Innovative Weather Model Helps Caribbean Prepare for Drought

This story was originally published in FrontLines, a news publication of the U.S. Agency for International Development.

When it comes to climate risks in the Caribbean, the bluster and rage of hurricanes and tropical storms steal the stage. These events flare up quickly, can cause enormous damage and loss of life, and dissipate within days.

Drought is different. It’s more insidious and creeping, intensifying over many months, stunting or killing crops as it develops, emptying rivers and drying out water supplies. It represents one of the most frequently occurring and persistent climate hazards faced by the Caribbean’s nearly 40 million residents.

For Jamaica, an island smaller than Connecticut, droughts can wreak havoc, especially to its many farming communities. The agriculture sector accounts for nearly 7 percent of Jamaica’s gross domestic product and employs about one-fifth of its workforce.

“Agriculture is particularly vulnerable to climate variability and drought,” says Glenroy Brown, a scientist from the Jamaican Meteorological Service. “We have many small farms that rely heavily on rainfall for their crops.”

In 2014, the country’s 3 million inhabitants faced one of the worst droughts in a decade and the fourth worst recorded since the 1970s.

“You had the situation where vegetable farmers, especially, lost entire crops, entire fields,” says Sheldon Scott, from Jamaica’s Rural Agricultural Development Authority, who works with farming communities in seven of the island’s parishes. “That caused significant loss of income and loss of investment in many of the parishes we visited.”

The normally bountiful harvests of tomatoes, melons and sweet peppers were not to be seen. The drought caused agricultural productivity to decline by 30 percent compared to 2013. This, along with bush fires sparked by the dry conditions, contributed to nearly $1 billion in losses for the country.

The impact could have been worse if not for a new seasonal drought forecasting system that Brown and his colleagues helped pioneer in Jamaica with support from USAID. The new system helps the meteorological service anticipate conditions for the coming months.

This technological innovation was the first step in building resilience. The system grew out of USAID’s support for Jamaica’s new national climate policy and recognition of how climate change might undermine the country’s long-term development goals. USAID helped the meteorological service provide information and tools to specific groups such as farmers, who are highly vulnerable to climate change but important contributors to the national economy.

“It sounds simple, but what we’re doing is essentially putting a standard three-month rainfall forecast in context with recent rainfall measurements,” says Simon Mason, a climate scientist at Columbia University’s International Research Institute for Climate and Society, who helped Brown design, build and implement the new system. “So if it has already been unusually dry and the forecast calls for below-normal rainfall, it could point to fairly serious drought.”

In little more than a year, this new drought forecast system expanded beyond Jamaica, helping inform decision-making and bolster climate resilience in 23 Caribbean countries, which may also have to make significant changes to adapt as global temperatures rise and weather patterns shift.

The second half of this story, Success in Jamaica and Beyond, can be read on Frontlines.