Politics and predicting the Pakistan floods

by Judith Curry

My Georgia Tech colleagues Peter Webster, Violeta Toma and Hyemi Kim have a new paper out entitled “Were the Pakistan floods predictable?”  The topic of the 2010 Pakistan floods were discussed on previous threads here and here.

The punchline of this paper is:

The European Centre for Medium Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF) 15-day Ensemble Prediction System (EPS) is used to assess whether the rainfall over the flood affected region was predictable. A multi-year analysis shows that Pakistan rainfall is highly predictable out to 6-8 days including rainfall in the summer of 2010. We conclude that if these extended quantitative precipitation forecasts had been available in Pakistan, the high risk of flooding could have been foreseen. If these rainfall forecasts had been coupled to a hydrological model then the high risk of extensive and  prolonged flooding could have anticipated and actions taken to mitigate their impact.

Reactions to the paper

Here is some of the media reactions:

Nice paper.  Important result.  So why should there be any controversy?  Two sources of controversy have emerged:

  • ECMWF didn’t pass on the forecasts to Pakistan, sort of like the UK Met Office keeping the winter seasonal forecasts secret
  • Pakistan got it right, and Webster et al.’s recommendation was inappropriate.

Both of these issues are addressed below.

Making and communicating forecasts

In response to any criticism of ECMWF and also to misconceptions encountered in the WUWT comments, I would like to clear up misconceptions about actually making a forecast of an extreme weather event, communicating it, and how people make decisions (or don’t) in response to a forecast.

First, making weather forecasts is a relatively expensive undertaking.  The national meteorological centers that develop the weather prediction models, assimilate all the global weather and satellite observations and make the simulations pretty much all operate within limited national budgets: the computers aren’t big enough, and there is invariably insufficient funds to hire all the personnel that is needed.  In the U.S. and to a lesser extent Europe, there is a vibrant private sector that utilizes the weather model simulations to make forecasts for specific applications (media, energy companies, farmers, etc.)  In South Asia, the individual countries have meteorological agencies, which make weather forecasts with 2-3 day lead times.

ECMWF is unique since it is a multinational effort with tremendous computing capacity and funds to support research into weather forecasting. ECMWF is currently the best forecast model available.  ECMWF forecasts are made available to government agencies within the EU and other partner countries.  ECMWF forecasts are sold to the private sector, whereas NOAA’s forecasts are made publicly available.  Relatively few people outside of the EU use the ECMWF forecasts because they are expensive to purchase ($168K Euros/year for the full suite of forecast products.)  Our company, CFAN, purchases the ECMWF forecast products (which costs a big chunk of our annual income), although an agreement was made with ECMWF to use the data for free to support the Bangladesh flood forecasting project.  Note:  ECMWF just published this statement on its website in response to this controversy.

So the ECMWF forecast products perform very well in the South Asian monsoon region. For obvious reasons, ECMWF focuses on issues of relevance to European weather.  Apparently someone at ECMWF did spot very heavy rainfall for Pakistan about 5 days before the initial event.  However, the model simulations are only the first element of a forecast.  Model biases need to be adjusted for.  There needs to be some sense of the predictability of a certain event, e.g. whether forecasts are reliable on a certain time horizon.  And there needs to be familiarity with the regional meteorology.  Further, interpretation of the ensemble of simulations needs to be made to produce an actual forecast (51 simulations are made with perturbed initial conditions for each forecast period).  All of this is described in the Webster et al. paper.

ECMWF did not inform anyone in Pakistan since they have no connections in Pakistan.  Apart from the additional effort and analysis required to make an actual forecast from the model simulations, would anyone in Pakistan have even listened if attempts had been made to communicate this information?  This is a nontrivial issue.

Recall Cyclone Nargis in 2009 which caused 138,000 deaths in Myanmar. Webster’s commentary in Nature on Nargis states that Myanmar officials did not publicize or heed the warning 2 days in advance that they received from the Indian Meteorological Department, but apparently they not want the storm to interfere with a planned referndum on that date.  In the aftermath of Nargis, Myanmar officials were highly resistant to aid from the west.  So in order to communicate a forecast such as Nargis or the Pakistan flood, the country has to want the forecast,  trust needs to be developed between the forecasters and the government officials of the country, and some mechanism needs to be in place to actually act on the forecast.  Non trivial issues.

What difference could a warning of one week have made to the Pakistanis? Better decisions could have been made in terms of operating the dams and barrages.   Crops already harvested could have been transported.  Livestock, seed stock, and essential household items could have been evacuated in advance, not to mention people.

Webster’s efforts in implementing an operational flood forecasting scheme for Bangladesh have shown how this can work.  Webster et al. recently published a paper in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society that describes a decade long effort to set up an operational flood forecast system for Bangladesh, and how it is being used to reduce losses.  This paper is a very good read.  A real success story, until you get to the end.  The meager amount of funding for this was stopped after a transfer of technology to the Bangladeshis.  Within a year, the people who were trained were gone and the computers were damaged, and they couldn’t make the forecasts.  We have continued to provide the forecasts to Bangladesh with funding that comes out of our own pockets; however that is not a sustainable situation.

