“Did You Feel It?” How Understanding Small Earthquakes Readies Us for Big Ones

May 6, 2024
by ISR Staff

Sarah Minson is a Research Geophysicist with the U.S. Geological Survey Earthquake Hazards Program.  Sarah’s research attempts to understand not only how faults slip, but also to understand what we can and cannot determine about earthquake ruptures and how these uncertainties affect our estimates of potential earthquake impacts. She has also studied earthquake early warning systems to determine what kinds of warning are possible, and what kind of accuracy can be achieved. 

Sarah recently joined an ISR webinar about earthquake preparedness, and then spoke to our team about how we can apply lessons from earthquakes across crisis preparedness efforts. 

In early 2024, earthquakes struck Japan, Taiwan, and the United States. How did they fare in terms of being prepared for disaster? 

Japan, Taiwan, and the United States all have high building standards and strong earthquake preparedness programs, which can help mitigate infrastructure damage and reduce casualties, but these are still traumatic events.  Our hearts go out to everyone who was impacted by these earthquakes.   

The Japan and Taiwan earthquakes were much larger magnitude events, causing strong shaking and significant damage.  Both Japan and Taiwan have earthquake early warning systems, although the performance of the systems differed significantly.  Because these earthquakes were located along the coast, causing seafloor deformation, they both led to tsunamis.  There were tsunami warnings and evacuations immediately following each earthquake.  In both events, landslides and rockfalls triggered by the earthquake shaking produced significant damage.  These earthquakes were devastating, and their impacts will be felt for a while, but the high degree of preparedness in both Japan and Taiwan, as well as their earthquake and tsunami warning systems, helped to mitigate the impacts. 

The United States is also highly prepared with earthquake and tsunami warning systems. The New Jersey earthquake was a smaller magnitude event that was onshore. Therefore, it could not trigger a tsunami, so these systems did not come into play. The most significant impact of the New Jersey earthquake was probably how many people felt the shaking.    

One thing of note about the central and eastern United States is that shaking amplitudes decay very slowly with distance from the earthquake compared to the western United States.  This is, in part, because there are so few earthquake faults.  The rock is strong and intact. Thus, a huge region — and a huge number of people — can feel shaking from even a relatively small magnitude earthquake like this one.   
After any earthquake, we encourage people to visit our website for earthquake information and to report whether they did (or did not) feel shaking.  These observations are very valuable and help us understand how shaking from earthquakes varies.  We received a record almost 184,000 “Did You Feel It?” reports for the New Jersey earthquake.  It is the largest number of responses to “Did You Feel It?” for a single event since the program began in 1999 and broke the previous record of 140,000 responses for the 2011 M5.8 Mineral, Virginia earthquake (another eastern U.S. earthquake). 

Can you share more about your research into early warning systems?  

The first thing to know about earthquake early warning is that the name is terrible.  It is not an earthquake warning.  Instead, we monitor earthquakes as their ruptures evolve and warn people (and trigger automated protection systems) before the shaking from the earthquake arrives at their location. 

The most familiar measure of an earthquake is magnitude, which is a single and simple number that literally describes the physical size of an earthquake rupture.  Magnitude is the length of the earthquake rupture, multiplied by the width of the rupture, multiplied by how far one side of the fault slid relative to the other side.  Then the result is converted to a logarithmic scale.   

However, the shaking from an earthquake is highly variable and will not be the same for everyone.  Shaking intensity decreases with distance from the earthquake, but can be amplified or deamplified by the type of soil you are standing on (hard rock or soft soil), your relationship to the dynamic evolution of the earthquake (whether it is rupturing towards you or away from you), and your personal situation (for example, whether you are on the ground floor or top floor of a building).   

The single thing that most affects earthquake early warning accuracy is our ability to forecast what the shaking will be at your location.  But even if our shaking models were perfect, there would still be accuracy and time limitations because earthquakes are not instantaneous: their ruptures evolve over seconds (for small magnitude earthquakes) to minutes (for large magnitude earthquakes).   

If we were to wait for an earthquake to conclude so that we can make our best possible shaking forecast, we would use up all the warning time before the shaking arrived at your location.  So, earthquake early warning must always be to some extent precautionary: we are alerting you to an earthquake in progress that has the potential to continue evolving into something that could cause significant shaking at your location. 

During the ISR’s recent webinar on earthquakes, you spoke about scientists working with structural engineers and building designers to design buildings with earthquake science in mind. Why is cross-sector collaboration important in a crisis?  

The U.S. Geological Survey’s mission is to serve the Nation by providing reliable scientific information to describe and understand the Earth.  One of our most important products is a national seismic hazard model that forecasts the intensity and frequency of earthquake shaking everywhere in the country.  This is the information that can determine to what strength of shaking infrastructure must be resilient.  That is, what level of shaking must a building be able to withstand for it to be safe.  But how safe is safe?  How unlikely and infrequent an earthquake is sufficiently unlikely and infrequent when it comes to earthquake risk?   

