The World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) Global Framework for Climate Services (GFCS) was established at the World Climate Conference-3 (WCC-3) in Geneva, September 2009, with the joint aim of “better serving society’s need for accurate and timely information on climate” and increasing the number acronyms used in climate change discourse. The High-level Taskforce (HLT) was subsequently created to coordinate international efforts and develop the necessary guidance and infrastructure to support the development of climate services within National Meteorological and Hydrological Services (NMHSs…of course). Ever since, NMHSs and climate researchers have been clambering together in attempts to establish exactly what is meant by “climate services” and to determine how best to deliver these services to the public.
The WMO has prioritised the deployment of climate services in climate‐vulnerable developing countries…are there any developing countries which aren’t climate-vulnerable? In any case, it is interesting to monitor the progress of climate services provision, particularly in Africa where climate information is often fractured and poorly disseminated. I was therefore intrigued to learn about Ethiopia’s recent efforts to develop a set of freely available climate data maps, accessible from the Ethiopian National Meteorological Agency (NMA) website. The International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI) at Columbia University, New York, partnered with the Ethiopian NMA to integrate satellite based observations of rainfall and temperature with ground-based observations, compiling maps at a 10km horizontal spatial resolution. Funded by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and Google, the project aims to improve the use of climate information in a number of societal applications. The IRI has suggested that the online maps, or what the WMO might refer to as a Climate Services Information System (CSIS), provides “a model for improving climate services in Africa”.
So to clarify the previous two paragraphs, as a result of the WMO GFCS and joint funding from NOAA and Google, the IRI and NMA got together to develop a CSIS. Is that clear? Good, let’s proceed.
Ethiopia certainly befits the description of a climate-vulnerable developing country. Extensive and extended periods of drought have severely impacted the lives and livelihoods of Ethiopian people, notably in the mid 1980s and more recently in 2011. The creation of an online climate data portal (more information available here) enables policymakers and communities to access information and acquire knowledge regarding the impacts of rainfall and temperature variability on national and local scales. For this, I applaud the efforts of the NMA and IRI. It is potentially a hugely beneficial resource to aid understanding of climate variability and climate change in Ethiopia. Yet the claim that this model is suitable for scaling up and introducing across Africa may be somewhat premature. It is essential to evaluate the usefulness of the resource for decision makers and communities before advocating similar efforts elsewhere. Furthermore, whilst it is important to provide data to enable people and businesses to better understand local climate, presenting data as information is misleading. Unfortunately, the NMA climate data maps are not climate information maps. Appropriate interpretation of the data requires more than a basic understanding of climate. The assumptions and limitations that ought to accompany the data are hidden and there is a real risk that the historical data will be interpreted as actual observations.
The climate data maps demonstrate that a “point-and-click” approach to climate services is misguided. Simply enabling users to extract data for a particular location of interest may lead to unfortunate consequences. As an illustration, I decided to arbitrarily pick two locations which were very close together in south-west Ethiopia. The locations and associated annual temperature cycles are shown in the attached figures (see below). Despite the two locations being very close together, at least visually on the map even if many kilometers away in reality (which illustrates the point), the difference in Tmax (which I presume is mean monthly Tmax, though this is not clearly stated) is around 4 degrees C throughout the year; in fact the max Tmax at location 1 is almost as low as the min Tmax at location 2. In establishing vulnerability thresholds and relating these to observed temperatures, any small discrepancy in the location would therefore lead to very different conclusions.
Providing accurate and timely climate information is a crucial component of building resilience to climate variability and climate change in Africa and worldwide. Enabling access to data whilst ensuring that data is not misinterpreted presents a key challenge for Climate Service providers. I’d certainly be interested to hear the thoughts of others regarding the extent to which the Ethiopian efforts represent a move in the right (or wrong) direction.