering.

For five years, San Marcos, California, has kept two maps showing resident’s risk of fire—one for city planners that displays a color-coded spectrum of danger ranging from low to extreme, and another less colorful display (and without the inflammatory labels) for the public.

News of the double map standard Saturday sparked debate about whether the city—which claims to have withheld the full map detail to save residents from higher insurance rates—did them a disservice instead.

“There is a clear conflict of interest here,” wrote UCLA economist Matthew Kahn in a Christian Science Monitor editorial. “An adaptation economist such as myself wants "new news" of risks to be discovered and disseminated. The City was clearly trying to protect the pocketbook of existing homeowners by not having them pay higher insurance rates. Given that property tax revenue is a fixed % of the total value of local land, the city may have worried that its total tax revenue would fall with the new news.”

That’s not the case, according to San Marcos City Manager Paul Malone. The city was acting altruistically and residents were aware of their fire risk status, he told the local North County News.

“Until you've spent time on the phone with desperate homeowners wondering what they'll do about insurance problems, you probably can't appreciate why we feel as strongly as we do,” Malone said. "We develop specific fire threat assessments on a parcel-by-parcel basis…The people that live in that area absolutely do know that they live in a wildfire threat zone.”

Still, Kahn points out without pausing, the missing insurance piece messes with the balance of things.

“Intuitively, if climate change raises the risk of fires in a specific area, then profit maximization and insurance industry competition will lead to insurance rates rising in those fire zones and this will lead fewer households to live there and those that live there will build their homes out of materials that are more likely to withstand fires (so they can be quoted a lower insurance rate).”

There’s some evidence from the San Marcos’ Coronado Hills neighborhood to bear Kahn’s theory out. 

Coronado Hills was one of two neighborhoods listed as an extreme fire danger area on the original map, which was compiled by fire consultants Anchorpoint Group using a number of fire-contributing factors such as type of vegetation and access to transportation and water. Coronado Hills was deemed especially vulnerable because, in addition to dense brush in the area, it only has one worn and rutted access road.

“They're in that 90th percentile,” Chris White, Anchorpoint Group CEO told the North County News. “Simply being in a high-fire zone wouldn't be enough. There would have to be poor access, none of the safety zones, and construction types that are less than ideal. It may not have water to the level that's needed.”

Despite those dangers and a 2007 fire that grazed the neighborhood before being controlled, residents still decided against building a secondary access road into the community. The road, which would have cost about $145 per month per parcel, might have been more palatable if it were sure to bring lower insurance rates.

Ironically, the entire brouhaha is likely moot—the original study is outdated and there’s no indication the insurance industry would have used it to structure rates anyway, according to the North County News article. Yet it’s a slippery slope when municipalities begin sequestering information for the public “good.” If nothing else, according to White, the map acts as a visual for future fretting.

“What the map should tell people is the gradient of concern they should have,” he said. “And frankly, if there's anything high and above, I would be very worried, given the fire history of that area.”

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3) Full Steam Ahead? Climate Report Suggests Making Adaptation Mainstream

While Congress has stalled in enacting a reduction to new greenhouse gas emissions, the administration appears to be looking at ways to address global warming by adapting existing executive powers.

The White House Council on Environmental Quality last week issued a report conceding that the government’s best approach for dealing with climate change would be adaptation—even if prompt efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions were to materialize.

The report, Progress Report of the Interagency Climate Change Adaptation Task Force: Recommended Actions in Support of a National Climate Change Adaptation Strategy, points to the need for federal agencies to set a good example for others attempting to cope with questions of climate.

“The Federal Government has an important and unique role in climate adaptation, but it is only one part of a broader effort that must include multiple levels of government and private and non-governmental partners throughout the country,” the report stated. “In particular, Federal leadership, guidance, information, and support are vital to planning for and implementing adaptive actions.”

For all its forward thinking, though, the report’s recommendations in some ways show how far behind the curve the federal government is in dealing with this issue. The first priority, for example is to “encourage and mainstream” adaptation planning across the federal system.

“Climate change will challenge the mission, operations, and programs of nearly every Federal agency,” the report states. “Ensuring that the Federal Government has the capacity to execute its missions and maintain important services in the face of climate change is essential.”

That agencies need to be told to “mainstream” climate change into their planning nearly ten years after a scientific consensus was reached demonstrates the federal government is late to the party—and far from ready to dance.

While there are partners aplenty, the United States has refused to bust a move when it comes instituting comprehensive and meaningful climate action. A faux pas that has drawn the derision of developing countries and has lent a pessimistic outlook to the upcoming December Cancún climate summit. There appears to be little hope of meeting even the modest global mitigation goals agreed upon at the Copenhagen meeting in December 2009, according to a recent New York Times article.