These questions must be answered by people and their representatives in conversation with structural engineers and designers, balancing not just earthquake hazard considerations but all sorts of other hazards and societal needs and risks.  What earthquake scientists can and do provide is scientific analysis so that people can make informed decisions. 

You also spoke about planning ahead and prioritizing the safety of people with disabilities during disasters. Can you share your best practices?  

In the webinar, Yuichi Ono, director of the International Research Institute of Disaster Science at Tohoku University, gave a very informative overview of some of the difficulties that were encountered in the aftermath of the January 1, 2024, M7.5 Noto Peninsula, Japan earthquake, and the special risks faced by those who are older or disabled.  In the United States, where earthquakes are relatively infrequent and we may not have personal memory of a damaging earthquake, we can look to our recent experiences with other sorts of natural disasters, such as wildfires and hurricanes, to see how evacuations and recovery can be more or less difficult based on people’s individual circumstances and physical abilities. 

One thing that is unusual about earthquakes relative to many other natural disasters is that they do not require evacuation, although tsunamis resulting from earthquakes can require immediate evacuation.  Instead, in the United States where buildings are built to a life safety standard and should not collapse during an earthquake, the protective action that everyone should take when they feel earthquake shaking (or receive an alert from an earthquake early warning system that shaking is imminent) is drop, cover, and hold on to protect themselves from falling or being struck by something.   

This protective action can be adapted to everyone’s individual mobility. The U.S. Geological Survey through the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program (NEHRP) as well as governmental and non-governmental science, preparedness, and emergency response organizations are all working to make earthquake preparedness accessible to all

What steps should you take if you feel an earthquake or get an early warning?  

There are three things I personally would like everyone to know about earthquakes.  One is how to protect yourself.  As we just discussed, if you ever feel shaking or get a warning: drop, cover, and hold on to protect yourself.   

The second thing is that earthquakes are not magic.  Earthquakes obey simple laws of physics: a point on a fault is stressed, it moves, it transfers stress to the surrounding parts of the faults; if those parts of the faults are sufficiently stressed, they move too; and the more parts of the fault that move the larger the earthquake.   

The problem is that we get to observe none of this.  These faults are moving miles underground where we have no direct observations of the stress on the fault or the material of the fault interface or whether it is lubricated by fluids or glued together by small-scale fault structures.  All we can do is observe how the surface of the Earth deforms in response to what is happening at depth and attempt to infer what is happening on the fault.  This is what limits our ability to tell you what is happening on the fault right now, or what will happen in the future.  This is why we cannot predict earthquakes. It is not because we do not understand earthquake physics (we do) and it is not because earthquakes are magic (they are not magic). 

Lastly, I personally would like everyone to know that the largest source of earthquake hazard is not “The Big One” – an infrequent large magnitude earthquake.  The bigger hazard is the medium ones.  While each of these more moderate magnitude earthquakes impact a smaller area (again, magnitude literally comes from the length of an earthquake rupture) and usually have less intense shaking, they sometimes produce strong shaking, and they happen much more frequently than large magnitude earthquakes.   

Why does this matter?  When people focus on The Big One like a M8 earthquake that happens only every few hundred years, they may feel fatalistic: why prepare for something that is so rare and so scary?  But if instead you focus on the more common earthquakes that happen year in and year out, the kinds of earthquake that you might even have lived experience with, the kind of earthquake that you are actually most likely to have to deal with, then you can be confident about being prepared for an earthquake.   

Visit https://www.ready.gov/earthquakes for easy preparedness steps you can take. If you feel shaking, drop, cover and hold on.  Have a plan for your family.  Put your grandma’s dishes somewhere safe so that they do not fall off a shelf in the shaking from a moderate magnitude earthquake.  These things are doable.  These things can keep you and your family (and grandma’s dishes) safe. 

Why this Weather Man Wants to Break Down Silos in Climate and Crisis Research

March 6, 2024
by ISR Staff

As a climate scientist and meteorologist, Dr. Anthony Torres has dedicated his career to researching, teaching, and forecasting climate change and extreme weather. Most recently, he worked with Currently, a startup that provides timely and actionable weather forecasts in 20 cities. 

Dr. Torres’ academic research on understanding what drives the behavior of carbon dioxide (CO2) measurements from space has been supported by NASA and gave scientists another way to better understand how much CO2 remains in the atmosphere through 2100. His groundbreaking research also helps climate scientists model how global temperatures might change under various emission scenarios. 

Dr. Torres recently spoke to the ISR team about the role of meteorologists in working across silos and preparing the public for climate-related crises and disasters. 

How did you get into climate science and meteorology?  

As a child, I vividly remember being in a tornado outbreak. I spent the day in the pool until the massive storm clouds came rolling in. By the time we closed the pool, the tornado sirens started blaring and we ran to seek shelter in our house. Soon after, winds in excess of 100 mph wreaked havoc in the area. It turned out multiple tornadoes had also touched down nearby. I remember all of the shattered windows, downed trees, blown lawn furniture, and damaged buildings after the storm.  

