After the storm

When extreme weather events and natural disasters occur, how can we respond faster and smarter to the fallout? Whether using early-warning systems to evacuate cities, drone technology to fight fires, or smart drainage systems to divert floodwaters, disruptive tech is interrupting the pattern of destructive weather. Here’s how smart tech can help mitigate damage, and help communities recover faster and more smoothly after a disaster.

Anyone who’s watched the news in the last year or two knows that climate change impacts are causing some extreme, disruptive weather events. In 2020 alone, we saw a Siberian heat wave, the ecological devastation of the Australian wildfires, and widespread wildfires throughout much of the United States.

Those terrible news stories are just a handful of examples from a very long list of extreme weather events this year alone. As the climate changes, we are seeing these weather events increase in both frequency and severity. They are uprooting stability in our societies, in our businesses, and in our daily lives, and it’s already happening on a broad scale.

Communities and governments know they need to take steps to build climate resilience, but that doesn’t always translate to a clear set of actions. Climate change is a highly region-specific phenomenon, so what happens in Ontario will be dramatically different than Alberta, and what happens in Thunder Bay will be different than Halifax.

Many companies are already gathering some of the data that can help them implement smart solutions, Future Ready® forecasting and planning, and resilient business models that can mitigate climate impacts and respond effectively when an event does occur. But many organizations still have room for investment and untapped opportunities to use their data and resources more effectively to prevent climate problems before they happen.

Preparing for green swan events

In assessing ongoing risks to business and markets, we usually consider “black swan” events (such as pandemics) that cause cascading effects within markets and the global economy. But climate change may also cause significant and unexpected market movements, through events known as “green swans.”

Green swans are climate-related events that cause significant disruption to the global economy, social, and natural systems. While we understand the general possibility of global shocks like climate change and pandemics, the full extent of their impacts, systemic interdependencies, and the effects that follow are difficult to predict and to manage. Governments, businesses and communities need to adequately prepare for the cascading, interconnected impacts of climate change and the outcomes that “green swans” may bring — and big data, smart technology and predictive analytics can help.

Green swans are climate-related events that cause significant disruption to the global economy, social, and natural systems.

Using data to minimize damage

Using climate data and technological tools can go a long way toward mitigating climate change impacts and building stronger and more resilient communities.

These days, we have unprecedented access to the climate data and models that scientists use to make their predictions. Businesses and communities can use that data to intelligently assess the risk to their assets, and to visualize and prioritize what their top risks are and where they need to take steps to increase resilience.

Data scientists and climate experts can leverage the data that’s publicly available online tools and translate it to help create an action plan that addresses the biggest risks first. Provincial and municipal governments are beginning to rely on this data as they plan for their community’s resilience for the long term. Companies, especially those with more long-term views, are also realizing that their business models are going to be disrupted by both the physical impacts of climate change and the transition to low-carbon economy.

More and more of the data is publicly available, even on an international scale. But the challenge comes in translating the massive amount of data into smart solutions that are targeted to mitigate risk. This is still a relatively new activity for most private-sector businesses, and in these cases an expert consultant can be invaluable.

For example, as we move into the summer months each year, many regions will start to experience hot days and heat waves. Weather data show that the last five years have been the hottest on record. Across Canada, temperatures are expected to continue increasing, with more frequent and longer heat waves, possibly lasting over a week. This is already a reality for some cities such as Montréal, where the 2018 heat wave lasted for eight days and saw over 65 heat-related deaths.

A community that has been tracking this data in a smart platform that overlays other data as well, such as demographic data, can design proactive, intelligent solutions for the areas that are likely to have the most high-risk populations.

As another example, a city that has good flood maps and planning might preemptively install smart drainage systems with sensors to divert floodwaters away from roadways, while a region with good data on drought and wildfire patterns might be able to predict and react to events earlier, and use smart technology like drones and smartphone early warnings to minimize human presence and risk during a fire.

Companies, especially those with more long-term views, are also realizing that their business models are going to be disrupted by both the physical impacts of climate change and the transition to low-carbon economy.

Prioritizing risk and intersectionality

By strategically using climate data and mapping, and by overlaying different risk factors, we can gain a much clearer picture of where risks and vulnerabilities intersect. For instance, elderly individuals and those with existing respiratory or cardiovascular issues will be more susceptible to both climate and other health risks (such as COVID-19). Equity is also major determinant of risk, as socioeconomically marginalized groups, people living in poverty and polluted areas, and those without access to housing tend to be more vulnerable.

Climate projections help us forecast how flooding, fire and heat events will increase in the years to come. However, it is important to monitor vulnerable individuals who may need extra assistance during these events. Some cities have used flooding and urban heat island maps layered with sociodemographic data to identify where neighbourhood check-ins, resources, and community programs should be targeted. Locating the most vulnerable pockets, responders can use mapping to direct support to those whose vulnerability is exacerbated by extreme weather events.

Building post-event resilience

Experts have been increasingly insistent that prevention is key in averting the most costly and damaging impacts of climate change. Encouragingly, there has been a fair amount of federal and provincial funding available for climate change mitigation and adaptation, including through the Emergency Response Fund. However, accessing funding can be an exercise in complexity, as federal funds are put into different streams and there are detailed requirements on how to qualify.

Tools like climate data, smart technology, detailed flood maps and risk maps are helpful, but only if there is the political will and necessary funding to deliver and upgrade key asset and infrastructure. And although we are seeing more government funding available, that proactive investment is still relatively small compared with the financial impact of major floods we have seen in recent years.

The aftermath of an extreme climate event is often a good time to learn about areas for improvement, gain consensus and buy-in on new investments, and build greater resilience to climate events in the future. Governments and municipalities need to invest more proactively to prepare for the climate impacts that are surely coming our way.


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