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Solutions needed for floods wildfires, heat waves and more

Nearly everyday, news headlines and social feeds are dominated by the deadly impacts of extreme weather, leaving us to wonder if these events are getting worse.

The answer is yes, says Kait Parker, meteorologist with The Weather Company and, an IBM business.

“It’s not our imagination, we are seeing more disasters,” Parker said. “In fact, it feels like we can barely catch our breath from the last one before the next one comes along.”

From the most destructive wildfire season in California history to the deadly tsunami in Indonesia that capped the year, more than 10,000 people around the world lost their lives to natural disasters in 2018.

Frequent, intense, widespread and long-lasting weather is not going away; it’s only going to get worse, according to the National Climate Assessment, released in November.

Now is the time to learn more about extreme weather and see how technology can be used to help communities prepare, respond and recover from these events. That’s why IBM with David Clark Cause this month launched Call for Code 2019, which asks the world’s 23 million developers to build applications and write code, all with the single aim to help save lives.

What’s up with extreme weather

Since 1970, the number of disasters worldwide has more than quadrupled to approximately 400 a year, according to the United Nation’s Office of Disaster Risk Reduction.

While earthquakes and tsunamis have become more deadly — mostly because the number of people living in vulnerable regions has grown significantly — extreme weather events are occurring more frequently and impacting a larger number of people each year. In 2018, extreme weather events affected nearly 61.7 million people, according to the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters.

This is a trend we’ve been seeing for a while, Parker said. Since 1950, the number of flood events around the world has increased 15 times. Extreme heat events have increased 20 fold, with wildfires occurring 7 times more frequently than they did 70 years ago, she said.

How can technology help?

Extreme weather takes a toll on communities, costing billions of dollars each year and leaving residents without basic necessities such as electricity, cell service, clean water, food, medical supplies and access to healthcare.

Some of the 2018 Call for Code submissions focused on helping people after an extreme weather event. For instance, the winning team Project Owl developed an off-line communication network that connects disaster victims and first responders once connectivity is lost. Another promising solution, AI-mergency, uses natural language processing and map visualizations to support 911 dispatchers and improve their efficiency in responding with much-needed resources.

Assisting people after disaster is critical but anything that can be done to help warn communities about events before they happen is hugely important, Parker says.

Some 2018 solutions aimed to do that. Team Lali Wildfire created a sensor network to detect and track wildfires to help firefighters get fires under control before they spread, while AI solution Opt-OSS uses antenna imagery data for precise detection of floods and land surface changes.

Solutions such as these are a good start but more are needed. For example, actionable data following severe weather events is a huge need, says Justo “Tito” Hernandez, director of FEMA’s Operational Coordination Division in Puerto Rico.

“We are lacking access to data,” Hernandez said. “How do I get the locals to do a rapid assessment and tell me what their needs are in terms of food, water, shelter and medical care? … A fast way for me to know what happened so I can put resources available to accomplish the task of saving lives, that’s what I need.”

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