Minds on the Information Gap: Climate in the Caribbean

This post is an excerpt from a multimedia story published by IRI on Medium.com. View the full story and video series here.

On the road from Hewanorra airport in southern St. Lucia to the capital in the north of the island, a bridge is missing, washed out during heavy rains on Christmas Eve, 2013. A sharp curve steers vehicles around the bridge-less gulch. The taxi driver tells us the reroute on this vital road was completed in a matter of days. A year and a half later, the bridge is still a work in progress. It’s June, so the wet season is only just beginning, and the narrow, deep trench is bone dry. I try to imagine the amount of water that must have gushed through here. Where did it come from?

That’s a question for climate scientists and meteorologists, and typical of one that researchers study at the International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI). It’s also a question that doesn’t go far enough.

As knowledge of our climate improves, the process of turning that knowledge into information usable for decision making needs attention.

Seasonal scale prediction — e.g. the likelihood of above-normal rainfall in an upcoming season — offers some of the most skillful climate forecasts scientists can produce. Areas of the tropics are especially favorable for seasonal prediction because they’re influenced most directly by the source of climate variability scientists know the most about: El Niño Southern Oscillation.

The problem is that although climate scientists may give a probability for increased risk, this information is often in a variable that a decision maker can’t readily use. Knowing why a climate event happened, being able to predict a climate extreme, these are increasingly-available types of information.

But if a forecast isn’t accessible to the people who can do something with it, it is not useful information.

This is what brings me and my IRI colleagues to St. Lucia. For the last three years we’ve partnered with regional institutions to generate relevant climate knowledge for improving climate risk management in the region, and in particular to assist water managers to incorporate this knowledge into their decisions and plans. The work has been funded via a grant from Higher Education for Development and the US Agency for International Development.

We are here for the Caribbean Climate Outlook Forum (CariCOF) — a regional meeting in which climate scientists present a forecast to decision makers — as well as a workshop for water managers to explore the potential for using climate information in the water sector. Most of the videos throughout this piece are interviews from those organizing and participating in the workshop.

Working in the field of climate adaptation sometimes requires adapting to your own projects. Staying flexible and nimble allows for changes in the approach to the project that are more tailored to local needs. Consistent obstacles in international development include making “improvements” that are not sustainable and providing information that is not usable. In its projects, IRI seeks to work as a catalyst, lending expertise to help develop information products and systems that decision makers can — and want to — use after the project ends.

The key in achieving this is to listen to regional partners about their needs and constraints, and then identify together the key gaps that climate expertise could help fill. Our regional partners in this project were the Centre for Resource Management and Environmental Studies (CERMES) at the University of West Indies (UWI) and the Caribbean Institute for Meteorology and Hydrology (CIMH), a regional training and research organization.

Grants such as the one funding this project typically focus on developing a new formal university course. “But we quickly received a reality check,” said Walter Baethgen, the principal investigator on the project and IRI senior research scientist. “We realized there would not be enough time to pilot a course and finish the accredidation process at the University of the West Indies during the grant’s time period.”

To find out what the project team did instead, hop on over to our page on Medium.