Looking back: A year of forecasts, partnerships and climate information

by Manon Verchot

In 2013, the International Research Institute for Climate and Society teamed up with the University of Arizona to help regions of the world that are most vulnerable to climate variability and change. Here’s a look at what has been accomplished so far.

Farmers are at the mercy of the weather. They need the rain to nourish their crops, but when the rain doesn’t come or when it’s excessive, their hard labor can go to waste – crops ruined. With the global climate changing and potentially becoming more variable in some places, the livelihood of millions of farmers is at stake, especially in the most susceptible regions, such as the Caribbean, Asia’s Indo-Gangetic Plain and West Africa.

The International Research and Applications Project (IRAP), funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), supports IRI and the University of Arizona to develop tools and frameworks with local organizations that will increase climate resilience in these vulnerable regions. IRAP focuses on an end-to-end approach that deals simultaneously with both the problem – climate variability and change – and the solution in order to develop the most effective adaptive strategies to manage climate risk.

“University of Arizona’s globally-recognized strengths in the human dimensions of climate are great complements to our strengths in climate science and sectoral climate risk management,” says IRI Director Lisa Goddard. “Together, we’re working with institutions and scientists in the region, which creates ownership and sustainability of the effort and also helps build the capacity of everyone involved.”

IRAP initially focused on the Caribbean region, where droughts, hurricanes and floods threaten farmers each year. In 2010, for example, farmers faced the worst drought in 50 years. The drought had significant consequences for farming communities. They produced fewer crops, combatted brush fires and faced water shortages. Since then, the IRAP partners have brought together Caribbean scientists and decision makers to work on effective ways to link climate information, including risks of extreme events, to their impacts, and to identify appropriate actions for preparedness and longer-term resilience.

Maps made for decision making

One of the first products to come out of IRAP was a prototype map room, developed by IRI and the Caribbean Institute for Meteorology and Hydrology (CIMH). The tool allows users to analyze climate in the Caribbean and provide more targeted data. The results can be viewed on multiple platforms, from phones to tablets to desktops, making them easily accessible as well as easy to use. The map room provides information about recently observed atmospheric circulation, atmospheric temperature, ocean temperature, as well as information about precipitation and drought conditions. Researchers will continue to build in data that can be used to look at past, present and future conditions.

Facilitating access to information, not just data, is a key step in ensuring that the public can prepare for extreme weather and climate events. The Caribbean map room builds on earlier work funded by USAID to develop a drought monitoring and forecasting tool for Jamaica in collaboration with the country’s national meteorological agency. This innovative tool combines rainfall observations from Jamaica’s network of weather stations with three-month seasonal rainfall forecasts created with IRI’s Climate Predictability Tool. Through IRAP and other USAID investments, the drought products are being applied to the entire eastern Caribbean; countries in the western Caribbean and Central America are interested to implement these innovative tools as well. CIMH now regularly produces a drought bulletin based on this information. IRI and the University of Arizona helped organize a Caribbean Climate Outlook Forum (CariCOF) in Kingston, Jamaica that produced a consensus seasonal climate forecast for the region. While forecasts and other kinds of climate information often comprise one of many components of risk management, limited access, misunderstandings, and the inadequacy of existing information often cause that information to be underutilized.

Integrating Climate Information and Decision Processes for Regional Climate Resilience in the Caribbean

Integrating Climate Information and Decision Processes for Regional Climate Resilience in the Caribbean

Following the forum, members of the IRAP team led a two-day workshop to take the conversation beyond forecasts. The workshop was a first step at understanding how people interact with climate in this region. It included participatory activities designed to assess the goals of climate services, how people communicate climate information, how people respond to climate events and what inhibits their responses. The discussion around these objectives led to several areas that could be improved-upon when dealing with climate information and climate resilience. IRAP published a report (see right) that provides details on the main activities of the workshop and its key findings. For example, while forecasts are important because they can theoretically allow regions to take appropriate steps to reduce the damage caused by droughts and hurricanes, real world situations are more complicated. A number of workshop participants said that information about forecasts wasn’t always readily available, so preparation for extreme weather events came late or not at all. Communication between meteorological centers, decision makers and the public is key to dealing with this issue. Participants also agreed that to improve climate resilience, stakeholders must better understand how climate information is currently used by society, and how it can better meet the needs of vulnerable communities and sectors. An analysis and understanding of how climate information is used and disseminated, and how it is then used to effect action is essential to improving current systems.

“The importance of building and maintaining trust between participants cannot be overemphasized,” says Jim Buizer, Director of Climate Adaptation and International Development at the University of Arizona Institute of the Environment. “And trust requires transparency and robust and ongoing communication amongst all the players.”

Once communication is established, the next step is preparation. Every region experiences climate variability differently, so participants emphasized the importance of ensuring that adaptive measures are situation-appropriate. This will come through further research on the most effective combination of public policy and community responses, understanding how forecasts inform decision making and how the presence of strong social networks can help communities rebuild themselves after an extreme weather event.

The Year Ahead

The IRAP workshop in Kingston laid the groundwork for identifying and addressing research gaps in order to improve the effectiveness of climate information in the coming years. It also helped the IRAP team identify a demonstration project for which it could apply its end-to-end approach: climate services to help manage coffee leaf rust in Jamaica. IRAP, in collaboration with the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA) and the Coffee Industry Board of Jamaica, is exploring the potential to assess the climate vulnerabilities of coffee farmers, develop relevant climate information and evaluate the role of this information in improving the management and control of coffee leaf rust. In the next year, IRAP will also expand into Asia’s Indo-Gangetic Plain. Members of the team travelled to India, Nepal and Bangladesh in February for a scoping visit. There, they met with regional representatives of The World Bank, national development agencies, farmer groups NGOs and others.