Forecasts can play an invaluable role when used properly in helping humanitarian agencies and governments plan for and prevent disasters, according to the latest Climate and Society publication launched by the IRI and the American Red Cross last week in Washington D.C.
Climate and weather disasters, from the massive floods in Pakistan, Australia and Colombia, to the devastating drought in Niger, have claimed thousands of lives and caused billions of dollars in damages in the last year. According to statistics from the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters, these types of disasters have risen significantly in the last few decades. Scientists expect changes in climate will make extreme events more frequent and intense in the future.
Governments and humanitarian organizations, such as the United Nations’ Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the World Food Programme (WFP) and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) are placing greater emphasis on trying to prevent and minimize the impact of disasters by making earlier and better informed decisions ahead of time. The new report, called A Better Climate for Disaster Risk Management, is the latest in the IRI’s Climate and Society series. The IRI published the report in partnership with OCHA, IFRC, WFP, the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS), and the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
“This is an important report that shows how scientists and practictioners can come together to describe a better recipe for meeting enormous global problems related to climate and the growth of natural disasters,” said Jan Egeland during the launch event. Egeland is the Executive Director of the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, and co-chair of the High-Level Taskforce for the Global Framework for Climate Services. He is also on the IRI’s Board of the Directors. “In my view, far too little is being invested in disaster risk reduction and far too little in climate services,” he said. Watch interviews of Jan Egeland and Madeleen Helmer, who is the Director of Policies and Communication at the Red Cross/Red Crescent Climate Centre.
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Scientists basically spend their time doing one of two things: collecting new data, or doing some new and clever analysis with existing data. Data is the lifeblood of research. In developed countries, we’ve grown accustomed to having access to long, detailed records on demographics, infectious diseases, rainfall and temperature. Researchers use this raw information to spot trends, for example, or to validate or refute hypotheses, to fine tune public health systems, to optimize crop yields. Much of these data are just a mouse click away, for anyone to access, for free.
Across much of Africa, it’s quite a different story. By most measures, Africa is the most “data poor” region in the world. Wars and revolutions, natural and manmade disasters, extreme poverty and unmaintained infrastructure, have left massive gaps in the data sets. Reliable records of temperature, rainfall and other climate variables are scarce, and this is not an inconsequential matter.
Without data, policy makers can’t make smart, well-informed decisions on water management, health, and development in general.
And yet it would be unfair to say that all of Africa is data poor. Some countries have records that are quite long, detailed and reliable–oases of measurements, blooming in an otherwise numberless desert. Unlike in the U.S., however, data sets compiled by most African national meteorological agencies are considered proprietary. Anyone who wants to use it must pay–even scientists, who have neither the funds nor the inclination to do so. So the result is the same: valuable research that could help save lives and improve well being, goes undone.
Researchers have long called for freeing up of this locked data, among them, a group at IRI. In a newly published commentary in Nature, Madeleine Thomson and other IRIers argue that climate data is a “resource for development” and “a classic public good” that increases in value the more times it is used.
Good climate information, if freely available, could transform the way in which the health community does business. For example, it could improve health calendars for seasonal diseases. It could lead to better timing of the distribution of bed nets, local public awareness campaigns, and drugs with a short shelf life…It would also enable better mapping of regions and populations vulnerable to emerging health problems such as meningococcal meningitis epidemics, which favour the hot, dry and dusty Sahel, a region that may be expanding due to climate and environmental change.
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Just posted a piece on the IRI home page about the latest La Niña. The map I show here tells us where and when in the world we can expect shifts in rainfall due to La Niña. We also produced a set of three video interviews of IRI scientists Lisa Goddard, Brad Lyon, Dave Dewitt and Paul Block, who share their knowledge of the La Niña – El Niño phenomenom, aka ENSO.
La Niña and Rainfall. For high res PDF (3.2mb)
As of mid-January, moderate-to-strong La Niña conditions continue to exist in the tropical Pacific. Scientists at the International Research Institute for Climate and Society expect these to linger, potentially causing additional shifts in rainfall patterns across many parts of the world in months to come. These shifts, combined with socioeconomic conditions and other factors, can make some parts of the world more vulnerable to impacts. However, La Niña conditions do allow the IRI and other institutions to produce more accurate seasonal forecasts and help better predict extreme drought or rainfall in some parts of the world. This enhanced predictability could help societies improve preparedness, issue early warnings and reduce any potentially negative impacts from La Niña.
