Understanding the Message: Social and Cultural constraints To Interpreting Weather Generated Natural Hazards

March 2004 (VOL. 22, NO. 1)

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Globally there is an increase in the social and economic impacts of all natural hazards, and especially those that are generated by weather systems. Climate change is a part of this process, but it is most likely that long-term climate change will first become evident as an increase in natural disasters, especially flooding and drought. However, a major cause of increasing nautral disasters is the growth and relocation of population, concentrating into complex urban settlements that proliferate infrastructure and property in vulnerable floodplains and the coastal fringe. While Australia has experienced a decline in the loss of life from natural hazards, the loss to business, agriculture and the economy in general has increased exponentially. Weather generated natural disasters dominate the total disaster bill. Vulnerability to natural hazards may be reduced through hazard education and effective warnings. \r\nThe communication of weather information is inevitably a top down process. Understanding of information and in particular, warning s about hazardous events involves a public safety transfer of knowledge from highly specialized scientists through emergency managers, local politicians and the media, to every member of society. Research shows that selection, interpretation and expression of information and warnings occurs at institutional and societal levels. Both the media and the general public select, re-interpret, and weigh up information about weather and hazards, applying a complex set of attitudes, perceptions experience and misinformation to the initial message. An understanding of how people interpret the message is essential to the accuracy and safety of warnings and forecasts. Examples and case studies from post-disaster and behavioural research carried out by the Centre for Disaster Studies, and hazard events illustrate the issues of understanding the message.\r\n