Perhaps we'll do better at home if we’re able to get a handle on how much—or if—we’re improving. The report calls for “better integration of science into decision making; taking a collaborative approach to address the complex jurisdictional issues in dealing with states, tribes and other entities; enhancing efforts to lead international adaptation; and [improving] coordination of science, services, and assessments to better support stakeholders.”

The problem is that there are no standards to evaluate federal efforts. While the report does propose establishing “performance metrics for evaluating federal adaptation efforts,” it doesn’t offer concrete guidelines or examples of what these might be.

Even though first six months of 2010 were the hottest on record, according to data compiled by from the satellite record by the University of Alabama-Huntsville, mitigation still can't catch the beat. The United States and the European Union have set emissions goals only a few percentage points below 1990 levels, and only two industrialized countries—Japan and Norway—say they’ll dramatically reduce emissions.

A study last month in Environmental Research Letters found that even if the industrialized nations agree to cut emissions by 50 percent of 1990 levels by 2050, there’s only a 50 percent chance of keeping temperature increases below the critical two degrees C mark—leaving adaptation performing alone for a tough crowd.

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4) Call Outs: Calls for Papers, Abstracts, Proposals, and More

Call for Abstracts
Inequalities and Disaster
Midwest Sociological Society
Deadline: October 31, 2010
The Midwest Sociological Society is accepting abstracts for presentation in the Inequalities and Disaster session of its annual meeting. The meeting will be held March 24-27, 2011, in St. Louis, Missouri. MMS members may submit abstracts of 250 words or less that consider natural or technological threats and the impact of disasters pertaining to inequality through an online portal. Information on membership and submission guidelines are available at the meeting Web site.


Call for Abstracts
Greenhouse 2011: The Science of Climate Change
Australian Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation
Deadline: November 19, 2010
The Greenhouse 2011 program committee is accepting abstracts for presentation in Queensland, Australia, April 4-8, 2011. Abstracts related to the science of climate change, including impacts and adaptation, extreme events and community resilience, and communicating climate change, can be submitted online. Preference is given to those already registered to attend the event.

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5) Some New Web Resources

[Below are some new or updated Internet resources we have discovered. For an extensive list of useful Web sites dealing with hazards, see]

Post-disaster Redevelopment Planning: A Guide for Florida Communities
Not every community faces the same disaster planning challenges as Florida coastal communities, and unlike those communities, few are required to have a redevelopment plan. Even so, any city looking to reduce its vulnerability to disaster and increase mitigation efforts will find this guide useful. With chapters devoted to initial planning, what to include in a plan, and lessons from Florida’s six pilot programs, much of the heavy lifting is already done.


Strengthening Climate Resilience
Strengthening Climate Resilience is a community of researchers, policy workers, and others incorporating disaster risk management into climate adaptation techniques. In doing so, members hope to create better ways to plan for and respond to disaster. Visitors can read up on the group's Climate Smart Disaster Risk Management approach, see the approach in action in Asia and Africa, and tap into a wealth of resources to help create new integrations.


An oldie but goodie, MapAction has been creating situation maps of humanitarian crises since 2004. These constantly shifting maps might detail damage, give information on population, give updates on health and sanitation, or a provide a number of other details useful to international responders. MapAction offers a free catalogue for crisis relief organizations and also provides crisis mapping training.


NOAA’s Historical Hurricane Tracks
You no longer have to be a weather scientist to manipulate hurricane data like a pro, thanks to this new Web site from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. NOAA has put 150 years of hurricane data at the fingertips of the average Joe in the form of customizable maps, population data, and other nifty tools. And once the perfect storm is tracked, it can be linked to the Web or forwarded to friends.


Normally, suggesting kids have fun with fire isn’t the best idea, but FireFacts.Org is a great way to make kids fire aware while they have a blast. The site is a treasure trove of interactive games, downloadable activity sheets, and resources aimed at kids, parents, and educators. In between the coloring contests and club games, you might be surprised at what you—and the kids—will learn.

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6) Conferences, Training, and Events

[Below are some recent announcements received by the Natural Hazards Center. For a comprehensive list of upcoming hazards-related meetings, visit our Web site at]

November 3-4, 2010
CPM 2010 East
Contingency Planning and Management
New York, New York
Cost and Registration: $745 before November 2, open until filled
This conference will discuss barriers to risk management, business continuity and information security, emergency management, and supply chain risk. Session topics include hidden practices in risk management, integrating the many facets of incident management, and human behavior during disasters.


