From August 29 to September 12, 2017, Hurricane Irma devastated Florida and much of the Caribbean. While it seems impossible to prevent a natural disaster of such magnitude, researchers use their ingenuity to try and achieve this goal. And even if they do not succeed completely, another branch of research, based on technology and especially applications, has developed various means of communicating in a state of emergency during natural disasters.

Cooling oceans to avoid hurricanes

First presented in 2007 to the US government after Hurricane Katrina, and then relaunched in 2012 by The Guardian after Hurricane Sandy, the ocean cooling technology called Salter Sink is once again in the news. Patented in partnership with a US company backed by Bill Gates, the cooling method devised by Stephen Salter, an English geo-engineer, aims to mix hot waters on the surface with colder waters in the depths. The system that would allow this to happen would consist of thousands of old tires attached to each other to support plastic tubes 100 to 300 meters long, and 100 to 200 meters wide. This could prevent hurricane formation, or at least reduce its intensity, given that it forms when temperatures at the surface of the sea are too high.

Identifying rain to prevent floods

A Strasbourg-based team named Predict -composed of natural risk management engineers, cartographers, hydrological engineers, statisticians and geomathematicians- scrutinizes day and night weather radars data and the rains that fall in the region. Updated every five minutes, this information allows experts to see and then simulate in 3D the impact of precipitation on local cities. Very advanced in France, where more than one municipality in two is monitored, Predict technology is now trying to expand internationally.

A detective agency dedicated to natural disasters

How can we optimize the conclusions to be drawn from natural disasters? Scott Knowles, a historian specialized in natural disasters at Drexel University, had an idea that could be much more efficient than existing studies, which he considers not to be informative enough. He thought of creating a federal agency in the United States whose role would be to investigate possible natural disasters. Contacted by Wired, Knowles gave more details about his project. “We have a lot of agencies that we fund for their work, but what we’re missing is a police officer specialized in disasters, able to say ‘this has worked, this less, there are similarities between this and this, etc.’ And thus publicly disclose the results to inform the population”.

Maintaining communication in a state of emergency can save many lives

Predicting a natural disaster is a feat, many initiatives have been developed to facilitate communication between authorities and citizens in the event of an earthquake, hurricane or tsunami. Among them is Zello, an application which gained six million users during hurricane Irma, reports Recode. Inspired by the operating mode of a walkie-talkie, it allows, from any smartphone, to connect to thematic channels and to exchange out loud. It has been of great help to the inhabitants of areas victims of natural disasters. In Berlin, an application also exists that allows authorities to communicate in real time with the citizens: Katwarn. In the form of push notifications, police can prevent imminent danger in the area where the users are located, thus enabling them to take shelter. Better still, it is directly connected to the advertising panels of the city, on which it can display information about the risks incurred.

Robin Murphy’s last resort

Post-disaster progress is also needed. Robin Murphy, Director of the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at Texas A&M University, has developed a range of robots specifically designed to respond to emergencies. Presented at a TED conference, they are able to fly, dig and swim to assist rescuers. Totally agile, they can also act as scouts by sneaking under the rubble to provide information.