Climate change has made weather events more extreme and unpredictable. Risks from natural hazards have been increasing. Dealing with the risk requires communication between different stakeholders, an aspect that has often been neglected in the past. A particular challenge is risk communication with the population. They often have a different perspective on risk than administrations and experts. Improving this communication is one of the goals of the research project Risk Communication Strategies (RiKoST).
RiKoST is an Interreg Italy – Austria project involving thirteen alpine communities in South Tyrol and Carinthia. Innovation Origins spoke with EURAC researchers Fabio Carnelli and Lydia Pedoth to find out more:
What was the trigger for the research project?
Lydia: A small community in South Tyrol was affected by a natural disaster caused by an extreme weather event. The following year we interviewed the people affected and the findings from this study aroused the interest of the Agency for Civil Protection in Bolzano, Italy. This gave rise to the idea of extending the project to several communities. The agency combines expertise from planning and technical protection measures against natural hazards to risk reduction strategies, but also wanted to involve us and test some social science methods. They want to find out what the residents think about natural hazards and how they can improve communication with them.
What role does the population play in managing risks from natural hazards?
Fabio: Risk management also requires a socio-political approach and awareness of this is still very low, whether at European, national or regional level. Technical measures to protect from natural hazards are not sufficient and there are many reasons for this. An important one is climate change, which makes weather events more extreme and complex and can lead to cascading effects that are difficult to predict. Another reason is progressive urbanization, which has led to denser settlement in the Alps. In this situation not only technical protection measures are needed, but also cooperation between people and local communities. Both risk awareness and willingness to actively contribute to risk reduction, must be enhanced.
An important aspect of the project is an improved implementation of the Hazard Zone Plan, a planning instrument conceived in the 1990s which has been in use since 2008. We considered how we could use it as a risk communication tool to make residents aware of risks and show them how to deal with them.
Lydia: Of course, the economic aspect must also be taken into account. Structural protection measures are cost-intensive not only for the building owner but also for the operators. So it is also a matter of how individual measures complement each other and how damage can be avoided.
What can residents do in concrete terms to reduce the risks arising from natural hazards? Can you give an example?
Lydia: Heavy rainfall can lead to flooding, landslides or both. Cellars and ground floors of buildings are severely affected by flooding. It is therefore important not to store valuable items there. A landslide, however, can put a lot of pressure on buildings. The most sensitive parts are the windows. By strategically choosing the position and type of windows, you can prevent serious damage.
Are there any other considerations?
Lydia: Yes, it is also a question of knowing the places where natural hazaards can occur and cause damage. Residents should not stay there during extreme weather events. During floods, for example, they should not use underpasses because the water level there rises rapidly.
How can tourists get involved in risk communication?
Fabio: Tourists were not actively involved in our project, but we came across them during our information activities in the communities. They are often one of the most vulnerable groups, because they are usually less informed or not aware, of the risks from natural hazards potentially affecting tourist destinations. At the same time, the Alpine regions are heavily dependent on tourism so it is very important to properly involve tourists in risk communication. One way of providing information could be apps with geotagging (note: localization). If you are in an area where a natural hazard is imminent, you receive an SMS or a message through the app.
Have you also used technology for risk communication?
Fabio: We wanted to present the complex risk prevention of natural hazards in a more simple way. That’s why we came up with virtual reality (VR) glasses. We used 3D photos of extreme weather events in communities. Thanks to virtual reality, the viewer can see the possible effects of natural hazards such as floods or avalanches: If you turn to the right, you see the setting before the event; if you turn to the left, you see the setting after the event. Users can choose among the possible natural hazard events and see what risks they entail.
We have also used virtual reality glasses to explain the Hazard Zone Plan. Through the glasses, this can be seen as a 3D satellite image from a bird’s eye view. The danger zones are marked in color. There is also a voice that describes the point on the hazard zone map that you are currently looking at.
Lydia: The content is quite extensive. You get specific information about each hazard zone, for example, what the different colors mean. In red hazard zones, the construction of new buildings is prohibited. Existing buildings have to be adapted. Damage can be expected in the event of extreme weather events.
We also gave the test persons virtual reality glasses made of cardboard (a type of virtual reality glasses) that can be used with their smartphones to watch the videos in 3D at home. We provided them with the videos via QR code.
What kind of technology did you use for the virtual reality glasses?
Lydia: This is a test. We first wanted to find out whether this type of technology is suitable for risk communication. Together with our project partners, we will decide at the end of the project and based on our experiences if and how we will continue to use it in the future. If so, we will do it with more scenarios and more innovative videos. At the moment, the images are static, meaning that in the event of flooding, you see a flooded square but you won’t see water is rising.
In what situations have you used the virtual reality glasses?
Fabio: In the research project, eight municipalities in South Tyrol were selected as case studies. We spent a day on the road in each of the them and made contact with residents and tourists at weekly markets and tourist spots. In addition, we visited secondary and high schools and taught the pupils the basics of risk reduction of disasters from natural hazards. We used various different media, but the virtual reality glasses were by far the most popular.
You investigated how the inhabitants perceive the risk of natural hazards. What did you find out?
Lydia: We conducted interviews, but the data has not yet been fully evaluated. The interviews were divided into three parts. The first part was about knowledge. We asked, for example, whether they knew the Hazard Zone Plan and the technical protection measures in their community. The second part was about risk perception and contained more emotional questions. For example, we asked how likely they think it is that their own home could be affected from natural hazards in the future. In the third part, we asked for suggestions to improve risk communication and risk reduction measures.
Thank you for the interview.
Fabio Carnelli received his PhD in environmental sociology and disaster risk. He is currently a post-doc researcher at the Institute for Earth Observation at Eurac Research in Bolzano, Italy.
Lydia Pedoth (c) EURAC Research
Lydia Pedoth studied political science and researches in the area of resilience of communities, risk perception and risk governance. She heads the RiKoST project within EURAC.
The RiKoST project is managed by the Agency for Civil Protection of the Autonomous Province of Bolzano, Italy. The Austrian partner is the Water Management Department of Regional Government of Carinthia. The research partner is the Institute for Earth Observation at the EURAC Research in Bolzano, Italy.