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May 24, 1999

NOAA grant will fund research on El Niño warnings

By Jennifer McNulty

One year after El Niño blasted the Central Coast, a team of UCSC researchers is investigating the role that early warnings had on farmers, fishermen, and residents of the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Ronnie Lipschutz, an associate professor of politics, and Caroline Pomeroy, an assistant research scientist with the Institute of Marine Sciences, will conduct archival research and in-depth interviews to determine how people used the information that was provided in advance of El Niño.

The research is being funded by a $135,000 grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

"As agencies like NOAA perfect their predictive capabilities and are able to provide mid- to long-term advance information about unusual events like intense storms and El Niño, they have a growing need to know how effective and useful that advance information is," explained Lipschutz. "They want to know how people respond and whether they alter their strategies and activities in response to that information."

The study, which begins July 1, will cover three major watersheds in the Central Coast area: the San Lorenzo River, Pajaro River, and Carmel River watersheds, as well as the coastal area bordered roughly by Big Sur and the San Mateo County line.

Lipschutz and Pomeroy will focus on the three groups because they are considered the most likely to have been strongly affected by the unusually wet winter of 1997-98. They plan to focus specifically on rockfish and squid fishermen, strawberry and lettuce farmers, and groups of residents in the three watershed areas. The researchers will also document climate information that was provided to these groups and the general public through a variety of sources, including agencies, the media, and community and trade organizations.

"We'll be conducting face-to-face interviews in an effort to understand how folks were affected by El Niño, and whether or not early warnings made a difference--or could have--in how things turned out for them," said Pomeroy. "In-depth interviews are the best way to capture the diversity of individual experiences."

In addition to learning what information was specifically targeted to whom and what actions resulted, Lipschutz and Pomeroy want to identify what other assistance, in retrospect, people would like to have received.

"The assumption behind providing good scientific information to the public is that people will respond rationally and make good decisions that will reduce the damage and the costs of natural disasters," said Lipschutz. "We're interested in seeing if that's really what people do with the information."

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