Social media can help predict floods, hurricanes and other natural disasters

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Beyond socialisation, social media could help predict natural disasters including floods and hurricanes a new study has revealed.

Researchers at University of Warwick have published a study in the journal PLOS One wherein they have shown that isn’t the only thing social media can do, but it can also help predict hurricanes and floods. Photographs, key words and messages posted on social media can be used to devise a warning system about extreme weather events before they happen – such as hurricanes, storms and floods.

Researchers found that online posts can signal weather risks developing in specific locations and times – for example, posts about water levels rising can alert the authorities to a potential flood. By tracking certain key words during extreme weather events could enable us to collect information from a number of sources and eventually accurately predict which areas will be affected, and how big the impact will be to infrastructure and human life.

For the study, researchers tracked photos and videos with tags such as river, water and landscape on the social media platform Flickr between 2004 and 2014. Whilst these words can be used to generally describe natural scenery, researchers found that in certain time periods before the peak of extreme weather events – and in the locations where they occurred – these words took on a distinct meaning of forecast and warning, showing the weather worsening.

Researchers call these words risk-signalling words and they can be used as ‘social sensors’ alongside physical meteorological sensors to improve the prediction and monitoring of the behaviour and severity of an evolving weather event in multiple areas.

Physical sensors – such as flood monitors – have been used traditionally to detect extreme weather events, but their scope is limited, and they cannot accurately cover each specific area which may be affected in the same way that social media can.

Social media is currently used as an effective tool for ‘now-casting’ – providing eye-witness accounts of ongoing events – but has not yet been harnessed for predicting large-scale events which are still developing.

Using social media and physical meteorological sensors together would create an early warning system for extreme weather events of unprecedented accuracy and efficacy.

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