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Scientists awarded £2 million to innovate severe weather warnings in Southern Africa

An international team led by the National Centre for Atmospheric Science and University of Leeds have been awarded £2 million to transform access to early weather warning systems for communities in South Africa, Zambia and Mozambique.

This work has been awarded by the Met Office as part of the Weather and Climate Information Services (WISER) programme, commissioned on behalf of the UK government’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO).

Over the next two and a half years, the WISER Early Warning for Southern Africa project will focus on providing weather information to socially disadvantaged urban populations to reduce the damage caused by storms.

Across Southern Africa, extreme weather puts hundreds of thousands of people at risk every year. Last January, it is estimated 15,000 people were affected by floods in Zambia, and in April, over 400 people were killed by floods in Durban, South Africa. In Mozambique’s last rain season, around 200,000 families were displaced.

One of the project’s main objectives will be to build capacity for nowcasting – a process whereby real-time satellite images over Africa are used to predict weather conditions over the next six hours.

The team has also set out to improve short-term weather forecasts which look up to forty-eight hours ahead, and will work to ensure that the forecasts are tailored for people in cities who need them most.

These improvements will help to revolutionise the future of weather services in Southern Africa, and ultimately reduce the risk of loss of lives and livelihoods for urban populations when severe weather hits.

At the moment, urban communities are reliant on traditional weather forecasts generated by computer models in advance. Yet in tropical regions, the behaviour of weather patterns is always uncertain once they start to develop.

Nowcasting offers a way to complement traditional weather forecasts by using real-world observations to increase our confidence in how the weather will change over the next few hours.

In collaboration with African authorities, scientists will use nowcasting information to set-up short-term weather alerts that can be distributed via text and voice messages, and automated messages on smartphone applications – similar to the FASTA app deployed in East Africa last year.

WISER Early Warnings for Southern Africa will focus on providing warnings to socially disadvantaged groups, who may be more vulnerable to the effects of severe weather, and who may not have equal access to existing warning systems.

For example, people living in informal settlements close to a river will be more vulnerable to flash flooding, and people with disabilities may require early warnings to take action to protect themselves and their property.

As well as saving lives, the team hope that accurate short-term weather information could change the way that businesses operate, for example, helping aviation companies to reduce their risks, fishers to decide when to take to sea, and farmers to adapt their irrigation, pesticide and fertiliser use.

Professor Doug Parker, National Centre for Atmospheric Science and University of Leeds, stresses that no one approach will meet every need, and that building close relationships with users will be essential to find the best ways to communicate weather warnings.

“The accuracy of African weather forecasts is getting better and better, and the expansion of digital communications has revolutionised the way in which we can transmit warnings. But these advances will only have an impact on people’s lives if we work to tailor information to their needs,” explains Professor Parker.

Not everyone has a smartphone. Not everyone can read a message transmitted in English. We will trial and evaluate different warning systems in partnership with diverse groups across Southern Africa.

Professor Doug Parker, National Centre for Atmospheric Science and University of Leeds

At the heart of the programme, the team will run two weather forecasting testbeds – collaborative events that bring together regional weather forecasters and forecast users to evaluate current weather services and set-up new services tailored to user needs.

The testbeds will focus on practical operations, and combine workshops, interviews and surveys throughout the lifespan of the programme.

They will encourage co-production by strengthening infrastructure across Southern Africa, and developing relationships between forecast producers, end users, and government structures.

In particular, economists working in the project plan to create a sustainable model for producing weather warnings that is accessible to diverse urban communities, including women and people with disabilities.

Professor Doug Parker, National Centre for Atmospheric Science and University of Leeds said:

“Creating and delivering the warnings places high technological demands, and has to be conducted across a network of cooperating partners, to get information from a satellite to a community within about 30 minutes.  We will establish these connections from country to country, and provide channels for the voices of disadvantaged communities to express their needs, so that the systems can be optimised, and improved in future.”

“Short-range storm forecasts and nowcasts save lives and property, but they can be complex and relatively costly to generate. For the systems to be sustainable, it is essential that we identify and demonstrate business models for this kind of forecasting, so that African agencies can deliver the services long-term. Building on our experience in other parts of Africa, and worldwide, we aim to demonstrate how government, the private sector and philanthropic funding can provide the resources needed to maintain live-saving services in Southern Africa.”

Nico Kroese, South African Weather Service, said:

“The Southern African region is particularly prone to severe weather events that occur over very short timescales. Making predictions in the very short term fulfils one of the key societal needs for accurate warnings of adverse weather events, such as heavy rain and flooding in order for the protection of life and property. Typically, nowcasting are based on the extrapolation of data and information obtained from near real-time reporting observation platforms such as surface-based automatic weather stations, weather radar and satellites, commodities that are very scarce within the region.” 

“The WISER Early Warning for Southern Africa (EWSA) project is a collaborative project consisting of institutions within the SADC region as well as international institutions with expert knowledge to develop and enhance nowcasting capabilities.”

“The project provides an opportunity for the establishment of new relations as well as the strengthening of existing relationship between the participants. The utilisation of technology and the anticipated results of the WISER-EWSA project will impact and eventually benefit all the NMS’s within the region as well as imparting knowledge and skills down to ground level to build resilience within communities affected by severe weather.”

George Gibson, WISER Programme Manager at the Met Office, said: 

“As we have seen with the tragic consequences of Tropical Cyclone Freddy, communities in sub-Saharan Africa are having to contend with ever-more extreme weather events, in part linked to climate change. Early-warning systems are an essential life-saving adaptation providing beleaguered communities with a chance of avoiding the worst of consequences.”

Estelle de Coning, Head of the World Weather Research Programme at the World Meteorological Organisation said:

“Aligning with the announcement of the United Nations Secretary General Dr António Guterres, for a major new initiative led by the World Meteorological Organisation and United Nations Office for Disaster Reduction to provide everyone on earth protection against extreme weather events through effective early warning systems within the next five years, WISER Early Warnings for Southern Africa can go a long way to demonstrate how early warnings on a nowcasting time scale can improve early warnings, adaptation and resilience in Southern Africa through the use of satellites and other data sources.”

“Dr Guterres highlighted the lack of coverage of early warning systems in Africa and this programme will provide a clear link between research, infrastructure, services and members of the World Meteorological Organisation Regional Association, enabling science for services in one of our most in-need regions.”

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