Politics and revisionism

Both in the case of Nargis and the Pakistan floods, efforts were made by the in country meteorological agencies to claim that they made the correct forecast days in advance.

There is an article “What Pakistan did right” in Foreign Policy that claims:

On July 24, the PMD [Pakistan Meteorological Department] issued a flood warning to the provincial government of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KPK). Despite these increasingly severe warnings, KPK’s citizenry did not believe them. Like victims of Hurricane Katrina and other brewing natural disasters, the residents in KPK in the waters’ path did not leave their homes for safety. The inhabitants of KPK had no experience in their lifetimes that led them to believe that a flood on such a scale was possible. This is the most likely reason why the vast majority of the flood’s 1,985 victims perished in the earliest days of the flood in KPK.

On our original Pakistan post, we stated:

On June 21, the Pakistan Meteorological Department’s monsoon forecast cautioned that urban and flash flooding could occur from July to September in the north parts of the country.  The initial flooding in the north was not predicted, although the subsequent downstream flooding was forecast a day or two in advance by the river routing model.

I obtained this information from the Pakistan Meteorological Department’s web page.  While most of the original forecasts are not longer there, their forecast made on Jul 27 (one day before the floods) says:

Dated:-  27th July, 2010  Time:-   10 :15  hours (PST)



River Kabul at Nowshera is in Medium flood. River Indus at Kalabagh, Chashma, Taunsa, Guddu and River Chenab at Marala and Khanki are in Low flood.


(a)    Yesterday’s well marked Monsoon low over north Madhya Pradesh has moved   westwards and now lies over north Gujarat (India) as Low.

(b)    Seasonal low lies over Balochistan and adjoining areas.

(c)     Strong Monsoon current from Bay of Bengal is penetrating sub-mountain areas of Punjab and Kashmir upto 5000 feet.


Wide Spread thunderstorm/rain with isolated heavy falls is expected over Punjab, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, eastern parts of Balochistan, Upper Sindh and Kashmir,. Scattered thunderstorm/ rain is also expected over Gilgit-Baltistan, Lower Sindh along with Sindh Makran coast.


Balakot= 71, Sialkot(Airport=64, Cantt.=15 ),Gujranwala (Cantt.)=47, Karachi(Faisal=39, Airport=28, Masroor=23), Muzaffarabad=35, Mithi & Kohat=32(each), Domel=31, Shinkiari=28, Rashidabad=27, Dir=25, Tarbela=19, Nawabshah=17, Palandri & Garhidopatta=15(each), Talhatta=14,  Thatta=13, Besham & Risalpur=09(each), Tanda Dam=08,  Islamabad(Shamsabad=07,    Saidpur & Zeropoint=03 each, Airport =Trace),Phulra, Bahawalnagar & Lower Dir=06(each), Hyderabad & Murree=05(each), Sara-i-Alamgir, Chhor, Kamra, Kotli, Saidusharif & Attock=04(each), Daggar, Chakdara & Badin = 03(each), Dratian, Rawalakot, Hattian Bala, Jassar, Kotnaina, Nauseri & Parachinar=02(each), Cherat, Oghi, Kakul Nowshera, Palku, Zafarwal, Pattan & Joharabad=01(each), Padidan, Rahim Yar Khan & Peshawar(City & Airport)= Trace(each), Lahore (Jail Road= Trace).

v. WEATHER OUTLOOK FOR  28th to 30th July-2010:

According to latest Meteorological analysis Wide Spread thunderstorm/ rain with heavy falls at isolated places is expected over most parts of the country.

In terms of “what Pakistan did right,”  this Washington Post article of Aug 2 is representative of the assessment at the time, when the Pakistani government was blamed for sluggish and disorganized response to the floods. See also my post on Pakistan flood follow up, which provides source material on the weaknesses in the Pakistani’s capability for dealing with natural disasters.  The author of the Foreign Policy article seems only to have interviewed Pakistani government officials, rather than actually look at what was documented on Pakistani web pages and in news articles during that period, not to mention other reports such as Kronstedt et al. (2010).

The example of revisionism by Myanmar in response to Cyclone Nargis is also instructive.   The only public forecast that was made was:

Specifically, the day before landfall4, the newspaper noted that “…the severe tropical cyclone NARGIS … is forecast to cross the coast during the next 36 hours … Under the influence of this storm, rain or thundershowers will be widespread …. [regions given] … frequent squalls with rough seas will be experienced off and along the Myanmar coast. Surface wind speed in squalls may reach [50] mph …”.

