Extreme events often expose vulnerabilities of socioeconomic infrastructures and point to directions of much-needed policy change. Integrated impact assessment of such events can lead to finding of sustainability principles. Southern and central China has for decades been undergoing a breakneck pace of socioeconomic development. In early 2008, a massive ice storm struck this region, immobilizing millions of people. The storm was a consequence of sustained convergence between tropical maritime and continental polar air masses, caused by an anomalously stable atmospheric general circulation pattern in both low and high latitudes. Successive waves of freezing rain occurred during a month period, coating southern and central China with a layer of ice 50–160 mm in thickness. We conducted an integrated impact assessment of this event to determine whether and how the context of socioeconomic and human-disturbed natural systems may affect the transition of natural events into human disasters. We found that 1) without contingency plans, advanced technologies dependent on interrelated energy supplies can create worse problems during extreme events, 2) the weakest link in disaster response lies between science and decision making, 3) biodiversity is a form of long-term insurance for sustainable forestry against extreme events, 4) sustainable extraction of nontimber goods and services is essential to risk planning for extreme events in forest resources use, 5) extreme events can cause food shortage directly by destroying crops and indirectly by disrupting food distribution channels, 6) concentrated economic development increases societal vulnerability to extreme events, and 7) formalized institutional mechanisms are needed to ensure that unexpected opportunities to learn lessons from weather disasters are not lost in distracting circumstances.

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