“Based on current observations and on predictions from models, we see at least a 90% chance that La Niña conditions will continue through March 2011,” says IRI’s chief forecaster, Tony Barnston.
The term La Niña refers to a period of cooler-than-average sea-surface temperatures in the eastern and central equatorial Pacific Ocean that occurs as part of natural climate variability. This situation is roughly the opposite of what happens during El Niño events, when waters in this region are warmer-than-normal (see our past story on El Niño). Both are part of a larger climate cycle known as the El Niño-Southern Oscillation, or ENSO. Because the Pacific is the largest ocean on the planet, any significant changes in average conditions there, such as those that occur during La Niña or El Niño, can have consequences for temperature, rainfall and vegetation in faraway places.
Read the rest here.
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From the IRI web site
A massive scale-up in the distribution of insecticide-treated mosquito nets and other control programs are helping to protect more than half a billion people in sub-Saharan Africa against malaria, according to the World Health Organization. In its latest World Malaria Report, the organization cited these efforts as contributing to significant but fragile decreases in malaria cases and deaths in the region.
Worldwide, the WHO estimates deaths from malaria in 2009 were 781,000, about 200,000 fewer than they were in 2000. The most significant gains were made in Africa, where the disease extracts the heaviest burden on society. There, eleven countries saw cases and deaths drop by at least half between 2008 and 2010. Additionally, in 32 countries outside of Africa where malaria is considered to be endemic–occurring year-round–the number of confirmed cases also dropped by more than half. However, some countries, such as Rwanda, São Tomé and Príncipe, and Zambia showed a worrying reversal to this trend in malaria cases in 2009, highlighting the need for constant vigilance and careful assessment of the roles that socioeconomic and environmental factors, including climate, play in driving these changes.
“The news coming out of the WHO report is overall very encouraging, but we still need to know if any of the changes in malaria trends are really a result of the interventions and not due to other factors, such as a drought,” says Madeleine Thomson, a senior research scientist at the International Research Institute for Climate and Society, which is also a PAHO/WHO Collaborating Centre for Climate Sensitive Diseases. “Knowing this would improve the quality of our impact assessment,” she says.IRI related | Comment (0)
Latest from the IRI:
Earlier this month, U.S. President Barack Obama and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced a new era of collaboration on agricultural research in the face of climate change. In fact, efforts have been underway since 2009: the Earth Institute’s International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI) has been working for the past two years with India’s Ministry of Agriculture and other institutions to improve forecasts of the seasonal monsoon rains that water much of the nation’s farms, and to help farmers manage drought.
“Cooperation between Indian and American researchers and scientists sparked the Green Revolution,” said Obama during a Nov. 8 joint session of India’s Parliament in New Delhi. “Now, as farmers and rural areas face the effects of climate change and drought, we’ll work together to spark a second, more sustainable Evergreen Revolution.” He and Singh later issued a joint pledge to pursue initiatives on clean energy, health and jobs, as well as agriculture and climate.
Shiv Someshwar, director of the IRI’s Asia and Pacific regional program, said that the two leaders “sent a clear signal that scientific and technological advancements in managing weather and climate risks are critical for making rural communities more resilient. The dual emphasis on better climate prediction and its uptake by farmers and policy makers is exactly right. The IRI’s work with Indian partners over the past two years has been built on this very premise.”
More than 60 percent of farmland in India lacks irrigation, and thus depends on monsoonal rains, which come roughly from late May to early October. A failed monsoon often means complete loss of a crop, and even below-average rainfall often results in increased food prices and hurts economic growth. The government spends massive sums on drought relief–according to the agriculture ministry, about $5 billion during the last major drought, in 2002. A lesser, but still damaging, drought took place in 2009.