This statement was made in spite of the fact that the World Meteorological Organization provided them with forecasts:

The World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) supplied the Department of Meteorology and Hydrology (DMH) of Myanmar with information about cyclone Nargis as early as April 27. The WMO reported that “The New Delhi Office of the India Meteorological Department started to issue RSMC advisories at 00 UTC every 3 hours on 27 April, which continued until 06 UTC on 3 May. The last advisory said “the status of Nargis is a Severe Cyclonic Storm (50 knots) about 90 km south-west of Yangon”. The first forecast of landfall was issued at 06UTC on 1 May (36 hours in advance of landfall), which said that “Nargis will cross the Myanmar coast between 16 to 18 degrees north by the night of 2 May”. At 21 UTC of 1 May, it was forecast that “the maximum wind speed at landfall is expected to be 90 knots”. At 09 UTC on 2 May, the forecast was that “Nargis will cross near 16 degree North by 12 UTC with 90 knots wind speed”.

The revisionist statement appears in this report.

Analyzing various sources and based on a synoptic analysis DMH has produced their own cyclone prediction and issued forecasts and warnings to various layers in Myanmar.

From the discussion and reviewing of the documents from DMH, it was found that the DMH has actually detected the cyclone from a very early stage of its formation and made formal  notice of it on 25th.  The low pressure has been identified and the formation on low pressure Low Pressure Formation over South West Bay of Myanmar was well documented on 25 May.

We have a copy of a ppt presentation by the DMH showing their forecast products (can’t find it online; available upon request).  It is a hand drawn weather map and isallobaric analysis, with much rubbing out apparent.  Impossible to know whether the rubbing out indicates after the fact revisionism.  But there is no value added here beyond the forecast provided by the WMO and Indian Meteorological Department.   And this forecast was not made public to the citizens of Myanmar as per perusal of their newspapers, until 1800 h on May 2, the day of landfall (apparently after the time of landfall; see page 9 of the report).

I can understand a government’s motives for wanting to look competent to its people and to other countries.  But this recent revisionism regarding both the Pakistan floods and Cyclone Nargis is not helping these countries improve their situation with regards to reducing vulnerability to these weather disasters.

Can we improve this situation?

Every time one of these disasters happens in the developing world, the wealthier countries contribute an enormous amount of aid, and emergency assistance from national militaries.  This aid is provided for humanitarian reasons, and also in an attempt to diminish the security threat acceleration associated with the event.  This aid deflects resources that could be used elsewhere.

Here is one step in the right direction:

The Regional Integrated Multi-Hazard Early Warning System for Asia and Africa (RIMES) is an international and intergovernmental institution, owned and managed by its Member States, for the generation and application of early warning information. RIMES evolved from the efforts of 26 countries in Africa and Asia, in the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, to establish a regional early warning system, within a multi-hazard framework, which generates and communicates early warning information, and builds capacity to prepare for and respond to trans-boundary hazards. RIMES was established on 30 April 2009, and registered with the United Nations, under article 102 of the UN Charter, on 1 July 2009.

RIMES objective is building capacity and providing actionable warning information towards forearmed, forewarned, and resilient communities.

We are hopeful that RIMES emphasis on early warning can help ameliorate the vulnerability to weather disasters of these large populations in Asia and Africa.

Other efforts, such as those by the Asian Disaster Preparedness Center (ADPC), are working on adaptation measures, e.g. see this forthcoming Workshop in Lao on “People Centered Approach in Flood and Land Management in the Mekong Basin.”

In closing, we envision a flat world approach, whereby the best European weather models are used by top experts in monsoon meteorology to produce forecasts.  Working with national meteorological organizations and local NGOs, methods of minimizing loss of life and property can be developed.  Sounds simple and relatively inexpensive?  Inexpensive, yes (particularly relative the billion dollar losses); simple, no. Not simple, in spite of the fact that it would seem to clearly benefit the developing countries as well as the wealthier countries

77 responses to “Politics and predicting the Pakistan floods

  1. Stephen Singer

    I read that yesterday at WUWT. As I recall this look at whether the ECMWF could have forecast the rains and floods was done after the fact to see if it could have been done. If Pakistan would have had a working agreement with ECMWF they could have been forewarned. So, both of those supposed issues are mute at this time.

    • Not among journalists. ECMWF has been receiving heat, which is why they issued that statement. Peter Webster has been answering media queries about both of these issues pretty much nonstop.

    • Well, we hope that we can use the ECMWF forecasts in partnership with Pakistan. But they have to be willing. And so does some donor :-(

      • Carrick Talmadge

        ECMWF has been paying for itself by user fees. It is generally quite an expensive undertaking to do what they do, and they are underfunded by the EU to run these sort of extensive “what if” scenarios for non-member states.

        Perhaps it’s time for the UN (and/or other bodies) to step in and establish a weather warning system for third world countries. It won’t cure all evils, much of Pakistan’s problems were with its inability to respond to the floods after they had occurred.