It was the first time I witnessed the extreme power of nature and I wanted to know more about it. Afterwards, I acquired all kinds of weather books, would watch The Weather Channel, and had my own miniature weather station. 

What strategies can experts in the meteorology field use to help better prepare for and respond to climate-related disasters

There are multiple fronts in which we can improve our preparation for disasters:  

First, we need to close the gaps in observations. The US and Europe have dense networks of observations that allow for early detection of weather systems. Even here, gaps in detection networks, such as radar networks in the US, create challenges for detecting tornadoes or other severe weather events. In the Global South, where the density of weather observations is sparser, it is even more challenging to forecast extreme weather events. By closing these gaps, we can better monitor extreme weather events before they happen — giving us the chance to provide adequate warning to everyone affected.  

Second, meteorologists need to be more interdisciplinary. While meteorology is a physical science, the impacts from meteorological events are not. The most accurate weather forecast is only as good as how it has been received by its intended audience. Communication is key. We need to work with all of our stakeholders, as well as leverage the expertise of social scientists and disaster experts to build a shared language so that we can maximize the number of people that receive adequate warning of incoming hazards. 

What advice do you have to break down boundaries as scientists who care about crisis preparedness?

First, incentivize interdisciplinary interactions. Meteorologists — especially on television — historically have been “general practitioners” of science as science directors at their respective stations. However, we are only formally trained in a narrow subset of science. This has led to the spread of misleading information, which has real consequences. We need to understand appropriate limits of our own expertise and when to defer to others and ensure that everyone is informed with the best information possible based on the best science available.  

Second, build channels with communities affected. Often communication is delivered in a top-down method with few channels for bottom-up communication. Social media has helped level conversations in some ways, but it has not nearly gone far enough. Go into these communities with the intent to learn about what is important to them, and how to build effective communication strategies in advance of a potential crisis. Recognize that these communities are not monolithic and that there is no “one size fits all” solution for crisis preparation.  

Finally, incentivize stewardship of our disciplines. The careers of scientists are often rewarded by research and publication metrics with a baseline expectation of service work. By shifting the paradigm to weighing service with respect to broader impacts and reaching out to local communities more heavily, we deconstruct the silos built up by the ivory tower. 

Meteorologists play a very important role in communicating climate science to the public. What advice do you have? 

Despite any narrative to the contrary, my experience has been that most people genuinely crave access to science knowledge. Anytime someone asks what I do, the conversation shifts to weather and/or climate. Use this as an opportunity to relight the passion that got you into science and share that enthusiasm with the people you meet.  

Like any speaking engagement, it is important to know and be comfortable with your audience. An awkward conversation or talk is still awkward, regardless of the topic. Find common ground. Remove as many barriers as you can to maximize the connection you make with your audience. 

What gives you hope or motivation to keep doing your work, given all the challenges we face today on climate?  

Every bit of progress we make counts and makes a difference. The more we limit our planet’s warming, the less we will need to deal with climate changes and extreme weather patterns. The more we are prepared for the next disaster, the less dire the consequences. I remain optimistic humanity will learn these lessons and set forth a path to a better future. 

Q&A with ISR Community Member: Daniel San Martin from Chile 

November 28, 2023
by ISR Staff

In any major climate-related crisis, access to geo-spatial-temporal datasets, mapping, modeling, and analytical tools are critical to aid recovery efforts and protect communities. Many expert researchers, especially scientists and institutions in low-to-middle income countries, lack the tools to access and analyze relevant data, to inform local decision makers on how to act rapidly and effectively.  

During a recent panel with the Predictive Analytics World (PAW) climate conference, we spoke with ISR community member Daniel San Martin of Universidad Técnica Federico Santa María in Chile. Daniel specializes in scientific computing with a current research focus on computational fluid dynamics, numerical methods, and high-performance computing applied to forest fire modeling.  

How are you using data to inform crisis preparedness and decision-making on wildfires in your region? 

Our work is not only based on data, but we also use physical models and simulations to get or evaluate dangerous zones and vulnerable locations. Our approach is to use these simulations to make informed decisions for experts in disaster management, like government institutions. We can also use the models to create new data for AI-based models in order to complement the analysis. The main contribution of our work with wildfires is trying to best inform the people who make the decisions and try to minimize the damage of wildfires. 

Why did you look for collaborations outside of Chile, and why is a global network like the ISR beneficial to your work?  

I think collaboration with a global network is crucial for developing countries, like Chile. We do this to tap into diverse expertise and to gain a global perspective, specifically on disasters. Also, to share resources and build capacity for rapid response. I think different experts in disaster management approach this work in order to help shape policies.  I strongly believe that global collaboration is mandatory nowadays to face any kind of disaster, even more so now that we are suffering the effects of climate change. 

How does access to resources, like geospatial mapping and modeling, impact your research and work? 