These costs have sparked interest in identifying ways to plan ahead, particularly as concern grows over the potential for climate change to affect monsoon cycles. IRI’s effort is funded by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and India’s Ministry of Agriculture, which together plan to issue detailed forecasts to farmers starting in the 2011 rainy monsoon season. The IRI project, known as the Extended Range Forecast System for Climate Risk Management in Agriculture, is aimed not only improving the forecasts, but helping farmers and policy makers prepare early for adverse conditions. In addition to conducting field-based research, IRI has co-hosted training events in India and sponsored Indian scientists for research visits to the United States to improve their forecasting and risk-management abilities. Partners include the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi; India Meteorological Department; National Center for Medium-Range Forecasting; Indian Council of Agricultural Research, and a number of state agricultural universities. For full details, visit the project home page or download this flyer.
Below are Obama’s remarks about agriculture. (The entire transcript of his speech is here):
Together, we can strengthen agriculture. Cooperation between Indian and American researchers and scientists sparked the Green Revolution. Today, India is a leader in using technology to empower farmers, like those I met yesterday who get free updates on market and weather conditions on their cell phones. And the United States is a leader in agricultural productivity and research. Now, as farmers and rural areas face the effects of climate change and drought, we’ll work together to spark a second, more sustainable Evergreen Revolution
Together, we’re improving Indian weather forecasting systems before the next monsoon season. We aim to help millions of Indian farmers — farming households save water and increase productivity, improve food processing so crops don’t spoil on the way to market, and enhance climate and crop forecasting to avoid losses that cripple communities and drive up food prices.
And as part of our food security initiative, we’re going to share India’s expertise with farmers in Africa. And this is an indication of India’s rise — that we can now export hard-earned expertise to countries that see India as a model for agricultural development. It’s another powerful example of how American and Indian partnership can address an urgent global challenge.
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I am very happy to report that my colleague, Alessandra Giannini, a research scientist at the International Research Institute for Climate and Society, has been awarded a National Science Foundation CAREER award to advance our understanding of climate model projections in the African Sahel, a semi-arid region south of the Sahara Desert that stretches from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea.
[I also shot a quick video interview with Ale. Had much fun with it. I used our trusty Kodak zi8 HD record with a lapel mic. The interview part took about an hour, and then I used iMovie to edit a better-than-rough cut in about 3 hours. IRI's design guru, Jason, added the final polish. Click on the embedded movie to listen to Ale discuss her work, as well as her thoughts on becoming a scientist. Now for the rest of the story...]
The Faculty Early Career Development Program, known as CAREER, is the National Science Foundation’s most prestigious award for junior professors that are exemplary “teacher-scholars” who can integrate education and research within the context of the mission of their organizations.
At the heart of Giannini’s research is a quest to understand why 21st century climate-change projections diverge in the Sahel and other parts of the developing world.
“Anthropogenic climate change is expected to affect less-developed societies with greater severity, yet it’s in the tropics, where these societies are located, that projections of change, especially of changes in regional rainfall, have the greatest uncertainty” , says Giannini.
The global models that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change uses in its assessments are inconsistent for the Sahel. Some of the models project the region to become wetter than it is currently, while others project it to be dryer, she says. “Having a better grasp of the situation is critical, because this region is highly vulnerable to rainfall variability and change.”
In the 1970s and 80s, the Sahel suffered from devastating droughts and famines that killed hundreds of thousands of people and forced hundreds of thousands to migrate elsewhere. Giannini and her colleagues at the National Center for Atmospheric Research and at Texas A&M University conclusively demonstrated that those droughts could have been caused not by deforestation and land-use change, but by changes in global ocean temperatures. They published their results in the journal Science in 2003.
The CAREER award will fund Giannini’s work for five years, and includes support for a doctoral student in climate science. In their research, Giannini and the student will analyze output from global models that diverge in order to try to identify any mechanisms attributable to natural variability, land use change or global warming. They will then look for the ‘fingerprints’ of such mechanisms in actual observations of the Earth’s atmosphere collected by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Atmospheric Radiation Measurement Mobile Facility (AMF) in Niamey, Niger – in the heart of the Sahel. The AMF is a portable laboratory equipped with a suite of instruments designed to collect data on clouds and other components of the atmosphere. Finally, they will test sensitivity in the models’ behavior to such mechanisms with carefully crafted simulations.