        A nice book and food for thought is this semi-autobiographic narrative by Mike Smith Warnings: The True Story of How Science Tamed the Weather.

        It’s worth thinking about warning systems and how many lives are saved in the US by them. And how much misery in third-world countries could be avoided were similar warning systems available (and agencies capable of dealing with this information.)

      • Carrick Talmadge

        Sorry part of that comment got eaten: I was recommending Mike Smith’s book on the development of a warning system in the US as food for thought for a system for developing nations.

      • agreed this is a very good book. i have started composing a thread on the topic of warnings, using smith’s post as a jumping off point, who knows when i’ll get it finished.

  2. It seems that not only do the governments have to receive the forecasts, it must be made public that they have received them, at the time they are transmitted (not after said gov’ts decide to acknowledge them). I.e., force their hands. Seems drastic, but politicos respond only to public facts.

  3. Thanks, Professor Curry.

    I agree. Weather forecasts are an important science and should be used worldwide.

    Long-range climate forecasts that ignore the Earth’s heat source are worse than useless.

    With kind regards,
    Oliver K. Manuel

  4. Judith and Peter:
    Has the Pakistani Government (and other South Asia countries) been in contact to discuss the possibilities of using your capabilities? To what extent did the Indian Met Office arrive at similar predictions?

  5. Here is a question that Peter Webster received today from a Pakistani reporter:

    “Do you think that London-based ECMWF is responsible of human deaths in Pakistan as they did not pass the information on to Pakistan authorities just for the reason that Pakistan was not a member?”

    • Setting up a free International weather service for developing countries is a great idea. Oddly, don’t we already have several; NoAA, AcuWeather, etc.?

      “ECMWF did not inform anyone in Pakistan since they have no connections in Pakistan.” However, the US state department does and its reasonable to conclude that if the information had been available it would have been or was communicated.

      Make the information available to the UN as a clearing house for information. If they don’t communicate it or change it, we may as well give up.

    • The political situation there makes this an ultra-wicked problem. Lots of axes to grind and for some players I’d imagine the incident is considered more fortuitous than disastrous.

      • Maybe you’re right. You’d think they would catch a clue from the Incas and Chinese terrace farming approach.

        Take the tops off several of the mountains and terrace them for farming. Use the stone as material for embankments, dams, and dwellings. Build water catchments on the mountain tops for gravity fed irrigation in the dry season, etc.

        Food and potable water are the bigger issues. Why not address them at the same time.

        Absolutely beautiful landscape, its a real shame its not being developed rationally.

    • from the article
      But experts have told SciDev.Net that much of this information has not been put to good use.

      “Much of it is being rendered useless in the absence of a sound and integrated flood management strategy and information dissemination,” said Ahmad Kamal, a member of the country’s National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA).

      Ahmad is right, “integrated flood management strategy”. The reason people are living in flood plains is or so close to the rivers is due to the lack of potable water?

      If you look a photos of the effected areas, the rivers have never been dredged, embanks don’t exist or are poorly maintained, berms to protect low lying farm land don’t exist, etc. They have all the stone they need from the surrounding mountains to fix this and labor available in the effected areas.

      If they’d stop building bombs and devote the resources to development, there wouldn’t be an issue in the worst weather situation.

  6. Dr. Curry,
    Your obvious chagrin at this example of Government revisionism is understandable although most tribal organizations and political types prefer death than to loose “face.” (currently witness Mubarik in Egypt) And so it is no surprise to most, that the primary difficulty in a diplomatic situation, is to couch terms and ideas so that those to whom one is speaking, does not loose face. The communication of weather forecasts or global climate change or whatever achieves more goals by being diplomatic than speaking directly. That said, how does a scientist communicate information? by limiting the complexity of the language; speaking to people as equals (which they are); listening and restating what the other has said; summarizing that that which is essential; acknowledging an impasse as a situation that needs further information, thought, and consultation. Calls to authority, consensus, diminishing the other’s status, knowledge, education, ancestry, etc., etc. are fruitless endeavours to the goals one wants to achieve. Dr. Webster’s retrospective analysis publication engenders finger pointing whether or not intended. The experience in Bangladeshis, where trained local people leave and sophistocated equipment is damaged, illustraates the importance of building infrastructure along with technology; in a mini sense, nation building, which is really really expensive and a long term commitment.

    • The blame game is pointless, and this is certainly not what Webster is doing (he has made this very clear in his interviews). He is trying to point a way forward, along the model implemented in Bangladesh. He is getting pushback from people who are saying the Pakistanis did it right.

  7. Judith

    Did I understand this correctly? A forecast wasn’t available but the information that would have made a forecast possible was. In other words the data wasn’t crunched because a forecasting agreement with Pakistan wasn’t in force. If that’s true, then criticism of the ECMWF is a little harsh.

