Poor nations are hardest hit by extreme weather, but they can lack resources to produce forecasts that can save lives. Now something is being done.

16x9 Extreme weather events call for better global forecasting 1

(Courtesy of the World Meteorological Organization/Sandro Puncet – Croatia)

The science of meteorology focuses on weather forecasts that may seem routine to many of us. The forecasts are so common that we can take them for granted, but accurate forecasts can provide critical and life-saving information when there are extreme weather events like severe storms.

And now extreme weather events are becoming more intense and severe.

According to the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO), an agency that is part of the United Nations, the number of extreme weather events such as hurricanes, floods and droughts has increased five-fold over the last 50 years.

When these weather events occur, the poorest parts of the world are hit hardest. Homes can be destroyed and farmers can lose their harvests. Roads, bridges and the infrastructure that provides power and delivers water can be wrecked.

The economic and human costs can be devastating. Extreme weather events can trigger humanitarian crises and food shortages, and drive people across borders.

Better weather data can help us cope with climate change.

While we try to reduce emissions that contribute to rising global temperatures, what can we do to limit the effects of weather?

Having the correct data to allow for better climate policy is a starting point.

WMO, along with the UN Development Programme and the UN Environment Programme, have launched a project that will save lives and money in regions hit hardest by increasingly common extreme weather events.

The Systematic Observation Financing Facility (SOFF) underwrites the costs of sharing weather data and training to provide accurate weather data.

What is weather data and how is it collected?

In some regions of the world such as Europe and North America, weather stations are equipped with instruments that measure air temperature, atmospheric pressure, rainfall, wind speed, humidity, cloud height and visibility a number of times every 24 hours.

Weather experts use balloons that carry an instrument called a radiosonde that measures pressure, temperature and relative humidity as they rise as high as 32 km (20 miles). Observations are taken at sea and from satellites.

Weather data is fed into computers that collate thousands of readings to produce forecasts.

Poor nations need timely meteorological data to save lives.

Most weather observation is in the northern hemisphere. In parts of Africa, the capacity to make weather observations has dropped by as much as 50% in the last decade.

Much of the developing world and small island states lack the resources to produce an adequate number of weather observations for accurate forecasts. The “data gap” affects regions of the world that are hit hardest by extreme weather.

One in three humans is not properly covered by an early warning system. SOFF investments will address this shortfall.

Jamaica has experienced many devastating hurricanes. Prime Minister Andrew Holness knows that early weather prediction is vital to his citizens. “Every minute saves lives,” he said. “Good data strikes at the heart of the problem.”

The prime minister of Fiji, Frank Bainimarama, agrees. “The most effective protection we can give our people in the face of serious storms is timely knowledge, the early warning of what they can expect,” he said, noting that the South Pacific is experiencing more and more climate-driven super storms. “They will be able to evacuate, protect their properties and find shelter.”

Feeding more data into the global weather super computer will save an estimated 23,000 lives every year and $162 billion in economic and social damages.

That’s a positive forecast to remember today, World Meteorological Day.

Three questions to consider:

  1. Are your daily activities affected by weather forecasts?
  2. What is the difference between weather and climate?
  3. Is it fair that some parts of the world lack the means to predict and forecast the weather?
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Tira Shubart is a freelance journalist and media trainer based in London. She has produced television news and trained journalists across four continents for international broadcasters, including BBC News, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and Al Jazeera, over several decades.

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