In terms of data, it is really tricky in my region because of the availability of the technology or the funding to get intelligent data, like they have in the United States. We have a lot of resource constraints, such as spatiotemporal resolution issues, data integration complexities, sharing restrictions, data quality concerns, resource constraints, and remote sensing limitations, among others. We usually try to use the data provided by US or European institutions. We use that data to create models, but it cannot always be applied because we have geographical or meteorological differences. We need data and tech development by other countries, to create or adjust the tools to our own context. 

What more could be done for researchers like yourself to get the data you need, and communicate it to decision makers?  

To better support researchers in disasters, enhanced data accessibility through open initiatives and real-time streams is crucial. This includes advocating for standardized formats and integrating advanced remote sensing technologies. To communicate findings effectively to decision makers, user-friendly visualization tools and comprehensive scenario analysis reports are essential. Collaborative engagement with stakeholders, including regular workshops and educational initiatives, can bridge the gap between researchers and decision-makers, fostering understanding and trust.  

Additionally, advocating for policy integration and offering training sessions to decision makers can ensure that scientific research is considered in disaster management strategies, ultimately enhancing the impact of simulation models on informed decision-making. 

Q&A with Chike Aguh: ISR’s Newest Advisory Council Member  

November 2, 2023
by ISR Staff

The International Science Reserve is pleased to announce that Chike Aguh, former Chief Innovation Officer at the U.S. Department of Labor, has joined ISR’s Advisory Council. 

Under the Biden administration, he led efforts to use data, emerging technologies such as AI and quantum computing, and innovative practice to advance and protect American workers. We sat down with him to talk about what he learned from previous crisis response experiences and why it’s not a time for business as usual.   

As an advisor to the ISR, you are applying your expertise in data innovation to ensure that scientists worldwide have the resources to prepare for and respond to the next crisis, such as climate-related disasters or the next pandemic. What role do you believe data and innovation can play in crisis response? 

Data and innovative technology or practice are critical to crisis responses, respectively. During the fast-moving times of a crisis, data that can tell us what is happening and what has happened previously can be scarce. Who has access to data can be a life-or-death situation: people or governments who have it will weather the storm and those who don’t will be swept away by it. Whether it is mapping what symptoms people are searching on Google to determine what type and where pandemics may spring up, to analysis of large research data sets to mitigate these crises, data helps increase the confidence interval of the interventions that leaders must take to keep us all safe.  

Whether practice or technology, innovations are also indispensable during a crisis because the general operating procedures generally do not have the scale or speed required to stay ahead of the crisis. Innovations allow us to operate at “the speed of the fight” as my old boss, US Army General Stan McChrystal used to say.   

At ISR, we help researchers connect to emerging technologies and resources for collaboration across borders to address the worst impacts of crises. What are some lessons from your time in the Biden administration that could apply to researchers in ISR’s network?  

The lessons I learned were elegant and devastating in their simplicity. One, even the most cutting-edge technologies are not a replacement for strategy. Leaders must do the hard intellectual work of identifying the key problems and questions to be solved in a crisis. Only then can these technologies be applied intelligently and effectively.  

Two, sociology will overwhelm technology every time.  In the space of collaborative research, we can only achieve the collective brilliance of all involved if we have the goodwill and effective means of working together.   

And three, the most important power of these technologies is to help us think outside the parameters of normal practice and try things we would never attempt in normal times.  We should not simply use these technologies to do the same old things with incrementally better speed or effectiveness, but rather use them to take quantum leaps in impact. 

You once said that for any problem we are solving, “Those problems cannot be solved by any one person, one organization, or one sector alone.” Do you believe that more people are thinking and operating through a lens of collaboration in the aftermath of the COVID-19 crisis? What more could we do to implement this new way of working within crisis response?  

I do. Some of the greatest successes of the COVID-19 response, from vaccine development, testing innovation, treatment deployment, to the High-Performance Computing Consortium (HPCC) show what is possible when traditional siloes are sublimated for the sake of helping everyone.   

The key question is: how do we make this new collaborative lens not simply a feature of crisis response, but a key part of operating procedure for all of us?  My biggest recommendation is to keep the institutions that we have created like the HPCC running.  Then, they can be applied not simply when responding to crises but can help prevent crises before they ever start.   

ISR pre-positions resources, like high-performance computing, remote sensing, and geospatial models, so that scientists can connect to them quickly across borders to address the worst impacts of a crisis, without a long wait or extensive application.  Why should businesses make data innovations more available to researchers worldwide during crisis? 

When crisis events like COVID-19 occur, we have seen the impact on the economy and how it hits the bottom line of businesses. It is in a company’s best interest to do anything it can to fight and end these crises as quickly as possible, and that means making data and cutting-edge technology available to the scientists who are working on just that.   

Secondly, I also believe that business and business leaders feel a sense of duty to their communities and their countries.  This is a tradition that we have forgotten but one can go back to businesses like Bell Labs, who helped develop critical technologies like radars that helped during WWII.  We need to remember and keep this tradition alive now.  Business and the world will benefit as a result. 

