Turns Out You Do Need A Weatherman To Know Which Way The Wind Blew

May 30, 2016
Originally published on June 1, 2016 8:08 am

Will this summer be hotter than average?

How much rain can we expect?

A key step to answering questions about the weather is to consult the historic record. But what if there were no record? That's the predicament that Rwanda faces. The civil war and genocide that devastated that country in 1994 also destroyed Rwanda's system for tracking weather. The result was that for a roughly 15-year stretch, Rwanda has almost no record of what its weather was like.

"That period was totally lost," says Didace Musoni, a top official at Rwanda's meterological agency. "It is data that will never, never, never be recovered."

Or will it? Now there's an innovative effort to piece it together.

To understand why the recovery effort could prove a game-changer, it helps to rewind to the period just before the genocide. Rwanda relied on a network of about 100 volunteers to record its weather information — ordinary people such as teachers and church leaders, who every day would write down the measurements collected at small outdoor observation stations. Picture a white box on stilts surrounded by a wire fence, with a thermometer and a gauge for measuring rainfall inside.

After the war ended in 1994 Musoni was charged with resurrecting Rwanda's weather agency. He took a series of trips through the countryside to check on the stations and was disheartened by what he saw.

"Many of these stations had been abandoned," he says. "The fencing would be torn. Instruments were destroyed."

As for the volunteers who had manned the stations, many had been murdered in the genocide. Most of the rest had fled.

Musoni recalls a few cases of heroic station volunteers who came forward to deliver data they'd managed to collect during the war.

"We had people walking long distances to bring the data to us."

They included a teenage girl whose father had been a volunteer. He had been killed. But she'd kept his reports and she offered to continue his work. Musoni says he'll never forget the day she showed up.

"It was very, very moving, you know?"

But for the most part Musoni had to reassemble the station network from scratch — recruiting and training new observers and replacing instruments. And all this at a time the new government was struggling to rebuild the entire country. Weather stations weren't exactly a priority. So it wasn't until around 2010 that Rwanda finally got all of them back in operation.

Enter Tufa Dinku. He's a climate scientist at Columbia University's International Research Institute for Climate and Society. For years he's run a program to help countries in Africa improve their climate tracking services. He started with Ethiopia, then Tanzania. Two years ago, he turned his attention to Rwanda. He says initially, he found the 15-year-gap in weather information daunting.

"My first reaction was, 'It cannot be this bad.' So I went back to the data and then I said, 'Wow. This is true. It's really this bad.'"

But Dinku was determined to find a solution because the consequences of the missing data are serious — and not just for regular forecasting.

Take El Nino, the ocean warming phenomenon that crops up every few years and alters world weather patterns. In East Africa it can mean lots of extra rainfall leading to flooding and surges in diseases linked to mosquitoes. The world is currently in the midst of one of the biggest El Nino's on record. To prepare, governments have been consulting the record to see where the effects hit hardest during the last big one, which was in 1997.

But in Rwanda, notes Dinku, "I mean, what do you do? There is no reference."

So Dinku decided to figure out how to build a substitute data record from alternate sources. It took a combination of creativity and perseverance. He estimated rainfall using satellite imagery, temperature by working with computer models. Late last year, Dinku completed the new data set.

He's still perfecting it. But a fellow research scientist at Columbia, Jim Hansen, is already putting it to use. Hansen is now working with Rwanda's government on a ground-breaking system for using the new data to create detailed seasonal forecasts for small farmers. The idea is to give them information at the start of every season that can help with make-or-break decisions such as, what types of crops to plant or how much to invest in fertilizer. Soon, predicts Hansen, Rwanda's weather forecasting setup could go from worst case scenario to a model for even wealthier countries to emulate.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

There are many lasting reminders of war. In Rwanda, it's the weather forecasts. The country's weather tracking system was destroyed in its civil war and genocide more than 20 years ago. NPR's Nurith Aizenman reports on efforts to rebuild it.

NURITH AIZENMAN, BYLINE: Before the genocide, here's how Rwanda recorded weather data - they had about 100 volunteers scattered across the country - local teachers, church leaders - who, every day, would write down the measurements collected at these little outdoor observation stations. Picture of a box on stilts with thermometers inside, a gauge for measuring rainfall.

After the war, the man charged with resurrecting Rwanda's weather agency - his name is Didace Musoni - traveled the countryside to check on the stations.

DIDACE MUSONI: Many of these stations have been abandoned. The fencing would be torn. Instruments were destroyed.

AIZENMAN: As for the volunteers who had manned the stations, many had been murdered in the genocide. Most of the rest had fled. Now there were cases of heroic station volunteers who came forward to deliver data they'd managed to keep collecting during the war.

MUSONI: We had people walking long distances to bring the data to us.

AIZENMAN: They included a teenage girl whose father had been a volunteer. He had been killed, but she'd kept his reports and offered to continue his work. Musoni says he'll never forget the day she showed up.

MUSONI: Absolutely. Absolutely. It was very, very, very moving, you know?

AIZENMAN: But for the most part, Musoni had to reassemble the station network from scratch, and this at a time the new government was struggling to rebuild the whole country. So it wasn't until around 2010 that Rwanda finally got all the weather stations back in operation. And that meant that for a roughly 15-year stretch after the 1994 genocide, Rwanda has almost no record of what its weather was like.

MUSONI: That period was totally lost. It is data that will never, never, never be recovered.

AIZENMAN: Or will it? Enter Tufa Dinku. He's a climate scientist at Columbia University who runs a program to help countries in Africa improve their climate tracking services. Two years ago, he turned his attention to Rwanda. At first, he found that 15-year gap in weather information daunting.

TUFA DINKU: So my first reaction was it cannot be this bad, so I went back to the data. And then I said, wow, it's true. It is really this bad.

AIZENMAN: But he was determined to find a solution because the consequences of the missing data are serious, and not just for regular forecasting.

DINKU: So you have heard about El Nino, for example.

AIZENMAN: El Nino, the ocean-warming phenomenon that crops up every few years and alters world weather patterns. In some places, it leads to drought. In parts of Africa, it can mean lots of extra rainfall leading to flooding, surges in diseases linked to mosquitoes. We've been in the midst of one of the biggest El Ninos in recent history. Governments have been consulting the records to see where the effects hit hardest during the last big one in 1997. But in Rwanda -

DINKU: What do you do? There is no reference for Rwanda.

AIZENMAN: But Columbia University's Dinku had some ideas for how to build a substitute data record from alternate sources. He estimated rainfall using satellite imagery, temperature by working with computer models. Late last year, Dinku completed the new data set. He's still perfecting it, but a colleague at Columbia, Jim Hansen, is already putting it to use.

JIM HANSEN: I think a lot of the world is going to be watching Rwanda over the next few years.

AIZENMAN: Because Hansen is now working with Rwanda's government on a groundbreaking system for getting small farmers detailed seasonal forecasts based on the new data. That way, they can make better decisions on, say, what crops to plant. And while sure, he says, a weather service alone won't end poverty -

HANSEN: It may help a lot of the other efforts to end poverty to be more effective.

AIZENMAN: Nurith Aizenman, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.