Using Physics to Estimate Current and Future Flood Risk

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Dr. Kerry Emanuel

Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Atmospheric Science

Co-Director of Lorenz Center


Monday November 9, 2020, 2 PM



Almost all catastrophe (CAT) modeling today is based on statistical analysis of historical events. Some of this statistical modeling is highly advanced – for example, most extant hurricane CAT models are based on a sophisticated bootstrapping of historical tropical cyclone tracks and intensity – but it all ultimately depends on the length and quality of this historical record and the assumption that the statistics are stationary. But for many weather-related hazards in much of the world, the historical record is woefully short and/or of poor quality, and the assumption of stationary statistics has been essentially obliterated by climate change that has already occurred. Given that climate change disproportionately affects the tails of risk distributions, it is likely that current estimates of the costliest potential events are far off the mark. For this reason, I have been advocating a fast migration toward physical modeling of weather-related risks and will discuss recent progress toward this goal, with a focus on flood risk.



Dr. Kerry Emanuel is the Cecil and Ida Green professor of atmospheric science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he has been on the faculty since 1981, after spending three years on the faculty of UCLA.

Emanuel’s initial focus was on the dynamics of rain and snow banding in winter storms, but his interests gradually migrated to the meteorology of the tropics and to climate change. His specialty is hurricane physics and he was the first to investigate how long-term climate change might affect hurricane activity, an issue that continues to occupy him today. His interests also include cumulus convection, and advanced methods of sampling the atmosphere in aid of numerical weather prediction.

Emanuel is the author or co-author of over 200 peer-reviewed scientific papers, and three books, including Divine Wind: The History and Science of Hurricanes, published by Oxford University Press and aimed at a general audience, and What We Know about Climate Change, published by the MIT Press and now entering its third edition. He is a co-director of MIT’s Lorenz Center, a climate think tank devoted to basic, curiosity-driven climate research.

He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, American Philosophical Society, and a foreign member of the Royal Society.


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Nov 09 2020