Q&A: Meet ISR’s First Science Community Manager 

August 17, 2023
by ISR Staff

Earlier this year, the ISR launched a Beta version of a free, digital hub for the 4,000+ scientists in the ISR network. The ISR Community builds on the learnings from our first readiness exercise in 2022, a test case around wildfires, where we asked scientists to submit proposals for how they would manage a cross-border wildfire crisis and consider what tools and resources they would need.   

In the wildfire test readiness exercise and throughout our ongoing conversations, ISR members were clear about the need for interdisciplinary, cross-geographic collaboration, and for easier and faster ways to engage in preparedness. We heard you. That’s why we built the ISR Community and have been working closely with Beta testers to ensure it is effective across disciplines and regions. A full, network-wide launch is expected in Fall 2023.  

Recently, we sat down with Jadson Jall, the ISR’s first Science Community Manager to learn more about the digital hub’s progress. Jall is a geneticist from Brazil and has a passion for bringing scientists together to unlock the power of scientific collaboration as a key to solving humanity’s greatest challenges.  

Why do you think the global science community needs a network like the ISR now? 

The global science community needs a network like the ISR because we live in a world with many compounding crises, such as pandemics and climate-related disasters. These crises are huge, affecting people and the environment in different countries and regions, and they are complex. That means they need lots of different kinds of responses and resources. So, one country’s scientific capabilities, or a single national science policy, can’t begin to resolve crises at that scale. An open, global network of scientists, such as the ISR, means individuals and institutions can pool resources and solve problems together, leading to faster and more effective responses to crises. Furthermore, the network’s principles, such as bringing together Scientists Without Borders and ensuring fair resource access, promoting collaboration, and including different voices, make it a much-needed platform for the current global scientific community. 

What would you like the ISR’s digital hub to look like a year from now, and how would scientists be using it?  

In my dream world, a year from now, the International Science Reserve (ISR) hub would be a globally recognized and effectively functioning platform facilitating seamless personal connections and collaboration among scientists worldwide. It would have grown beyond its current network, and its resources would be even more diverse and plentiful. Scientists would use the hub to conduct and participate in readiness exercises and explore crisis scenarios, helping them prepare for various kinds and aspects of disasters and emergencies. The hub would also be a place where scientists would know where to go and how to apply to connect to different scientific and technical resources in different situations. Ideally, the hub would have a track record of successful crisis response efforts. That will demonstrate its effectiveness and reinforce its value, most importantly, by having a positive impact. 

Can you share more about how you see early adopters using the online community, and their feedback? What do they want to see more of?  

Active community pioneers – our earliest testers – engaged in discussions on diverse topics, from climate change crisis simulations to challenges in research collaboration. Our testers from varied locations and research backgrounds provided invaluable feedback, helping us to consistently refine our virtual environment to better foster scientific engagement and collaboration. For example, they helped us figure out which formats could work for the ISR’s Readiness Exercises and helped us try out various types of activities and collaborations. During the current Beta phase of the ISR Community, we continue to learn from our early adopters. It is clear that our community is eager to collaborate across borders, and I am doing my best as Community Manager to facilitate these connections and collaborations. 

Why did the ISR choose to use “serious games” as an approach to crisis readiness? And how will the readiness exercises work in the ISR Community? 

The ISR chose to use serious games as part of crisis readiness because it’s a fun way to learn about and improve the decision-making process, so that participants can feel they are undertaking the process themselves. Role-playing puts the participant in the position of learning about the crisis in real time and actively experiencing the dilemmas and decisions of how to respond, rather than learning about it afterward. These scenario-based simulation exercises allow researchers and decision-makers to practice analyzing available, often limited, information and making the best decisions, as quickly as possible.  

Serious games will help members of the ISR Community explore decision making around issue areas such as water resource management, climate change adaptation, weather disasters, public health crises, and urban planning. These games serve as a hands-on and immersive way to understand the complexities and nuances of various crises and try different strategies for dealing with them. 

The ISR’s serious games will be conducted online, in a collaborative, interactive format. These exercises will simulate various real-world crisis scenarios, and participants will devise and implement strategies to manage these crises. The activities are being designed to help participants better understand how resources will be deployed and managed in future crises and explore related decisions, helping to prepare us for scientific work in times of global crisis. 

What kinds of resources are available to researchers in the ISR Community? 

 The ISR Community offers a rich suite of resources to its community of researchers and other stakeholders. They can be organized around two main areas. The first of these consists of specialized scientific resources such as high-performance computing, remote sensing, geospatial-temporal mapping, and databases. The ISR partners with organizations like IBM, UL Solutions, Google, Pfizer, and the National Science Foundation, offering various technical tools, data, and other resources. During a declared crisis, researchers will be able to log on to the ISR Community to gain access to resources like IBM’s Geospatial Discovery Network

The other key resource of the ISR Community is our global network of over 4,000 scientists who have come together around a common goal. The ISR Community provides a space for this growing network to prepare, learn, collaborate, and be ready for crises. We will be offering different types of preparedness activities to help facilitate some of the community’s collaborations, and we are also planning special features for the fall based on the interests of the community. 