    As a seperate point, it seems to me that some of the ‘international aid’ we direct at countries like Pakistan might be usefully spent in setting up a formal forecasting arrangement. It’s down to them whether they then take action on any warnings.

    • ECMWF global model crunches the numbers. nobody at ECMWF is paying attention to what these numbers are over Pakistan (they focus on Europe), although somebody did spot the potential for alot of precipitation in Pakistan about 5 days in advance. Criticism of ECMWF is out of line. Why should a European group be criticized for having a really good weather prediction model?

      • On the September thread, Peter said 5-10 days, I think.

        Anyway, I guess how you see it depends on your political beliefs, such as whether you see economics and development as an instrument to support social equality, to what extent you think economic decisions should lead social decisions, what counts as treating people with respect, assumptions about human reason and the expression of individualism in state relations, how one sees classic Poor Law ideas about who is deserving and who is not deserving, and just generally, one’s view of social problems.

        I wouldn’t want to see anyone exaggerate the duty of ECMWF in the situation, but I also wouldn’t want to see anyone exaggerate the right of ECMWF to refrain from basic communication or warning of possible concern for others (within or without the membership) or make assumptions about how government or the public may or may not have responded to information.

        I don’t find the journalist’s question, above, completely baseless, surprising or unintelligible. It is of course emotionally loaded and political – just like the actual situation. Journalists often mirror public questions and anxieties.

        In addition to current crises, the effects of British colonialism in Pakistan is not in the distant past. It is understandable if this, too, is playing into background issues regarding ordinary people’s questions about what could or could not have been done, what was or was not communicated or should have been communicated, by ‘London-based ECMWF’.

        Ditto perhaps for the background issue of the importance of U.S.-Pakistan partnerships in the past, and perceptions (real or potential) about the American government’s access to information that might have served to warn Pakistan.

        Judith, I can appreciate why you might feel a European group is just ‘being criticized for having a really good weather prediction model’, but perhaps there is a serious loss of understanding in the idea that there is an ahistorical or apolitical interpretation, or response.

      • good point about the british colonialism aspect

  8. It is difficult to produce a good forecast, but it is even more difficult to sign an evacuation order – remember, it is not your forecast, but you still bear responsibility for any consequences. I only dream of a reliable 100-hour forecast.

    • Jiri – having lived through a part of one evacuation and the entirety of two others, I think you have a point. In the two worst floods in which I have been, there was no evacuation order. Hundreds killed; thousands injured.

  9. Disasters increase in third world countries due to negligence and corruption.
    Pakistan is extremely corrupt and wasteful of their resources. If something can be done so that data is shared; as long as that costs taxpayers nothing additional, great, otherwise?

    • If the long term goal is to save lives and conserve property, providing “good” information alone is unlikely to effect any better outcome than silence. There needs to be an infrastructure that is self sustaining and a means of communicating that allows Pakastani middle management (the implementors) to “save face”, not look like they don’t know anything. Going into such a situation requires time and patients, money and a willingness to listen, not teach or preach, and ask “how can we get this done here, in your circumstance.” Commit to your own participation, otherwise don’t get started with grandiose plans. Don’t piggyback your goals/values upon some grander scheme. Keep it simple. Keep the goals in mind. Keep close account of the money and where and to whom it goes. The money spent in such (above) endeavors usually bares lasting fruit.

      • It is purely a Pakistani issue and there is no reason for foreigners to try to get involved in how Pakistan manages their infrastructure…..however badly they do it. Each nation has enough worries about their own infrastructure to keep them busy.

  10. Of course it’s not just money, it is relationships. Data has to have a path to travel to decision makers, and if that data path is a long-standing one of mutual respect and familiarity, then there is a much, much higher chance of it being acted upon.

    The unknown scientist running up to President X with a wild look on his face and waving his papers around excitedly to save the nation at the last minute is nice for newspapers and Hollywood (maybe even Bollywood?) movies, but the real world just does not work that way.

    So yeah, the infrastructure needs to be in place beforehand, the relationships need to have been sealed with some familiarity and trust.

    And when you’re dealing with poor countries, you’re going to be much better off with regional arrangements and joint staffs (and possibly some further kicking in of resources from UN or somesuch) to keep it all together over the long term.

    And it is in the developed nations interest to do so as well, because we all know we will reach for our wallets both personally (Red Cross or whatever) and thru our taxes when these kind of large tragedies occur wherever.

    It’s not just “a penny saved” for them. . .it is for us too.

  11. I’d like to propose a.. competitive example, that might remove some elements of nationalism and politics from the case.

    There are in rare and isolated locations ‘dead air’ zones, where enclosures on land (basements, sheds, caves, barns, close brushy undergrowth), or some still water bodies, in low-lying and swampy situations build up over time high enough CO2 concentrations as to be lethal, sometimes with releases that sweep out into surrounding areas. One postulates that most readers do not live in low-lying swampy enclosures, so should not deem this a particularly scary nor political case.

