Virginia Murray

The Natural Hazards Partnership

10 June 2012

Virginia Murray, Head of Extreme Events and Health Protection at the Health Protection Agency

The aim of the Natural Hazards Partnership is to be a one-stop-shop that provides early warning of extreme weather events and natural hazards. In this article, Virginia Murray, Head of Extreme Events and Health Protection at the Health Protection Agency, describes the origins, development and vision of the partnership.

The idea for a Natural Hazards Partnership (NHP) was put forward in January 2011 by the Met Office. As it happens, this coincided with my own organisation, the Health Protection Agency (HPA), recognising the need for a focal point for possible health impacts of extreme events and appointing me as the first Head of Extreme Events and Health Protection.

The NHP has grown into a strong group of over ten possible partners with a shared vision for cross-organisational working:

"To provide information, research and analysis on natural hazards for the development of more effective policies, communications and services for Government and the emergency responder community."

We are learning how to work together to produce early warnings for heat, cold, snow, blizzards, floods, droughts, space hazards, earthquakes, volcanic ash, landslides, wildfires, fog, pollen, thunderstorms, windstorms and other natural hazards.

Natural Hazards Partnership

The NHP brings together knowledgeable and enthusiastic scientists from the partner organisations to develop new tools and ways of working. The first of these is a pilot daily Natural Hazards Partnership Hazard Assessment. Initially it was shared only amongst partners so that it could be tested for content, accuracy and value.

The value of these daily alerts and their early warning value became instantly apparent to me. I was sitting on a train platform in Australia on Sunday 22 May at 06.00 hours returning from an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change meeting when my BlackBerry buzzed with a NHP Hazard Assessment. It contained the warning that the Grímsvötn volcano in Iceland had erupted and was apparently the most powerful Icelandic eruption in over 50 years. 

Immediately, I was able to forward this warning to colleagues on call for HPA in the UK to check that they were already aware and had the information to develop the health response that was needed. As the situation developed, information suggested that the plume from the Grímsvötn volcano had reached ground level in some parts of UK but, reassuringly, concentrations of particles were unlikely to be sufficient to cause significant health effects. However the HPA was able to warn that as a precaution people suffering from asthma should carry their inhalers as they are more likely to experience irritation of the lungs and upper respiratory tract should they be exposed to any ash.

So the Natural Hazards Partnership is of real value to HPA. With the help of our partners we were able to make sure that our frontline responders could also receive the pilot NHP daily Hazards Assessments who were very grateful for the early warning these provide.

In my role as the Head of Extreme Events and Health Protection section at the HPA, I'm well aware that early warnings about extreme weather events and other natural hazards are vital if we are to inform and warn about potential health impacts effectively.

Bringing together a group of committed partners to work together to improve early warnings of extreme weather events and other natural hazards is a really important development and a wonderful opportunity. I enjoy and look forward to future progression, learning and scientific interaction with the Natural Hazards Partnership at our meetings.

Health Protection Agency

The Health Protection Agency's role is to provide an integrated approach to protecting UK public health through the provision of support and advice to the NHS, local authorities, emergency services, other arms length bodies, the Department of Health and the devolved administrations. The functions of the Agency are "to protect the community (or any part of the community) against infectious diseases and other dangers to health". (HPA Act 2004).

For more information see http://www.hpa.org.uk/

The Natural Hazards Partnership

Partners in the Natural Hazards Partnership include:

 - Met Office (which chairs the partnership and has provided much of the leadership)

 - British Geological Survey

 - Centre for Ecology and Hydrology

 - National Centre for Atmospheric Science

 - National Oceanography Centre

 - Health Protection Agency

 - Environment Agency

 - Flood Forecasting Centre

 - UK Space Agency, Ordnance Survey

 - RIMNET (Radioactive Incident Monitoring Network)

Government members include:

 - The Cabinet Office (Civil Contingencies Secretariat)

 - The Government Office for Science (GO Science)

 - The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra)

 - The Natural Environment Research Council (NERC)

 - Scottish Environment protection Agency (SEPA) and others are joining where appropriate.

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