One last question: why should your fellow scientists join you on the ISR Community 

I recommend that my fellow scientists join me in the ISR Community for a multitude of reasons, including: 

  • Joining is completely free, and you will receive global exposure and appreciation for your contributions to crisis resolution. Being part of the ISR is a unique opportunity to apply your research in a real-world context, contributing to tangible crisis solutions. 
  • As a member of the ISR Community, you will be part of a borderless network of experts, allowing for valuable collaborations and exchanges of ideas. It’s also an excellent space for professional development, offering opportunities for knowledge sharing, networking, and building community connections. 
  •  Being part of the ISR Community ensures that you stay in the loop, with critical crisis communication updates.  

So, the ISR Community is not only an opportunity to contribute to global crisis resolution but also a chance to grow professionally and expand our scientific horizons. 

Using Data to Protect Food Systems from Climate Impacts

June 8, 2023
by ISR Staff

The world has enough food to feed everyone, yet the World Food Programme estimates that 345 million people around the world remain acutely food insecure in 2023.  

Potentially further escalating this inequity, climate shocks are increasing the risks to agricultural yields. Heavy rainfall, droughts, and heatwaves can cause crop failures; climate and environmental pressures can decimate insect populations and microorganisms vital to plants and soil or let new crop pests or diseases emerge. Combined with a globalized distribution system and geopolitics, food system disasters are a compound problem.  

To plan for or reduce the impact of these catastrophes, a variety of datasets, modeling, and analytical tools will be key, including observational data, remote sensing, geospatial mapping, and satellite imagery.  

The International Science Reserve convened an expert panel from nonprofit and corporate perspectives across disciplinary and geographic boundaries to talk about the role of data in preparing for and responding to potential food system crises, as part of the International Science Reserve’s webinar series, Science Unusual: R&D for Global Crisis Response. Participants were: 

  • Michael Hinge, Senior Economist, ALLFED (Alliance to Feed the Earth in Disasters) 
  • Levente Klein, Research Staff Member, IBM 
  • Kyriacos M. Koupparis, Head, Hunger Monitoring Unit, United Nations World Food Programme 
  • Kay Sun, Senior Scientist, Mondelez International 
  • Vaishnavi Chandrashekhar, Climate and Environmental Journalist, panel moderator 

Here are the top takeaways from the discussion: 

Participants agreed about the urgent priority to get accurate data about what’s happening with food systems, weather, and climate patterns: 

The information needs to include a wide range of data inputs to make sure it includes the “ground-truthing” from sources where people are seeing the most immediate impacts.  

And in turn that the information, modeling and predictions should be made available to the communities who are most affected.

The panelists talked about climate impacts on specific food crop examples and ways that data-based planning can help deal with those impacts with alternative food sources or adapting agricultural cultivation methods.   

Visit our events page to watch the full webinar.  

Partnering with IBM to Put Advanced Data and AI Tools in the Hands of Crisis Researchers

January 9, 2023
by Mila Rosenthal

As part of our ongoing mission, the International Science Reserve (ISR) works to facilitate access during a crisis to specialized scientific and technical resources from public and private institutions. Over the last year, the ISR has interviewed dozens of members of our network – from Trinidad to Argentina – to hear directly from them about what they need to more effectively do their jobs.  

Access to real-time, complex, and global data sets and modeling was often top of their lists. For example, if a Turkish wildfire researcher in hydrology is collaborating with a soil agronomist across the border in Greece in responding to regional wildfire disasters, the team needs stronger data resources. More complex data will help them to understand wildfire spread related to water and land use patterns and it can contribute to advance plans to limit future damage across borders. 

IBM’s Geospatial Discovery Network

This is where the ISR can help fill in the gaps. Scientists face multiple barriers to conducting applied research in times of crisis – especially in contexts and countries where funding is inconsistent and advanced data resources are limited. IBM and the International Science Reserve are partnering to increase access to specialized, curated data and analytics during global crises. This first-of-its-kind partnership will help the international scientific community in responding quickly and effectively to crises, such as climate-related disasters. 

IBM will offer its Geospatial Discovery Network (GDN) – a set of data and information discovery and modeling technologies designed to anticipate environmental disruption and manage risk – to support the ISR’s scientific network in addressing the worst impacts of disasters, such as damage to people, communities, and livelihoods from heatwaves, wildfires and flooding. GDN’s data resources originate from IBM’s Environmental Intelligence Suite, and include hundreds of geodata sets from sources like satellite imagery, to which IBM applies analytics and AI for modeling. 

We know that access to this type of data works. For nearly a decade, IBM has been helping businesses improve sustainability and manage the negative impacts of the changing climate, including: 

IBM and the ISR plan to offer access to the IBM Geospatial Discovery Network to ISR’s network of researchers, at no cost, through a customized, fast-tracked process. When the ISR declares a crisis, scientists in the network will be able to apply to use the tools for projects that involve transnational research collaboration.  In the coming months, we will offer scientists in our network the chance to explore crisis scenarios and simulations in which they could use IBM’s GDN tools and to practice submitting proposals through the new application process     

We at the ISR are grateful to IBM for stepping up to reduce the red tape and break down borders to increase access to high-quality data and modeling tools for more researchers. 