    Since 1850 or so, the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere has increased over 40%.

    Is there a means, parallel to the discussion above, of predicting whether the number, size, frequency, distribution or other qualities of dead air zones, by partial pressure effects, are increasing?

    (I believe this should be a question much simpler than the matter of rain, as dead air zones tend to be more sluggish than clouds, and so easier to track.)

    I don’t propose this as a serious or alarming CO2 outcome (though ‘lethal’ is not good), simply due to the comparative rarity of the phenomenon.

  12. Isn’t this study basically a woulda coulda shoulda study that is granting great powers of prediction, after the fact? Those are basically the easiest sort of predictions to make.
    And what does it have to do, if anything at all, with climate science?
    This, like a hurricane blowing in off the Gulf. or a cyclone dropping into Hong Kong or Australia, a weather issue. What can climate science, the study of long term averages and long term issues in weather systems, have to contribute to resolving a forecast communications error of a few days?
    I am not trying to be harsh, but perhaps it is time to question the basics?
    Climate science seems to spend a huge amount of effort discussing its failure to communicate. Well what is the substance of the message it is trying to communicate?

    • If the point is “Should Weather Data be Shared” – sure, it might help in preparations by giving some extra time in the event of extreme events.

      This also seems to be justification for continued funding. I keep thinking about the $5B annually the US spends on climate, but maybe I am just being skeptical.

      • Totally agree. And maybe I am a bit harsh here but……why does Pakistan spend at least $ 178,113,000 on their atomic energy commission? If they were realy looking after their people, should they not be using these funds to mitigate further disasters? If the Pakistani government does not care, Dr. Curry, why should I? Why do you? By what logic do you suppose I am my brother’s keeper? If that were the case one just leave yourself open to forever handouts to whomever shouts the most.

      • Joe Prins,
        The choices of Pakistan’s policy elites to dissipate their national wealth on nuclear weapons and endless chess games to their East are just some of the reasons for their lack of preparation for floods in historic flood zones.
        My point is why should flooding in known flood zones even be considered a climatological issue at all?
        It seems to me that it is a civil engineering issue, a land use issue and a meteorological issue and ultimately a political leadership issue to project manage this and communicate timely warnings to those liely to be impacted by a weather event.
        Instead we see the likes of Trenberth talking about CO2 as if CO2 caused the weather to do what the weather has done.
        What is the value in that, beyond a sort of entertainment pathos similar to Nero fiddling while Rome burned?

      • Joe,

        You might find an answer to your question here. I understand your frustration, but given that you have a nuclear armed state with a history of repression and a significant radicalized population, the funds for a project like this could well pay dividends. I’d classify this as more defense spending than charity.

      • Rob Starkey,
        Dr .Pielke, Sr. has demonstrated on multiple occasions in peer reviewed literature that global climate models do not make meaningful regional predictions.
        So the question I am left with, is this:
        What practical good has climate science accomplished?

      • Hunter– You could probably come up with a long list of things that climate science has accomplished. The study of climate models has probably improved the accuracy of shorter term weather forecasts.

        I don’t think that is really th e correct question. The correct question is whether, (in the US at least) that climate science is accomplishing over $5 B per year in worthwhile results. To that I am certainly doubtful at this point.

      • I probably could, but I think it would be nice to see one from someone who has followed this more closely.
        And in no way am I against the discovery/development of basic research. I support Astronomy, for example.
        But I find it interesting to think that while I can, for esxample, connect evolutionary biology to the development of medical progress, and I can go from quantum physics to lasers and from Einstein’s physics to GPS systems, I cannot connect climate science to anything. Yet climate science as a community is demaning huge policy changes at great expense and requires large research budgets to do it.

    • Hunter –
      I agree – the two issues are not directly related, except for the claim that an increase in extreme weather events is a function of climate change. Indeed, if the argument is that increases in CO2 levels makes weather patterns less predictable (more and higher impact extreme weather events) then there should be less reason for climate science to overstep its demarkation into weather forecasting.


      • paul,
        And except for the lack of evidence that extreme weather is in fact increasing, it is a great argument by the believer community.

  13. If you know, or suspect, that someone has new information capability that can be beneficial to you what do you do? If you know, or suspect, that you now possess new information capability that can be beneficial to someone what do you do?

    Isn’t life complicated?

    • Pascvaks,

      The problem is it becomes old science to the person who discovered it. When no one listens, he may have moved on or further into the research. This then become an even bigger problem of being too advance for anyone to understand as the old/new knowledge starts to become forgotten or under a pile of papers.

  14. One intersection of this thread with climate change lies in the design of flood control systems and structures, such as dams. Forty years ago I worked my way through grad school in philosophy of science by designing large dams for the US Flood Control Program. I learned to my horror that the design basis, the so-called 100-year flood, was based on just 100 years of data. My argument that it would take at least 1,000 years of data to reliably estimate the 100 year flood, just made the hydrologists angry. But 100 year floods kept happening with disturbing frequency. Not because climate was changing but just because of lack of data.

