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Adaptation option

Establishment of early warning systems (2015)

Early warning systems can enhance the preparedness of decision-makers and private individuals for climate-related natural hazards and their readiness to harness favourable weather conditions. Early warning systems for natural hazards need to have not only a sound scientific and technical basis, but also a strong focus on the people exposed to risk, and with a systems approach that incorporates all of the relevant factors in that risk, whether arising from the natural hazards or social vulnerabilities, and from short-term or long-term processes. To be effective and complete, an early warning system needs to comprise four interacting elements namely: (i) risk knowledge, (ii) monitoring and warning service, (iii) dissemination and communication and (iv) response capability. While this set of four elements appears to have a logical sequence, in fact each element has direct two-way linkages and interactions with each of the other elements.

In Europe there is a considerable experience with early warning systems, especially for what concerns flood and flash-flood risk, but also heat waves. Climate change stimulates the rehabilitation and further development of these systems. Enhanced ability to forecast peak discharges remains the most relevant non-structural measure for flood protection. Extended forecasting lead times are desirable as they facilitate mitigating action and response in case of extreme discharges. For example, the availability of several global ensemble weather prediction systems through the ‘‘THORPEX Interactive Grand Global Ensemble’’ (TIGGE) archive provides an opportunity to explore new dimensions in early flood forecasting and warning. TIGGE data has been used as meteorological input to the European Flood Alert System (EFAS) for a case study of a flood event in Romania in October 2007. Results illustrate that awareness for this case of flooding could have been raised as early as 8 days before the event and how the subsequent forecasts provide increasing insight into the range of possible flood conditions. Examples of early warning systems can be found also outside Europe, where a higher variety of (disastrous) natural climate hazards occur more often. In Indonesia, for example, five years after the 2004 tsunami, a lot has been achieved to make the communities better prepared.

Early warning systems are being extensively used by transport infrastructure managers and operators across Europe: for example the Norwegian Road and Rail administrations have participated in the development of the x-Geo tool, for monitoring and forecasting floods, landslides and avalanches. Most European rail operators make use of tools predicting adverse weather events which could have an impact on the rail system (Source: EEA report 8/2014 - Adaptation of transport to climate change in Europe).

Early warning systems aimed at addressing the drought and heat waves hazards are currently receiving an increasing attention. Heat waves were responsible of dramatic mortality and morbidity effects on European populations, for example during summer 2003. As a response to such risk for human health exacerbated by climate warming, many countries have introduced early warning systems (H-EWS), as an adaptation option to reduce human health consequences through timely notification to vulnerable populations. In a recent paper by D. Lowe and others (see Weblinks section), H-EWS have been identified in 12 European countries. The systems adopted range from traditional passive communication approaches (e.g. media releases), to active communications to vulnerable individuals, eg. in a few cases SMS alerts to target groups.

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Reference information

Adaptation Details



IPCC categories

Social: Informational, Structural and physical: Technological options

Stakeholder participation

To sustain an early warning system it is necessary to have strong political commitment and durable institutional capacities, which in turn depend on public awareness. Public awareness and support is often high immediately after a major disaster event—such moments can be capitalized on to strengthen and secure the sustainability of early warning systems. The incorrect use of an early warning system could result in significantly increasing the impacts for the affected population. A correct communication and reliability of the institution is a fundamental pre-requisite for an effective early warning system.

Success and Limiting Factors

At present the analysis and preparation of information are particularly critical points of an early warning chain. The responsible decision makers are usually confronted with huge amounts of structured and unstructured data. To enable reliable early warning, the available data must be pre-selected, analysed and prepared. The decision makers should be provided with a reliable and manageable amount of information for the warning decision and for taking preventive measures. Limitations include failure to allow for non-climatic confounding factors, limited geographical/temporal resolution, or lack of evaluation of predictive validity.

One of the major challenges of EWS is the establishment of clear institutional arrangements and capacities at national and local levels that support the development of public and institutional response capability at the local level. Public understanding of and trust in the system comes with knowledge and awareness on the part of the end users of the system and convincing performance on the part of the public service provider.

Enhanced ability to forecast peak discharges remains the most relevant non-structural measure for flood protection. Flood warning lead-times of 3–10 days give the possibility to set up all the civil protection and emergency measures minimising the impacts in terms of human lives and economic losses.

Costs and Benefits

Early warning systems are usually cost-effective non-structural measures. Their cost, non-negligible in absolute terms, is extremely low in comparison with the potential amount of losses that these systems allow to reduce.

EU Flood and Water Framework Directive address in their Flood Risk Management Plans also early warning systems. Improved flood predictions are on the national adaptation agenda of many European countries.

From the financial point of view, the EU has provided consistent investments in the early warning system related strategies. For example, COPERNICUS, previously known as GMES (Global Monitoring for Environment and Security), is the European Programme for the establishment of a European capacity for Earth Observation. COPERNICUS’ services are dedicated to the monitoring and forecasting of the Earth's subsystems. They contribute directly to the monitoring of climate change. COPERNICUS services also address emergency response (e.g. in case of natural disaster, forest fires, technological accidents or humanitarian crises) and security-related issues (e.g. maritime surveillance, border control).

Implementation Time

1-5 years.

Reference information

DG ENV project ClimWatAdapt and DG CLIMA project Adaptation Strategy of European Cities

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