When a catastrophic Category 5 tropical cyclone tore through the hometown of scientist and AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellow Bandana Kar, Ph.D., the storm’s wind speeds caused her family’s concrete house to “literally move from side to side.”
That 1999 cyclone proved lethal, killing thousands of people in the district of Odisha, India. Roofs were torn from houses, and massive Banyan trees toppled over like tabletop spinners. When the power went, so did the area’s running water, creating a shortage of clean water for residents. Kar remembers the cyclone as the first time she saw the impact of an extreme event for herself.
Kar was just starting her graduate degree in City Planning at the Indian Institute of Technology at Kharagpur when she survived the Odisha cyclone. The event changed the course of her career and illuminated, for her, how accurate and reliable information during extreme events can save lives. It motivated her to pursue her graduate research in disaster resilience, where she studied designing buildings and neighborhoods that could weather the impacts of extreme winds during tropical storms. That led her down the route of using different technologies like satellite imagery, image processing, geospatial science and computing to model and simulate the impacts of extreme storms and the effectiveness of different solutions.
Kar has since earned another master’s degree in Geography/Geographic Information Science from the State University of New York at Albany and a Ph.D. in the same field from the University of South Carolina at Columbia. She has received several awards and recognitions for her scientific contributions, including the American Association of Geographers Emerging Scholar Award and the Enabling the Next Generation of Hazard Researchers Fellowship from the National Science Foundation.
Consistent in all of Kar’s academic and professional endeavors is building resilience. One of its core threats, however, is misinformation, the scientist says. The spread of misinformation during extreme weather events like tropical storms, wildfires, tornados, and floods can be as deadly as the events themselves. Misinformation can cause communities to downplay the severity of a storm, putting them at higher risk of injury or death. It can also inflate an event’s severity, sowing mistrust in public information that can have disastrous consequences—loss of life chief among them—the next time a big storm rolls around.
While serving on the faculty of the University of Southern Mississippi, Kar became involved in research around risk communication, specifically how Mississippi Gulf Coast residents including those from the Hispanic and Vietnamese fishing communities receive information about upcoming extreme storms and weather events. She and her colleagues found that these communities were more likely to receive delayed as well as unreliable information due to language barriers and misinformation via social media. Lack of comprehension is one challenge presented by language barriers, but information can be inaccurately translated as well. Further complicating the problem, anyone can be a news producer thanks to technology today, Kar adds. Platforms like Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and TikTok enable members of the public to share the information they receive, for better or for worse.
“For disadvantaged communities, misinformation can create a sense of safety net for them,” explains Kar. “They may be in the path of a hurricane or tornado but think, ‘Hey, the information is coming from my friends and families, and they say the problem isn’t that severe.’ People with high income, they can decide for themselves how they want to address the situation. They don't have to rely on friends, family, or social media, because they know where to go for good information.” Lower income and non-English speaking communities, however, don’t have that same level of autonomy.
Kar says that there is a potential solution for addressing this disparity, one that is theoretically simple but more demanding in practice: creating trust. The best way of mitigating the adverse impacts of misinformation surrounding extreme events, says Kar, is laying the groundwork for community engagement to happen. Community engagement allows scientists, public agents, and agency personnel to connect with vulnerable communities and include them in their communications. It also allows for information to be accurately translated. Kar’s research has shown that communities are more willing to trust the information they receive when they are part of the conversation.
Kar is continuing her work in bolstering the resilience of both humans and infrastructure, paying special attention to the intersection of science and policy. She is currently nine months into her AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellowship with the U.S. Department of Energy, where she is learning about technologies and policies that are developed and deployed to meet building decarbonization. The end goal is to ensure reliable and consistent supply of electricity at an affordable price to reduce the energy burden on households, meet the demand flexibility during different events and time periods, and improve resilience of customers and buildings. In this capacity, public trust remains essential to delivering positive community impacts.
“Yes, we can give people information, but often as scientists, we may come across as not very reliable,” says Kar. “It’s not because these communities don't trust us. Rather, there is no trust-building exercise with the communities.”