warning people is good, but stopping the disaster is better. Here are 4 possible ways to do it

Climate change is causing a worldwide increase in extreme events. The latest State of the Climate report confirms that disaster risks are rising in Australia.

Repeated floods have ravaged our eastern seaboard. Other extreme events are also getting worse. Forest fires have burned increasing areas since 1987, peaking in 2019.

This is in Australia, one of the richest countries in the world. In developing countries such as flood-ravaged Pakistan, the situation is much worse. COP27 concluded with an agreement on “loss and damage” funding for these vulnerable countries.

Read more: COP27 ‘loss and damage’ fund for developing countries could be a game changer or another empty climate promise

However, the scale of climate-induced disasters is far greater than any such fund can cover. The United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction projects that the world will face 560 disasters a year by 2030. Reducing emissions is obviously a priority, but even in the best-case scenarios we face complex impacts on cities, infrastructure and services.

Number of disaster events from 1970 to 2020 and projected increase, 2021-2030.
Source: Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction 2022/UNDRR, CC BY-NC

Incremental approaches to disaster management cannot keep up. We have to plan for the worst forest fire, worst flood, worst drought.

This article offers four examples of potential solutions being developed to stop bushfires, storms and floods.

While ambitious, it’s the best way to prevent death and destruction. Only when this is not possible should we do our utmost to keep people safe and minimize harm.

Read more: State of the climate: what Australians need to know about major new report

Put out fires before they spread

In the Black Summer of 2019-20, prolonged drought, high temperatures and high winds created catastrophic forest fires that overwhelmed firefighting capabilities. Globally, wildfire danger days and bushfires are projected to increase by 50% by 2100. This requires a radical change in wildfire management.

The area burned each year by bushfires in Australia is increasing.
Canadell et al 2021/Nature Communications, CC BY
A prototype of the water glider designed to put out a small fire.
ANU, Author provided

In 2019-20 large areas were burned, mainly due to the inability to detect and extinguish fires that occurred in remote areas before they spread and got out of control. The Australian National University Bushfire Initiative is working on a new approach. He has an ambitious goal of detecting a fire starting in a remote bush within one minute and putting it out within five. We are developing GPS-guided water gliders to suppress small fires.

The high-tech solutions of the ANU-Optus Bushfire Research Center of Excellence will include:

  • networks of scout drones to quickly locate fires that have just appeared
  • automatic detection using artificial intelligence and cameras on the towers
  • ground wireless sensors to detect fires.
Artist Elena McNee’s impression of the ANU Bushfire Initiative.

Working to suppress hailstorms

Climate change is expected to increase the frequency and severity of hailstorms.

In Australia, just before a massive hailstorm, we are warned to shelter our cars. However, those warnings did not prevent damage to cars and property in January 2020, when 4-5cm hailstones caused $1.625 billion in insurance claims across South East Australia.

So can we stop the hailstorms? There are hail suppression strategies. They include cloud seeding, hail cannons, photovoltaics and nanomaterials.

These efforts began in 1896 with the invention by Austrian winegrower Albert Stiger of “hail cannons” – shock wave generators to disrupt the formation of hail. As recently as 2018, a factory in Mexico used hail cannons to protect cars.

Today, however, the most common intervention is cloud seeding with an aerosol of silver iodide particles. The idea is that these particles cause many smaller, harmless hailstones to form around additional ice cores. A 2016 review found that these interactions are still not well understood.

Because we haven’t figured out how to apply the technology with consistent results, it’s difficult to attract funding. Supporting the industry to expand would help advance the technology and boost investor confidence.

Some countries are already doing this. China is rapidly expanding its weather modification service to include hail suppression over an area more than one and a half times the size of India. It plans to quintuple the largest cloud seeding operation in the world.

Australian cloud seeding research focuses on increased rain and snowfall, but could be scaled up through collaboration with other countries.

Sponge cities and nature-based solutions to flood management

We can’t stop all floods completely, but can we reduce their intensity? Professor Kongjian Yu of Peking University has developed the sponge city concept that uses natural wetlands to absorb water before it can flow into city streets, reducing flooding.

In 2013, China launched a national sponge city initiative to transform urban greywater-based systems into more resilient natural water systems that retain and clean rainwater, making it available for reuse.

Could we turn flood-prone cities into sponges?

Nonetheless, the city of Zhengzhou suffered severe flooding and deaths last year, despite the presence of wetlands. Absorbing heavy rains in the city alone was not enough to avert disaster.

To resolve urban flooding, upstream reservoirs are faced with a variety of extreme flooding. Nature-based solutions contribute to a robust system. They can slow flows and give rivers room to flood safely:

  • reconnect rivers to floodplain wetlands

  • relocation or construction of houses and other infrastructure

  • land use change in floodplains

  • restore ancient river channels

  • enhance buffer strips along rivers.

In collaboration with local councils and communities, ANU researchers are developing an Australian evidence base and guidelines for nature-based solutions to flood risk. Government agencies, insurers and NGOs will work with us to develop financial incentives.

Read more: Beyond a Sandbag State: What Can We Learn from All the Flooding, Here and Overseas?

Create buildings that float

When we rebuild better after floods, we can put houses on stilts or use materials that aren’t easily damaged by floodwaters. However, there is another solution to higher-than-expected flood levels due to climate change: houseboats.

The Buoyant Foundation designs and promotes houseboats attached to flexible mooring poles, which rest on a concrete foundation. If the water rises, the house can float on top of it.

Can you imagine how different the impacts of the floods in Pakistan would have been if every family had their own houseboat?

Houseboats are a potential solution to higher than expected flood levels.

Read more: How our houseboats will help people in flood-prone countries

A time for transformational solutions

Traditional disaster solutions don’t work. We have to expect the worst and find new solutions.

There is a lot of work to be done before some of these solutions are ready for broad adoption. Large collaborative research missions are needed to provide large-scale solutions to avoid the impacts of intensifying extreme events.

There is a lot of inertia in current approaches to disasters. We must recognize the scale of the threat and develop transformative solutions that keep pace with climate change.

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