Reaching out to the Columbia Community
Giannini’s CAREER award also funds a particularly interesting educational component. She will be working with Columbia’s Institute of African Studies to develop lessons and materials that benefit community organizations and public schools in Harlem, a historically African-American neighborhood near Columbia University with a sizable immigrant population from West African countries such as Senegal and Mali. Her aim is to teach climate-change science to high-school students from an environmental justice perspective, using air pollution as a way to connect local and global issues.
“I applaud Dr. Giannini’s willingness to share knowledge, broaden connections between people and ideas and create opportunities for participatory growth,” says Mamadou Diouf, the director of the Institute of African Studies.
Giannini wants to open up dialogue with immigrant community organizations in Harlem to share perspectives on climate change and its impacts. “Of great interest to me is to understand how they understand and explain drought, which may have ultimately led them to leave their countries. It’s a mutual education – reaching a common understanding can help the IRI build projects in the region so it and its partners can act in the best informed way possible, with local support, to help avert the worst consequences of future change.”
Immigrants routinely contribute to the survival of their communities of origin through remittances. Ultimately, Giannini hopes that scientific knowledge will empower them to learn from the past in order to shape a different future – a future that confronts head-on the same problems of poverty eradication and sustainable development that form the core of the mission of the IRI.
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The second installment of a three-part series we’re running over at the International Research Institute for Climate and Society web site. IRI Director-General, Stephen Zebiak, gets into more detail on defining climate risk management.
Once we’ve identified the best technologies and practices, the fourth and final step is finding the “real world” arrangements that enable their implementation. Using the example of an early-warning system for food crises, we can ask: What are the actual mechanisms to have in place for hunger relief? Who are the key decision makers to identify? What specific types of climate information do they need in order to take action and who will supply it? How do we make this sustainable?
The fact that climate risk management can be effective doesn’t make it easy. Because the process is inherently interdisciplinary, it requires a detailed understanding of complex, context-specific interactions between physical, natural and social systems. It also involves collaboration among experts who must work together on cross-disciplinary problems. Although developing the proper strategies is a complicated task, climate risk management can be applied to agricultural, water, health or any other sector, on spatial scales that range from local to global, and on time scales from near- to long-term.
Read the entire piece on the IRI web site.
Photo: Indonesia food market. Francesco Fiondella/IRI.
In the first of a three-part series, IRI’s Director-General, Stephen Zebiak, makes the case for climate-risk management as an approach for dealing with droughts, floods, epidemics and other problems that plague society and hinder development. This approach, if applied correctly, would also be an effective adaptation strategy to climate change.
Climate shocks in the form of droughts, floods, cyclones, and related problems such as epidemics, food insecurity and infrastructure loss have been playing out throughout recorded history, but with increasing severity as populations become increasingly vulnerable. A growing body of evidence, much of it captured in the 2007-2008 Human Development Report by the United Nations, points to the direct effects of climate on economic and human development, particularly in low-income countries. Scan the headlines of recent weeks, and you’ll undoubtedly come across stories about the ongoing food crisis in Niger caused by irregular rainfall, which threatens the lives and well being of at least seven million people. You’ll see pictures from the extremely harsh winter in Mongolia, which wiped out nearly 20% of the country’s livestock, leading to food shortages and loss of livelihood for tens of thousands of families. You’ll read about how hundreds of thousands of earthquake survivors in Haiti are still living in relief camps and other temporary structures, under threat of a hurricane season forecasted to be unusually active. The ability to cope better with climate is thus a paramount issue of the present, and a potentially even greater issue in the foreseeable future. We need ‘win-win’ approaches to better manage current climate risks and to build capability to cope with the climate of the future.
The work needed to provide problem-specific information and to advance innovations in the use of such information is the science of climate risk management practice. Put simply, climate risk management is the process of climate-informed decision-making. It involves the use of strategies that reduce uncertainty through the systematic use of climate information. This work is especially challenging because it involves a complex interplay between physical, natural, and social systems and requires that practitioners engage with good science, good policy, and good practice. At present there are some organizations working to connect these disparate disciplines — but while their work has provided examples of practical ways to manage climate risk, the demand for useable knowledge and information far outstrips what can be provided.
Read the entire piece on the IRI web site.
Photo: Pétionville camp for displaced Haitians. Eric Holthaus/IRI.