Researching an ongoing disaster

Svenska 2015-08-20

A large oil leak, wildfire or hurricane – when disaster strikes, it is beneficial to take advantage of researchers’ knowledge or collect scientific data that only is available during an ongoing disaster. This poses specific challenges, but provides unique knowledge.

“Eleven men died when the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform exploded. Within days, the government realized that it was a very serious oil spill,” says Dr Gary Machlis, Professor of Environmental Sustainability at Clemson University.

When you watch disaster movies, you see top researchers convened in a conference room with whiteboards covered in scribble, trying to resolve a crisis.

“This isn’t too far from reality,” says Dr Machlis who – in addition to his academic work – is one of the leaders of the Strategic Sciences Group (SSG) that may step in when a major natural disaster strikes in the United States.

A first version of the group was formed when the Deepwater Horizon exploded in 2010. The oil spill happened deep under water. It was hard to stop and threatened both sensitive natural habitats in addition to fishing in the Gulf of Mexico.

Humble personality needed

Within one day the group had recruited 15 scientists from the United States.. “In addition to subject knowledge, it was important to be humble, willing to learn from others and able to work under pressure,” Dr Machlis adds. The work was intense, interdisciplinary, and was outside the media spotlight.

“It wasn’t our task to inform the media – we informed the government. The information was used to make predictions for how the oil would affect nature and the economy of the area and where best to put the money to recovery. But what we do is no secret.”

The group worked intensively over several weeks and mainly used their expertise and data from previous research to make projections on how the oil disaster would develop.

Supplying the decision makers

To supply the decision makers with information, the researchers produced a picture of the possible chain of events and how likely each event was. The group entered the chain of events into a computer program, forming branches that looked like a flowchart.

“The walls were covered with long paper printouts”, says Dr Machlis.

For each branch – representing each possible future consequence – the group assessed how sure they were of it taking place. Not a probability figure, but what was decided during the discussions and after analysis of previous research on similar situations;

“It could be anything from, ‘We are very confident that it will happen’ to ‘very unsure’” explains Dr Machlis.

Sometimes it was not unanimous and it was noted in the protocol.

Calculating the oil spill

Towards the end of their work, researchers were able to obtain figures for how much oil had leaked.

To calculate how fast the oil flowed out there was another research group led by Marcia McNutt, now Editor-in-Chief of Science magazine. The speed at which the oil leaked out influenced decisions on how the leak would be tackled.

The research team led by Dr Gary Machlis was permanently appointed, with other participating researchers being determined by the type of crisis. When Hurricane Sandy struck in 2012, the SSG research team entered into action once more, with 36 researchers arriving on site within five hours.

“No one has ever said no to participating”, says Dr Machlis. One researcher with the Deepwater Horizon group had at that time recently become a mother, but still wanted to contribute. She nursed the baby whilst she participated.

Three types of disaster research

Before Deepwater Horizon, Dr Marcia McNutt had worked with disaster research in several areas, such as earthquakes, storms and tsunamis. She divides disaster research into three fields.

One form of disaster research is carried out before a potential disaster occurs, with the aim to develop better preparedness. Another is research that tries to answer questions that only can be answered during a disaster, known as the “science of opportunity”. Finally, the third type of aims to directly draw upon researched conclusions, using them to directly make the right decision for what to do to ameliorate the disaster. This is known as “actionable science”.

“The scientific method is always used. Researchers gather information, question the results, and look for the best interpretation of the data,” says Dr McNutt.

The “Science of opportunity” – i.e., research taking place during the course of a disaster – is subjected to peer-review just as any other research. The benefit of such research is that it often contains rare and unique data. This could, on the other hand, be a disadvantage as it is extraordinarily difficult to replicate – as a similar disaster situation would be needed.

Tempting to publish too soon

“The great media attention associated with disasters can also make it tempting for researchers to publish their data before they pass through the peer-review process,” explains Dr McNutt. Many scientific journals refuse to publish research that has already been published by the media.

“Often, it is the case that ‘actionable science’ – research done for making decisions –is eventually documented as a scientific publication or report,” continues Dr McNutt, but this is often after the crisis abates.

But the publication process is not about peer-reviewing the scientific quality or the decisions made, but rather documenting what was done for posterity.

Research on disasters in Sweden

In Sweden it is less of actionable science, at least conducted by academic researchers.

Anna Johansson is a risk analyst at the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency (MSB) and has a PhD in risk management and civil security. She is now part of the group at MSB and has been enlisted to draw further conclusions on how the 2014 wildfire in Västmanland was handled. The wildfire was the largest fire in Sweden for more than 50 years, claiming one life. The Government investigation has revealed deficiencies.

“When it came to planning efforts against the fire, responsibility was with the municipal emergency services. When necessary, they call upon expert resources,” says Anna Johansson.

Such resources might be academic researchers, but can also include private consultants or experts from MSB. There is no Swedish equivalent of the SSG.

“There aren’t many major disasters in Sweden; nor is there very much disaster research. The crises are also very different – a pandemic, forest fire or a terror threat – and each type needs different competences.

A wealth of data from the fire

However, some research has been produced. A wealth of data was collected from the wild fire in Västmanland and now a large grant from Formas has been issued to use this data for research.

Some researchers also went out into the field while the fire was ongoing – often on their own initiative. The researchers studied aspects such as management work, and social media and how the forest vegetation and animal life was affected.

As far as Anna Johansson is aware, the economic consequences of the disaster (something which SSG places large focus upon) do not appear to be a research subject for academics:

“It’s probably mainly the insurance companies that do that type of research.”

Researchers could contribute more

Anna Johansson thinks that researchers’ knowledge could be used more often during various disasters, for example to create prognoses and use as a base for decisions.

Dr Gary Machlis believes it is important to keep in mind that it that all countries plan for disasters to some extent, but at the same time they have an organization that can work flexibly.

“Each disaster is unique”

Text: Anja Castensson
Photo: Linda Forsell / Aftonbladet / IBL Bildbyrå

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