When Waters Rise: Cross-Border Science for Global Flood Response

December 12, 2022
by ISR Staff

Around the world, flooding is wreaking havoc on people’s daily lives with increasing magnitude and frequency. Communities in Nigeria, Chad, Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali, and Cameroon are experiencing some of the worst floods in a decade, as they sweep across western and central African borders.  

In Pakistan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Australia, and the United States—such as in Florida and Kentucky—communities have faced multiple dangerous and deadly floods in 2022. These unprecedented flood events have killed thousands of people, displaced millions, decimated farms and businesses, and destroyed homes and habitats. 

The World Bank reports that about one and a half billion people are at risk from flooding, one-third of whom are living in poverty, making them more vulnerable to migration pressures and economic insecurity. While flooding can be a natural phenomenon that can help provide fertile soil and sustain wetlands, today’s floods are becoming more frequent, dangerous, and deadly, as a result of human-caused climate disruption and development in urban, coastal areas.  

When flood water crosses national borders, “transboundary floods” can be even more catastrophic without international cooperation around emergency management, such as early warning systems. In a recent Science Unusual webinar, hosted by the International Science Reserve, a group of panelists explored the role scientific and technical experts can play in large-scale, international flood prediction, prevention, preparation and response. 

Speaking on the panel were:  

  • Nora El-Gohary, Professor of Construction Engineering and Management, The Grainger College of Engineering, University of Illinois 
  • Njoki Mwarumba, Assistant Professor of Emergency Management and Disaster, University of Nebraska Omaha 
  • Anthony Torres, Chief Meteorologist and Head of Global Science Operations, Currently weather service  
  • Campbell Watson, Senior Research Scientist – IBM Research, Global Lead, Accelerated Discovery—Climate & Sustainability 
  • Ugochi Anyaka-Oluigbo, Environment and Conservation Journalist, Nigeria (Moderator) 

Here are three big takeaways from the discussion: 

1. Breaking down borders between social scientists and other types of scientists who study floods will lead to better outcomes for people and communities.  

Njoki Mwarumba kicks off the discussion on why we need to break down siloes.
Nora El-Gohary on how scientists can help reduce the impacts of floods on infrastructure.

2. Using atmospheric data to predict flooding impacts is just the beginning. Protecting the most vulnerable requires a stronger analysis on how the atmosphere interacts with oceanic and local land systems, and human habitats.   

Anthony Torres on where meteorology interacts with other disciplines and AI to predict floods.

3. Scientists should work to understand indigenous knowledge in order to better collaborate on early warning systems that save lives. 

Njoki Mwarumba discusses the impact of leaving entire regions out of advances in technology, like early warning systems.
Anthony Torres on building two-way streets of communication between communities and scientists.

4. Artificial intelligence is enhancing our ability to predict and prepare for floods. But we must simplify access to increasingly complex data processes and improve their usage across borders. 

Campbell Watson shares his thoughts on AI and its impact on flood modeling.
Campbell Watson discusses how IBM is researching and responding to global floods.


Do you want to watch the whole webinar? Here are three steps to rewatch the panel through the ISR Science Unusual series on-demand:    

  • Register for the webinar using this link   
  • Then, click “Join Event”   
  • After logging in, select the “Schedule” menu, or the grid menu (small squares) on mobile, located at the top of your screen, then click “On Demand” 

In Step with the UN on Science for Sustainable Development

November 15, 2022
by ISR Staff

For a United Nations discussion of the role of science in solving the world’s most urgent problems, the International Science Reserve (ISR) convened a panel of experts from the ISR network, across academic, private and public sectors. The recording is now available on-demand (viewing instructions below).

The panel was moderated by Mila Rosenthal, Executive Director of the International Science Reserve, and included:  

  • Nicholas Dirks, President & CEO, New York Academy of Sciences, ISR Executive Board Co-chair 
  • Erwin Gianchandani, Assistant Director for Technology, Innovation and Partnerships National Science Foundation, Federal Liaison to the ISR 
  • Tracy Marshall, University of the West Indies St. Augustine Campus. Trinidad and Tobago, ISR Science Community Member 
  • Philip Nelson, Director, AI for Social Good, Google AI, ISR Executive Board Member 

The webinar was part of the United Nations General Assembly’s Science Summit, where we discussed how the ISR can help in fast-moving climate and health-related crises to protect progress on the UN Sustainable Development Goals – the Global Goals – and limit the damage to communities and habitats.

Mila Rosenthal (ISR) introduces the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and their relationship to crises.

When a crisis hits, the International Science Reserve will help scientists in our network get additional access to specialized human and technical resources, like remote sensing, geospatial mapping and high-performance computing, so that they can apply their research for crisis response.

