Home Science Weather Warning Inequity: Lack of Data Collection Stations Imperils Vulnerable People

Weather Warning Inequity: Lack of Data Collection Stations Imperils Vulnerable People

Weather Warning Inequity: Lack of Data Collection Stations Imperils Vulnerable People

CLIMATEWIRE | Devastating floods and landslides triggered by extreme downpours killed hundreds of people in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo in May, when some areas saw more than 7 inches of rain in a day.

Climate change is intensifying rainstorms throughout much of the world, yet scientists haven’t been able to show that the event was influenced by warming.

That’s because they don’t have enough data to investigate it.

Weather stations are sparse across Africa, making it hard for researchers to collect daily information on rainfall and other weather variables. The data that does exist often isn’t publicly available.

“The main issue in some countries in Africa is funding,” said Izidine Pinto, a senior researcher on weather and climate at the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute. “The meteorological offices don’t have enough funding.”

There’s often too little money to build or maintain weather stations, and strapped-for-cash governments often choose to sell the data they do collect rather than make it free to researchers.

That’s a growing problem as the planet warms and extreme weather worsens. Reliable forecasts are needed for early warning systems that direct people to take shelter or evacuate before disasters strike. And long-term climate data is necessary for scientists to build computer models that help make predictions about the future.

The science consortium World Weather Attribution is the latest research group to run into problems. It investigates the links between climate change and individual extreme weather events all over the globe. In the last few months alone, the organization has demonstrated the influence of global warming on extreme heat in South Asia and the Mediterranean, floods in Italy, and drought in eastern Africa.

Most of its research finds that climate change is making weather events more likely to occur or more intense.

The group recently attempted to investigate the influence of climate change on the floods in Rwanda and Congo. But the study was quickly mired in challenges.

The team was able to acquire some weather station data, mainly in Rwanda, Joyce Kimutai, a research associate at Imperial College London and a co-author of the study, said at a press briefing announcing the findings Thursday. But only a few stations provided sufficient data, making it impossible to define the event or to be certain that climate model simulations were accurate.

In the end, the researchers managed to make some projections about the region’s future, indicating that climate change is likely to worsen extreme rainfall events as temperatures continue to rise. But they were unable to determine the extent to which climate change influenced the recent floods — because there wasn’t enough data.

It’s not a new issue for World Weather Attribution, which conducts studies all over the globe.

“It happens quite often that we have some data challenges,” said Friederike Otto, a climate scientist at Imperial College London and co-founder of WWA.

The group is usually able to circumvent those issues — by using satellite data, for instance. But even satellite studies need enough on-the-ground measurements to prove that the satellites are collecting accurate data. That wasn’t an option in Rwanda.

At least two prior WWA assessments — investigating drought in Ethiopia and the Central Sahel in Africa — also yielded inconclusive results due to a lack of data.

‘Deteriorating state’

Africa has some of the greatest data challenges in the world. A 2019 report from the World Meteorological Organization states that the continent has only one-eighth the recommended number of weather and climate observation stations, and less than a quarter of them meet scientific standards.

“Africa has the least developed land-based observation network of all continents, and one that is in a deteriorating state,” the report said.

Other regions, particularly low-income and developing nations, also suffer from data availability issues and a shortage of climate research. The World Meteorological Organization has estimated that less than 10 percent of basic weather and climate observations are available from small island states and the least developed countries around the world.

2021 study found that far more studies on climate impacts are conducted in wealthy nations compared with low-income ones. The authors referred to this as an “attribution gap” — an imbalance in the scientific evidence for the influence of global warming across different regions of the world.

Many of these countries have contributed comparatively little greenhouse gases that are warming the planet. And yet they are some of the most vulnerable regions of the world. Many are prone to extreme heat, drought, rising oceans or other climate disasters. And they often have far less financial resources for adaptation and resilience.

“If you don’t know what the types of weather events are that lead to flooding — and in this case that led to huge human suffering, 600 deaths — then you can’t do early warning, you don’t know when to actually warn populations,” Otto said of the flooding in Rwanda and Congo.

Data challenges also make it difficult to assess the influence of climate change on other aspects of human health and well-being, said Ritu Bharadwaj, a researcher specializing in climate governance and finance at the International Institute for Environment and Development.

Regions that suffer from climate data issues often have coexisting challenges, such as incomplete long-term health and medical data.

Raw climate data is one challenge, Bharadwaj said, but “the other big problem is the impact or understanding the vulnerability.”

These issues arose during the recent flood investigation in Africa. World Weather Attribution partners with local organizations for each study to assess the area’s vulnerability to disasters and the social factors that helped make the event so extreme. They investigate whether certain demographics or socioeconomic groups were more vulnerable than others and what kinds of adaptation efforts could improve the outcome the next time around.

“That kind of research was also really difficult in this case because that kind of data was also not available,” Otto said. “It’s not just the weather.”

Data affects loss and damage

Data issues also pose another potential challenge for vulnerable nations — their ability to demand climate-related funding.

That’s an increasingly important subject in international climate forums. At last year’s annual United Nations climate conference, governments made a groundbreaking agreement to establish a fund for climate-related loss and damage — a way to compensate nations suffering disproportionate impacts from global warming.

But the details of how the fund will operate, including which nations are eligible and what kinds of damage the fund will cover, remain undecided. Those discussions are expected to take place at this year’s conference in the United Arab Emirates.

Until those details are finalized, there’s a danger that vulnerable nations may be asked to provide more climate-related evidence than they have the data to support, said Pinto of the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute.

“If you do not have data, you cannot prove that the climate is affecting your region,” he said. “So in terms of loss and damage, this is also important to get this funding and to build other plans for resilience.”

Many discussions around the loss and damage framework emphasize funding for the most vulnerable places in the world, Bharadwaj added. But it’s still unclear how countries are expected to prove their vulnerability.

“This means countries for which we don’t have data will be left out or what?” she said. “In fact, the countries which do not have the data are the countries which are least developed and most vulnerable and the ones who should get that support.”

A fair and equitable loss and damage framework would strike a delicate balance, Otto said. Because there is a limited amount of climate funding, it should go toward climate-related damages and not other types of disasters such as earthquakes, she said. But in doing so, it shouldn’t make the burden of evidence too high for the world’s most vulnerable countries.

“I think it’s really important to be aware of these issues and to take them into account properly when designing whatever the mechanism will look like,” she said.

In the meantime, experts say, the international community should invest in more weather stations in data-poor regions — and make sure they are maintained and staffed.

Some efforts are already underway. The Systematic Observations Financing Facility is a recent U.N. initiative to address climate and weather data gaps and to ensure that early warning systems are established wherever they’re needed.

It’s crucial that these efforts prioritize not just building new observational infrastructure but also maintaining it, Otto said.

“The problem is not that weather stations don’t exist,” she said. “The problem is that they are only useful for early warning and research if they are maintained. Investing in long-term partnerships to invest in people, really rather than infrastructure, is what’s needed.”

Reprinted from E&E News with permission from POLITICO, LLC. Copyright 2023. E&E News provides essential news for energy and environment professionals.

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