We have already seen that people can use mobile devices and sites like Twitter to warn people of dangerous situations, like just this month during the Discovery hostage crisis. There are also apps designed specifically for emergency situations when you need safety tips. But just plain old standard social media tools can be helpful in general for natural disasters — nobody can control when they happen, but sources like Twitter, Foursquare, and Facebook can warn you when one might be coming. Here are three natural disasters that lend themselves to these kinds of warnings.
Tsunamis are mere legends to people who live in landlocked areas or along low-risk coastlines. Although tsunamis have occurred most frequently in the Pacific Ocean, there are plenty of tsunami occurrences on record in the Indian, Mediterranean, Atlantic, and Caribbean waters. The good news is that tsunamis do have recognizable warning signs that people can easily disseminate across their social networks.
Tsunamis are usually triggered by earthquakes, which are responsible for setting the destructive wave trains in motion. Earthquakes are hot topics for Twitter, whether they are small and barely perceptible or dangerous. The Earthquake and Tsunami account is made for this purpose, but even earthquake-only sources like WheresItShaking can tell you when earthquakes are happening. (Then you have to assess whether you are in a vulnerable area for tsunamis.)
However, your friends and family members who live in the same location as you are an equally good bet for warnings. If they tweet about a very rapidly receding tide or a noticeable rise in the sea level, you may want to think about heading for high ground. Facebook statuses are effective in the same way.
Dorothy and her family didn’t have access to Foursquare when a mega tornado hit her Kansas hometown — otherwise, she might have checked in at Oz to let Auntie Em know she was alright. Tornadoes are not only ominous and fascinating to watch, but actually highly dangerous for those who lay in their path. Again though, tornadoes have pretty standard warning signs according to NOAA: a greenish dark sky, a wall of clouds (which sometimes obscures the funnel shape), hail that is larger than normal, and a loud, roaring sound.
Tweets that come up on your feed can alert you to these signals, but you might also want to consider a check-in site like Gowalla. If there are people who are checking in to safety spots in your area, that’s a sign that they know something you don’t: that there’s dangerous weather on the loose. Since tornadoes are such highly visual events, looking up video and picture content on Flickr and YouTube are also really good options for familiarizing yourself with the warning signs if you live in a high-risk locale.
Finally, avalanches are natural disasters that you can warn others about (or receive warnings about) via online networks. Avalanches, which can be a small matter of “sluffing” snow or an alarming matter of massive snow displacement, are often avoidable if you pay attention to the signage and alert systems in place on many mountains. Ski resorts and other park areas will have information about avalanche zones for people who want to use the mountain for recreation on any given day. A ski park’s Facebook page or Twitter account can provide fast updates on the mountain conditions.
In addition, if you have friends who share the same interests as you, check-ins with commentary are a great way to find out whether people are able to enjoy the powder on a given day. Even Breckenridge Ski Resort in Colorado has had hundreds of check-ins, which is plenty of traffic to use as a resource for comments about hazardous conditions. If you know in advance that avalanches are likely that day, then you’re less likely to arrive on the mountain and take a last-minute risk because you were unprepared and had been looking forward to a good snowboarding session the whole drive over.
Nature and technology might be considered opposites, but in the case of natural disasters, social media can reign supreme for providing safety tips. Don’t forget to provide tips for others on your networks too — warnings work best when people both give and receive information.