    And here we are again, with AGW proponents telling us what natural variability is with basically 100 years of data. We don’t actually know that the climate is changing, in any important sense. Even worse, we are supposed to adapt to this supposedly changing climate. People talk about adaptation quite glibly, as though it were easier than mitigation. Are we supposed to build flood control dams for floods, and water supply dams for droughts, where none are now needed and may never be needed?

    Providing unneeded protection for some is likely to mean depriving others of needed protection, there being only so much money. The water resources community needs to understand natural variability just as much as the climate community, maybe even more.

    • All true

    • David, this is exactly the larger issue that we are concerned about.

      • Judith– but you really do not see this as an especially difficult policy issue/question do you?

      • no, the issues are political; the solution strategy is that described by Pekka

      • Thanks again- I agree completely. That is why I get confused about all the discussion about policy issues. Seems about as straightforward as you can hope.

      • The UN, US gov’t, World Bank, etc find it easier to spend $100B to mop up each of these messes than spend $1M on weather forecasts, warning system, evacuation strategy, and prepositioning of emergency management resources.

      • That one was way overly simplistic (IMO). Take Pakistan or India as examples (which I think you are vary familiar with) Neither country invests in infrastructure to anywhere near the degree that would make sense from any reasonable perspective. When new areas are developed, sizing of sewer systems and/or distribution of electricity is never a high priority. Therefore, when it rains heavily (which it does multiple times per year) they get flooded. Cause & effect.

        Do I care about that issue as an American? Yes, but only because I have to go there frequently and it is difficult when it rains, but my inconvenience is meaningless. It is a Pakistani and an Indian issue and they certainly do not need outsiders telling them how to plan and build their infrastructure. The reason for the problems in India for example is corruption. It is not the World Bank, or the UN, or the US.

      • Further rationale for addressing these issues is in the context of security, see previous posts

      • World Bank is spending $91B on Pakistani infrastructure (latest number I heard)

      • Of which how much actually makes it onto the ground?

      • Forecasts are fine but floods are due to runoff, not just rainfall, and the rainfall-runoff connection is very complex, especially at smaller scales where most catastrophes occur.

      • This seems to be the central and most important point. Leadership is at the heart of the matter. There is clearly more than enough understanding of the effective theoretical and practical technical responses readily accessible to the Pakistani government, if they chose to seek them out and dedicate themselves to their implementation. What is missing is the realization that, in the long term, their social and economic welfare depends on defining and putting into practice what is already well known and understood. Easily said if one is viewing the world as a complete entity, but experience has showed that it is always very hard to convince a tenuous government preoccupied with other issues.

      • Rule in Engineering Design is to take the worst case and add a multiplier. Dams in Australia, for instance, are designed for 100% related to needed supply plus carrying capacity for flood mitigation. They aren’t designed to eliminate floods but to mitigate them.

        The fact people are living in flood plans is the real issue and the true cause is as yet undetermined (possibly lack of wells and potable water at higher elevations). Weather forecast systems are a great thing but largely unnecessary if the potential problems doesn’t exist?

      • People live in flood plains for economic reasons. It’s more efficient to be by a river. If the floor of a valley has a lot of flat farmland, mountain-side farms will probably not be able to compete. Not many mountainsides are farmed in the United States. A lot of flood plains are.

      • I posted a number of links in the prior thread. Take a look at the images of the flood plain during the flood and tell me that this isn’t a fixable problem.


        Tarbela Dam in Pakistan on the Indus River is used for irrigation, flood control, and the generation of hydroelectric power.

        Terrace Farming:
        In my opinion, terrace faming is a low tech appropriate solution. The solutions should be appropriate to Pakistan
        not the US.

        Geological Survey of Mineral Resources:

      • Terrace farming is extremely expensive compared to flat land farming. Think of all the earth moving required to make and maintain those terraces. Thee are elaborate structures.

      • It is far more expensive to build (the flat surfaces we need) on a slope than on flat ground, just from a physics perspective. After that comes getting water up hills, and travel. Mountainsides are not farmed because there is no soil there. The differences are huge.

      • You’re thinking like an American where we bring everything to the site instead of the site providing everything we need.

        Given they they can count on monsoon rain falls each year, can the water be harnessed at higher elevation to preform “work”.

        Sorry for the broken links that run together in my last post.


      • Colorado does have some traces of terrace farming, in the Mesa Verde National Park within the Wetherrill Mesa. But it is very uncommon in the US.

        Its very common in China, a neighbor of Pakistan. Also, it would be much cheaper to have the UN pay Pakistan to develop the area using Pakistan labor then to send aid every time it floods.

        It would be novel if some of the aid actually fixed a problem.

