‘Democratizing’ Seasonal Forecasts in Latin America

A central tenet of the International Research Institute for Climate and Society is that providing people and institutions with climate information is just one step in a larger effort. There’s also a clear need to build the capacity of scientists to generate tailored information — and to help users ask for information relevant to them.

This is particularly true in the case of seasonal climate forecasts. Despite advances that have been made in seasonal forecasts, many people still find them difficult to use. Perhaps it’s because forecasts sometimes seem too complicated, says Simon Mason, IRI’s chief climate scientist. “Plus, scientists frequently make forecasts about things that users are not directly interested in.”

Walter Baethgen, director of IRI’s program in Latin America and the Caribbean, points out another impediment to the use of seasonal forecast: “In Latin America, the development of forecasts has often been restricted to groups that have access to powerful computing resources.”

As part of ongoing efforts to improve the use of seasonal forecasts, Baethgen helped lead a two-week training workshop in Buenos Aires, Argentina. The course was co-organized by the School of Exact and Natural Sciences at the University of Buenos Aires in Argentina and the Inter-American Institute for Global Change Research; it was funded by the National Science Foundation and co-sponsored by the World Climate Research Program.

Thirty-eight participants from 12 Latin American countries attended the workshop, which explored issues surrounding seasonal prediction in Latin America, including the downscaling of global models, the use of probabilistic approaches and verification techniques. In addition to Baethgen and Mason, IRI scientists Lisa Goddard and Gilma Mantilla also presented at the workshop.

The participants were drawn from the climate community and from different sector communities in order to encourage interdisciplinary work, says IAI’s assistant director for capacity building, Marcella Ohira. “Getting people involved in these kinds of interdisciplinary conversations will help and, hopefully, have a lasting effect.”

Juan Jose Nieto, an oceanographer at the International Center for Research on El Niño (CIIFEN) who led some of the workshop sessions, saw the experience as a “big opportunity to work together and to see things from the point of view of the user — not just from climate scientists perspective, but also from the perspective of people working in agriculture, health, and risk.”

In this video, some workshop participants discuss their course projects.

This includes Gustavo Almeria, a specialist working to develop a climate-based early-warning system for respiratory diseases in Buenos Aires. “Having information as soon as possible about the range of temperatures expected in Buenos Aires will allow us to put into action different measures and to warn the population about health risks, including influenza and bronchitis,” he explains.

A key part of the training focused on the use of the IRI’s Climate Predictability Tool, a freely downloadable program that lets users make customized seasonal forecasts quickly, easily, and without the benefit of powerful computers.

“The CPT is a very democratic tool”, says Carolina Vera, an adjunct professor at the University of Buenos Aires and a co-organizer of the workshop. “It doesn’t require a lot of resources, and it’s so easy anyone can use it.”

With the right training, tools like the CPT put the power of forecasting into the hands of potentially many more users. “With the CPT and a personal computer, any scientist who has an adequate background in statistics and reasonable knowledge of the climate in her or his region can produce useful seasonal forecasts for climate, streamflow, crop yields, malaria incidence and more,” says Baethgen.

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Cathy Vaughan is a project coordinator at the International Research Institute for Climate and Society. She is a member of the secretariat of the Climate and Society Publication and works frequently in Latin America.