Bid to understand regional impact of natural disasters

Professor Kerry Sieh is the director of the Earth Observatory of Singapore (EOS), an earth sciences research body at the Nanyang Technological University (NTU).
Professor Kerry Sieh is the director of the Earth Observatory of Singapore (EOS), an earth sciences research body at the Nanyang Technological University (NTU). PHOTO: ST FILE

The Earth Observatory of Singapore (EOS), an institution hosted by Nanyang Technological University (NTU), has plans to set up a research group to understand the potential impact of natural disasters on regional economies.

International scientists speaking to The Straits Times at a conference in Mandarin Orchard Hotel on Wednesday said pre-emptive work like this not only will make Singapore a survivor of future global challenges, but also a model for the rest of the world.

The three-day conference on the risks of large-scale disruptions to society was organised by NTU from Monday.

The importance of the meeting was underscored by an earthquake that struck Sumatra on Wednesday, killing more than 100 people.

EOS director and earthquake expert Kerry Sieh said that compared to countries like the United States, there is scant knowledge of so-called geohazards in South-east Asia, and many countries in the region are relatively unprepared for them.

Although EOS has already made headway in studying the threats of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions in the region, more needs to be done.

ASSESSING THE PROBABILITY

If this project were to get going, we'll be able to say to any ministry or industry... that you have an 'xx' per cent probability of this level of loss , given your current trade in this industry.

PROFESSOR KERRY SIEH, director of the Earth Observatory of Singapore and an earthquake expert

Professor Sieh said Singapore has extensive trade interests in the region, yet does not really know how vulnerable those interests are to such geohazards.

The planned research group would, over the next 10 years, address these problems using sophisticated scientific tools like remote sensing and computer modelling.

Prof Sieh said: "If this project were to get going, we'll be able to say to any ministry or industry... that you have an 'xx' per cent probability of this level of loss, given your current trade in this industry."

He hopes to discuss with government agencies next year about potential applications.

The work would also be of interest to insurance companies, he said.

Assistant Professor David Lallemant from NTU's Asian School of the Environment, who is collaborating with EOS, hopes to build models that simulate the interaction of people with infrastructure in disaster scenarios.

The challenge is to build robust models that make sense of the uncertainties of real-world situations and help the authorities make the best possible decisions.

This will be beneficial not only to affected countries but also to Singapore, said Dr Lallemant.

Professor Tim Benton, an expert in global environment issues at the University of Leeds in Britain, explained that this is because everything is interconnected.

He gave the example of the Gulf Stream, a major Atlantic Ocean current, that may weaken or stop in the next few decades due to climate change.

This could in turn cause an equatorial weather system called the Intertropical Convergence Zone to move southwards, putting Singapore in the typhoon zone and aggravating the threat of sea-level rise.

And these things can happen without warning.

"We are increasingly putting multiple stresses on nonlinear systems that interact with each other, and the expectation is that at some point something's going to break," said Prof Benton.

"We don't know exactly when, but when it breaks it's likely to have a whole range of direct and indirect consequences," he added.

However, Singapore has not been ignorant of these dangers.

Professor Daniel Brooks, a visiting senior fellow at the Hungarian Institute for Advanced Study, said Singapore is special because it anticipates what might happen and has plans in place to deal with it.

Said Prof Brooks: "Singapore is probably ahead of any other major city in the world...

"You have set yourselves up to be exactly the kind of social system that is likely to be able to survive best in a world that is disrupted."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 09, 2016, with the headline 'Bid to understand regional impact of natural disasters'. Print Edition | Subscribe