Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Why we need to save Africa’s historical climate data

UNDP Digitization Initiative Takes Steps To Preserve Historic Climate Data in Sub-Saharan Africa
Archives from the Gambia. Photo: UNDP

By Excellent Hachileka
Climate data is the lifeblood of early warning systems and the cornerstone for resilience building efforts. It not only allows us to monitor adverse impacts across development sectors, populations and ecosystems, but it also helps countries to prepare for and adapt to the realities of climate change. This priceless information can be analyzed and applied to protect development gains and aid in the achievement of National Adaptation Plan goals.

Unfortunately in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa, this important data – often recorded with pen and paper – is being lost at a remarkable rate. Civil War, decay and the sands of time are literally erasing our historical record of climate in the region. In order to preserve this essential data, it is critical that Africa take steps to digitize this information.

At the request of the governments of the Gambia, Malawi, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia, the UNDP Programme on Climate Information for Resilient Development in Africa (CIRDA) is taking steps to preserve this data. Two experts – including myself – where commissioned by CIRDA to meet with National Hydrological and Meteorological Services to provide guidance on digitization efforts and create a plan to capture digital records, especially information relevant to agriculture, fishing and flood management.

The lessons learned from our initial efforts to provide guidance on digitization can be applied to other countries, and is an important first step in securing the historic record of Africa’s climatic past.

Climate data generally falls into two categories: historical data and data from recent and current observations.

While most people understand the importance of current and recent climate data, fewer appreciate the equal importance of historical climate data. Historical data allow us to establish long-term trends, which in turn helps us understand and better plan for future changes in climate. They also help us develop climate models and seasonal forecasts, and provide the foundational datasets used for adaptation studies at local, national and regional scales.

For example, climate models are mathematical representations of the interactions between the atmosphere, oceans, land surface, ice and the sun. Once a climate model is developed, it has to be tested to find out if it works. And since we can’t wait for 30 years to see if a model is any good or not, the models have to be tested against the past in a process that is called “hindcasting.” These models rely on historical observations. The simple assumption of hindcasting is that if a model can correctly predict current trends from a starting point somewhere in the past, one can expect it to predict with reasonable certainty what might happen in the future.

Meteorological data observations in most African countries date back to the early 19th Century (for example, in Tanzania the first meteorological observation was made along the coast in 1850). Once recorded on paper, the observations are kept in various formats in data archives located in meteorological agencies. But this historical data is recorded largely on paper and, depending on the age of the paper and the condition of the archives, some of the data is unreadable or is wearing out at dramatic rates, while other data is recorded with handwritten ink that fades over time. This is a slow-motion tragedy. Historical information is an invaluable resource for a continent that is already being hit hard by climate change.

Some of these countries have almost one billion pages of historical data that is not digitized. That’s a lot of paper and a lot of work, but it also represents decades of historical information that can prove critical in long-term forecasts. These billion pages represent the records from just the six countries we visited, and the situation is similar throughout much of Africa. 

Many of the National Hydrological and Meteorological Services we visited expressed a great deal of concern in the ongoing loss of this information. For instance, a chief meteorologist at the Zambia Meteorological Department told me that one day he woke up to learn that a colleague in his office had set a large portion of climate data on fire in a bid to create more office space – literally, several years of irreplaceable data had just vanished into smoke. In other places, the poor conditions of archives have led to climate data being eaten up by termites or destroyed when offices are flooded. In Sierra Leone, the Meteorology Department points to thousands of historical climate datasets that were lost during the civil war.

As should be clear, preserving historical data isn’t just an exercise in saving bits of old paper – it is an investment that can truly save lives and enhance climate risk preparedness by helping to create better forecasting, better projections and better early warning systems. Indeed, ensuring that all historical climate data is rescued and digitized can contribute to improving efficiency and effectiveness in the provision of climate services. Perhaps more importantly, it is an essential building block to fortify our societies’ resilience against the effects of climate change.

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Excellent Hachileka is an Environmentalist and Development Expert with over 20 years of environmental management and development work in sub-Sahara Africa. He is currently serving as a Programme Specialist in the Disaster Risk Reduction and Climate Change Cluster at the UNDP Regional Service Centre for Africa (RSCA) where he provides technical support to UNDP Country Offices and the Regional Economic Communities in Africa. His work focuses on the development of integrated disaster risk reduction and climate change policies, legislation, regulatory frameworks and strategies. Before joining the RSCA, he worked as a Climate Change Policy Specialist at UNDP Zambia. He has also worked for 12 years with the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as Country Director for Zambia and Zimbabwe, and as IUCN’s Regional Climate Change Programme Coordinator for Eastern and Southern Africa. Excellent was also a Lecturer and Researcher in Environmental Management and Natural Resource Economics at the University of Zambia. He holds a BSc in Physical Geography (University of Zambia) and a Master’s Degree in Environmental Management (University of Stirling, Scotland).

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