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Better Weather Data Will Save Lives as Climate Threats Increase, U.N. Says

As climate change increases the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events around the globe, the United Nations is calling for better weather forecasts and early warning systems to save lives.

Climate change is affecting every region of the globe, including the Middle East. The United Nations has set a five-year goal for developing early warning systems that will protect everyone on earth against extreme weather events.

The World Meteorological Organisation is in charge of achieving that goal and is expected to present an action plan at the next U.N. Climate Change Conference, COP 27, which will be held in Sharm el-Sheik, Egypt, in November.

Dangerous Gaps in the Data

Early warning systems will require better forecasts, and that’s a problem in some countries because of a dangerous data gap in the weather observations that forecasts are based on.

Meteorologists like Ladislaus Chang’a, director of research at the Tanzania Meteorological Agency, know this problem firsthand.

Whenever Chang’a visits his home in southern Tanzania, his neighbours ask, “When should we plant?”

“As our agriculture is still largely rain-fed, this is the most important question for a farmer,” Chang’a said.

But the regular rains are now harder to predict, he said.

On the other side of the globe, Evan Thompson, director of the Meteorological Service in Jamaica, has seen his island hit by extreme weather events as seasonal hurricanes have become more severe.

Increasingly Harsh Weather Events

“We need more data, which always means better observations, which in turn leads to better forecasts.”

Evan Thompson Director of the Meteorological Service in Jamaica

Across parts of the Middle East, the Shamal winds have always blown in from the northwest. But in recent years the winds have caused increasingly harsh sand and dust storms across Iraq and the Arabian Peninsula. These storms have seriously affected people’s health and caused disruptions in transport and commercial activity.

The intensity and frequency of extreme weather events have increased because of climate change linked to human-induced warming, according to a report released by the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in August 2021.

People need to know how to protect themselves from extreme weather such as tropical storms and hurricanes, says Thompson.

But first, he says, “we need more data, which always means better observations, which in turn leads to better forecasts.”

Observations, recorded by trained weather observers, include temperature, wind direction, wind speed, humidity and rain and snowfall amounts.

Forecasts can only be accurate when observations are taken regularly throughout the 24 hours of the day, which is why automatic weather stations—known as “synoptic” stations—are needed. The data is fed into supercomputers to provide forecasts.

But many parts of the world simply lack enough automatic stations to provide the data needed for accurate forecasts.

Need for More Weather Stations

Thompson wants more weather stations in Jamaica. “We need to monitor the different micro-climates which exist in this island—hilly areas, coastal areas, as well as inland areas. In order to get a good idea of what happens we need a good network. Our target is about 200 automatic stations, and we are only halfway there.”

Tanzania also has many diverse landscapes—but that’s not the only difficulty for forecasting, according to Chang’a.

“Most countries in Africa have challenges in terms of the observational capacity, and Tanzania is similar. It’s big with few observation stations, considering the size of our country. We have 29 synoptic stations, which is not sufficient.”

By comparison, the United Kingdom, a country a quarter the size of Tanzania, has 270 synoptic stations.

Finding the Money

“The creation of SOFF is a critical milestone to deliver tangible benefits in terms of lives saved, livelihoods, and economic growth.”

Inger Anderson Executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme

Finding funds for more synoptic stations in poor countries is one of the projects the World Meteorological Organisation is working on now.

With the United Nations Environment Programme and the United Nations Development Programme, it has launched a programme called the Systematic Observation Financing Facility, or SOFF.

SOFF goes to the heart of the challenge of early weather warnings by investing in basic weather observation systems and filling in data gaps, especially in the Least Developed Countries and the Small Island Developing States. The U.N. says these countries are especially vulnerable to climate change but have done the least to cause it.

The programme raises funds to establish weather stations that can generate and internationally exchange data that is missing today.

Chang’a says Tanzania would benefit from such improvements. “We have to be precise in terms of forecasting. Without data you cannot answer the questions we encounter every year, such as the topical issue of rainfall.”

Inger Anderson, executive director of the UN Environment Programme, said the “creation of SOFF is a critical milestone to deliver tangible benefits in terms of lives saved, improved disaster management, livelihoods, biodiversity, food security, water supply and economic growth.”

Many Uses for Weather Data

Just 24 hours’ notice of a coming storm or heatwave can cut the damage from the event by up to 30 percent, a 2019 report by the Global Commission on Adaptation found. It is estimated that SOFF will save 23,000 lives and USD $162 billion annually.

Fabio Venuti, an adviser to the director-general of the European Centre for Medium Range Weather Forecasts, knows the power of weather data fed into that organisation’s supercomputer.

“Global weather forecasting like ours can assimilate data then produce high-resolution data to produce local forecasts for their own country,” Venuti said. “They can be more prepared.”

Weather forecasting data have many applications, he added.  “For example, in long range you can predict drought for planning in agriculture. And weather forecasts can provide data in the spread of diseases such as malaria, which is affected by environmental factors as insects are transported by winds.”

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Thompson agrees and points out weather forecasting data can affect local policies and planning. “For example, building codes can adjusted because we recognise that more severe downpours will mean that we have flooding in areas that don’t normally have flooding,” he said. “We need to revise the areas in which we build and how we build to ensure we stay alive.”

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