      • Dams can only be built where conditions allow for it. They can probably mitigate it, but they might not be able to fix it.

        I don’t really know for sure. David Wojick probably does. But I would assume the Missouri River dams that were built during my childhood along that river were intended in part to mitigate flooding all the way to New Orleans. Most years that probably works very well, but in 1993 it worked less well.

      • Maybe I’m not explaining this correctly.

        When appropriate design meets sustainable livelihoods

        The solutions to the flooding needs to address appropriate solutions for the population effected. This is a situation Pakistan needs to mitigate but the reason aid is sent is because of the people not the flooding.

        The building materials and labor necessary to mitigate future flooding are already there.

        Stone blocks can easily be cut from surrounding mountains and gravity will do most of the work to deliver them to develop river embankments below. Once in the river, the blocks could be easily floated into position.

        Dredging silt and rock from the rivers will deepen them and provide fertile soil for surrounding farms, sand and gravel for construction, and or berms to protect low lying farm land.

        But, destroying the landscape would be criminal, thus terrace farming for coffee, rice, and anything else they’d like to grow. Gravity can be used in terraces to perform most of the work and to minimize unnecessary effort. They also look beautiful if designed correctly.

        It simply requires a vision, a plan, the correct tools, and the willingness to fix the problem.

        The UN could be making a contribution in terms of transferring engineered solutions and information that doesn’t require extensive aid. Weather information is also logical. Pakistan can then develop the solution and take pride in the ultimate development.

        One way or the other, Pakistan needs to address the true problems. Insightful and appropriate solutions are likely to be a good place to start if they can get beyond the politics.

      • OOPs wrong link, s/b

        When appropriate design meets sustainable livelihoods

    • David,
      The problem you are presenting is aggravated by the fat tails. There is much experience from very many fields that the tails of the pdf’s are often closer to a power law than the very rapid cutoff of an Gaussian distribution. Benoit Mandelbrot spent much of his career in analyzing and promoting this idea, which is also strongly advocated by Nassim Nicolas Taleb in his books “Fooled by the Randomness” and “The Black Swan”. The unpleasant property of the power law tails is that the risk of even larger deviations cannot ever be determined from the earlier experience.

      When the risks are so difficult to anticipate, it is very inefficient to prepare against specific risks, it may be more efficient to build non-specific resilience and strengthen capabilities to react after the event to restrict damage.

      • A power law fits with large scale chaotic dynamics and their attending strange statistics. But what is “non-specific resilience” to a flood, or a drought? In fact the problem with all this talk about adaptation is that it is so non-specific.

      • David,
        Some ideas of non-specific responses include good information collecting and transmitting networks, well-thought crisis management organizations and added capabilities of bringing material aid and competent personnel to places where help is needed.

        I know that those proposals have their own problems and their difficulties of implementation, but still they are likely help more than specific actions based on recent experience, if the next catastrophe is not a repetition of the recent ones.

      • Pekka,

        David said:
        “Some ideas of non-specific responses include good information collecting and transmitting networks, well-thought crisis management organizations and added capabilities of bringing material aid and competent personnel to places where help is needed.”

        An excellent example of this non-specific response is playing out right now in Queensland, Australia, prior to and after the devastating Category 5 cyclone Yasi. Cyclones are a known type of disaster, but their specific timing, location, strength and possible effects can only be predicted in a time frame of days, at most a week or two. All of the types of recovery responses mentioned by David are in play and working effectively, under the guidance of, and coordinated by, strong leadership. The teams are well trained and supply a broad range of skills on the ground.

      • What percentage of dams built are boxed out as being strictly either flood control or strictly water supply?

      • In the USA most federal dams are multi-purpose (I helped write the rules in 1978). Justification is based on cost-benefit and there are several benefits, that can be combined to justify a bigger dam. These include flood control, water supply, municipal and irrigation, low flow augmentation on navigable waters, water transport, etc.

      • As a kid, I watched them build Fort Randall, Big Bend, and Oahe. Before your time, but big projects.

        I think you forgot fishin’!

      • Recreation is an ancillary benefit, meaning you cannot add reservoir capacity to the project for it.

    • David,
      Even if CO2 is forcing changes, are the changes of any significance compared to normal weather variability?

  15. I did not find anywhere near $91B in World Banks loans or grants to Pakistan. But the real issue is that the projects are planned and managed by the local governmental officials. They are the problem and the only solution.

  16. While I accept that the region affected by the Pakistan flood was extremely poor, mobile phones would still be in wide use.

    My wife and I have a house in philippines. It is in an area affected by floods, typhoons, earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanoes and corrupt politicians.
    I subscribe to the NOAA weather warnings for free.
    I see no reason why every emergency worker/government official in every town of every country no matter how poor can’t get appropriate warnings at a relative low cost.

    • this is what has been accomplished in Bangladesh, where there might only be one cell phone in a village, but with coordination the warnings can be communicated. it can be done.