Here are two big takeaways from the discussion:

1. Human networks are key, and they need to include everyone to make sure that science and technology is aimed at helping the most vulnerable people and most fragile environments.

Erwin Gianchandani (NSF) on how the ISR democratizes access to resources.
Philip Nelson (Google AI) on the power of coming together.
Tracy Marshall (University of the West Indies – St. Augustine Campus) on how the ISR will support her work as a scientist.

2. You can’t just throw money at a crisis and expect rapid response solutions.  You have to learn from previous experiences and prepare in advance. 

For example, the ISR is keeping the life-saving public-private connections made during COVID-19 alive in order to prepare for the next crisis. 

Erwin Gianchandani (NSF) on why networks are just as important as money in times of crisis research.
Nicholas Dirks (NYAS) on collaboration between the public and private sector during crisis.
Tracy Marshall (University of the West Indies – St. Augustine) on valuing local contexts in disaster management research.
Philip Nelson (Google AI) on solving crisis-related problems in an open environment.


Do you want to watch the whole webinar? Here are three steps to rewatch the panel through the ISR Science Unusual series on-demand:   

  • Register for the webinar using this link  
  • Then, click “Join Event”  
  • After logging in, select the “Schedule” menu, or the grid menu (small squares) on mobile, located at the top of your screen, then click “On Demand” 

Scientists Hunt for Clues to Post-Wildfire Recovery in Argentina  

September 23, 2022
by ISR Staff

In August, wildfires ripped through the Córdoba Province in central Argentina, leaving economic damage and a scorched forests and pasture land in its wake. Argentina is no stranger to wildfires, but climate change is making the fires more frequent, widespread and complex – and the impacts of drought and fires are stretching across borders.  

After thousands of acres in northern Argentina burned in February of 2022, ash clouds flew into Argentina’s neighbor, Paraguay, harming local residents’ health with smog-filled air. The country made international headlines just two years prior when another set of fires in Córdoba burned 60,000 hectares of flora, fauna, grassland, forests, and homes.  

Healthy farmland and soil are critical to the region, given that it relies heavily on its agricultural industry, like cattle farming. Crisis after crisis has forced the region’s leading scientists to rethink how fire-driven changes to soil properties implicates vegetation, plant regeneration and ecosystem services. And it has pushed them to work together across borders and scientific disciplines.  

“In late September 2020, it was easy to see from the Córdoba City the thick black plumes of smoke rising from the ranges, while hellish images were shown on TV and social media,” said Dr. Maria Gabriela Garcia, International Science Reserve community member and a geologist based in Córdoba. “This situation led me to wonder to what extent the fires have altered the chemical and physical properties of the soils, and ultimately, impacted their fertility and runoff control capacity.” 
After the 2020 fires, Argentina’s National Council of Science and Technology (CONICET) called researchers together from different disciplines to propose actions and lines of research that deal with different aspects of this crisis. Today, geologists, mineralogists, chemists, microbiologists and ecologists, are all working all together to rapidly characterize the dynamics of post-fire recovery.  

One unique collective of Argentinian scientists are on the hunt for stronger data about the soil in the aftermath of extreme wildfires. Through the NCST, Dr. Estela Cecilia Mlewski, a microbiologist, met Dr. Garcia, a professor at the National University of Córdoba. 

The team also brought on Edith Filippini, a lichenologist focused on ecological studies and biomonitoring of environments affected by fire; Romina Cecilia Torres – a specialist in postfire regeneration by resprouting and seedlings; and Daihana Argibay – a specialist in satellite image analysis. 

The group’s collected data will be fundamental to understanding the geochemical and microbiological disturbances that occur in soils of a semi-arid mountainous area of southern South America affected by forest fires, and help researchers design effective strategies for remediation of the affected ecosystems across the region. If their research can find the presence of microorganisms, for example, there is an opportunity for regrowth and regeneration of local flora – which could lessen the fires’ impact on farming or other ecological or economic activities. 

The group recently worked together on the International Science Reserve’s readiness exercise on wildfires. The ISR conducts readiness exercises – or scenarios – to bring scientists from across borders and disciplines together to prepare for crisis. The Argentinian scientists believe that the International Science Reserve can be useful for giving researchers the tools for fire prevention and support through much needed resources to predict fire behavior, and help in control and monitoring tasks against a crisis.  

“The ISR is an excellent opportunity to know researchers around the world working on similar aspects to us. It gives us the potential to generate collaborations between foreign groups and enrich our knowledge. The ISR’s readiness exercises can improve existing tools and more importantly, expand our ideas,” Dr. Mlewski recently told the ISR team in an interview. 

If you are interested in joining the International Science Reserve network and collaborating with scientists like the Argentinian group, please visit our sign-up page to learn more about becoming a member of the ISR community. 

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The International Science Reserve is a network of open scientific communities, bringing together specialized resources from across the globe to prepare for and help mitigate complex and urgent global crises. We focus solely on preparing and mobilizing scientists to augment existing response organizations.