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Researchers develop robust mapping system to help Ethiopians cope with warming

Lisa Friedman, E&E reporter
Published: Monday, March 12, 2012

Columbia University researchers have amassed 30 years of Ethiopian rainfall data into a public mapping system that scientists say could transform the way the country prepares for global warming.

The project represents the first time a vast trove of reliable meteorological data from an African country has been made freely accessible. Now in the hands of everyone from public health workers to farmers, it can be used to assist Ethiopia's water management, reduce vulnerability of crop loss from drought and better guard against the spread of diseases like malaria, experts say.

To prevent the spread of malaria, health workers have to know the variability of the rainy season. Photo courtesy of the U.K. Department for International Development.

"I think it can be transformative, particularly in Africa, if we can engage the development community in a real basic understanding of the climate and how it can inform and better improve decisions today in terms of better use of resources," said Madeleine Thomson, senior research scientist at Columbia University's International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI), which produced the mapping system.

The project is the brainchild of Tufa Dinku, who worked in Ethiopia's meteorological service for a decade before coming to the United States, where he now serves as an associate research scientist at IRI.

For years, Dinku said, he grappled with the dearth of reliable temperature, rainfall and other climate variability data in Africa -- unavailable sometimes because of domestic instability, and other times because of absent infrastructure. Weather stations can't be manned in areas without access to electricity or reliable water delivery, he noted, meaning vast rural parts of African countries are simply not monitored.

Meanwhile, he and others said, even nations like Ethiopia that have better and longer-standing monitoring systems than some other countries, charge a fee for the data and consider the information proprietary, a big barrier for researchers.

Even if it's available, "it doesn't mean much unless you can use it," Dinku said. But with a $900,000 grant from and funding from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, IRI researchers set about gathering data.

The final product combines satellite rainfall and temperature estimates with on-the-ground station data. Dinku said the hybrid data sets are frequently updated and allow researchers to generate historical data for the entire country, not only where rain and temperature stations happen to be.

A better focus on 'the here and now'

"This is very valuable information," Dinku said. For public health workers who need to follow the rainy seasons to help prevent diseases like malaria, he said, the near-real-time data is particularly useful since right now they must wait 10 or 20 days for rainfall bulletins.

"If you have the data, then you can do the research," he said. "If you can improve the forecasting, you can save both lives and livelihoods."

Thomson agreed. "If you have the climate data, then you can look at what's happening with the epidemiological data, and then get a better understanding of some of the key drivers. That's a pretty essential starting place."

She noted that the data could also be used to develop spatial risk maps to help localize disease trends, develop early warning systems and improve researchers' understanding of the role seasons play in the spread of disease.

Wayne Elliott of the World Meteorological Organization in Geneva said he's trying to get funding to expand the project to other countries. Beyond the current possibilities, he said, refined understanding of local climate variability will help farmers, fishermen, water managers, health workers and others prepare and adapt to global climate change.

"If countries can cope with current variability, they will be much better able to cope with anthropogenic climate change," Elliott said.

Thomson said that's particularly true for understanding what climate change will mean for diseases like malaria.

"Many people are focused on climate change, thinking about climate change models going forward 30, 40, 80 years -- which is not very helpful, by and large, particularly when you're looking at infectious disease," she said. "In our view, it's much more helpful to focus on the here and now.

"If you don't have a handle on what it does today, you're not going to have a very good appreciation for what it will do in the future," she said.

Reprinted from ClimateWire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. 202-628-6500


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Reprinted from ClimateWire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. 202-628-6500.

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