November 12-13, 2010
Hazard Mitigation and Climate Adaptation
American Planning Association
Chicago, Illinois
Cost and Registration: $995, open until filled
This workshop will provide training on planning and implementing hazard mitigation and climate adaptation policies and programs. Topics include principles for mitigation and adaptation, hazard-specific planning and implementation, and case studies of best practices.


November 15-16, 2010
Climate Change and Impact Assessment
International Association for Impact Assessment
Washington, D.C.
Cost and Registration: $425, open until filled
This symposium will explore the impacts on infrastructure caused by climate-induced water shortages and extreme weather events. Project designs and operational management examples will be provided. Session topics include mitigation and adaptation, assessing risk and vulnerability, and insuring against climate change.


November 15-18, 2010
Sixth International Conference on Forest Fire Research
University of Coimbra
Coimbra, Portugal
Cost and Registration: $824, open until filled
This conference will discuss advances in forest fire research, technical developments, and the results of pilot programs and experiments. Conference topics include fire prevention, behavior, and safety; ecological, meteorological, climatic, and socioeconomic factors in fire; and the wildland-urban interface.


November 23-25, 2010
23rd Annual Emergency Preparedness Conference
Pacific Northwest Preparedness Society
Vancouver, British Columbia
Cost and Registration: $778, open until filled
This conference will address the need for new emergency preparedness strategies, promote awareness, and highlight new technology. Session topics include experiences from the Haiti and Chile earthquakes, animals in emergencies, elder preparedness, community rapid damage assessment planning, and the role of social media and crisis communications in preparedness.


November 30 to December 1, 2010
European LiDAR Mapping Forum 2010
International LiDAR Mapping Forum
The Hauge, Netherlands
Cost and Registration: $689, open until filled
This conference will examine the use of LiDAR in supporting urban modeling, coastal zone mapping, asset management, and GIS applications. Conference topics include advances in LiDAR technology, European LiDAR mobile mapping projects, and LiDAR issues in politics, government, and the commercial sector.

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7) Jobs, Jobs, Jobs

[The following job postings provided an overview of some selected openings in hazards-related fields. For more information on a particular job, please follow the links provided.]

Risk Communication Specialist
Fairfax, Virginia
Salary: Not posted
Closing Date: Open until filled
This position researches and documents risk communication trends and best practices, identifies stakeholder risk communication needs, and analyzes hazards, risk, mitigation, and disaster response projects. A master’s degree in emergency management or a related field, eight years in emergency management or risk communication, and experience developing risk communication plans and strategies are required.


Damage Inspection Program Specialist
Federal Emergency Management Agency
Winchester, Virginia
Salary: $51,630 to $81,204
Closing Date: October 25, 2010
This position inspects residential damage, monitors contractors, evaluates the impact of new housing inspection policies, and analyzes complex program issues. One year of experience at GS-8 or above is required.


Disaster Risk Management Expert
International Strategy for Disaster Reduction
Arusha, Tanzania
Salary: Not posted
Closing Date: October 28, 2010
This position incorporates disaster risk reduction in ongoing programs, provides support to disaster risk management, develops national disaster risk reduction assessments, practices, and capacity building, and participates in and reports on field missions. A master’s degree in disaster risk management, geography, or a related field and five years experience in disaster risk reduction are required.


Emergency Planner
New Jersey
Salary: Not posted
Closing Date: Open until filled
This position assists clients in developing emergency plans and procedures and ensures those plans meet regulatory frameworks. A bachelor’s degree in emergency or disaster management or a related field, six years in emergency response operations, primary authorship of an approved emergency plan, and ability to travel are required.


Emergency Management Training and Exercise Specialist
ICF International
Washington, D.C.
Salary: Not posted
Closing Date: Open until filled
This position designs and evaluates emergency management exercises, participates in exercise planning conferences and events, and delivers exercise reports and findings. A bachelor’s degreee in emergency management or a related field and one year of experience with emergency exercises are required.


Floodplain Program Planner III
City of Salem
Salem, Oregon
Salary: $59,460 to $73,044
Closing Date: October 29, 2010
This position administers floodplain management projects; prepares policy initiatives; researches, analyzes, and presents complex data; conducts public meetings; and produces informational materials. A bachelor’s degree in a related field, four years of field experience, and knowledge of land use planning, research methodology, and statistical techniques are required.

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Contributions of jobs, conferences, and other content to this newsletter can be sent to Please include “for Disaster Research” in the subject line.

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