Africa lags the developed world in weather stations but still produces a surprising amount of data. Too bad few people are using it.
Scientists at Columbia University and a growing number of others—among them Bill Gates and the charity arm of Google—are pushing to open Africa’s climate archive to the world by making it free. If Africa’s climate information becomes more accessible, scientists can make more accurate short and long-term weather forecasts, allowing farmers, relief workers and public health experts to plan for and manage catastrophic events.
Like their European counterparts, most African countries charge for their climate data to offset the cost of running their weather services. In a newly published paper in Nature, Madeleine Thomson, a malaria expert at Columbia’s International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI), argues that an alternative funding mechanism to allow the free-sharing of data would help Africans better fight disease. Climate data is a “resource for development,” she writes, “a classic public good that increases in valued the more times the data are used.”
Researchers will share ideas for unlocking Africa’s climate data at an upcoming conference in Ethiopia, “Climate and Health in Africa: Ten Years On” organized by IRI, April 4-6.
In Kenya, some 1,500 weather stations gather detailed climate data but the data from only a few dozen of those stations are publicly available. Airlines that serve the country are willing to pay for some of that extra information, but most researchers are not. As a result, scientists rely heavily on global satellite data, producing less accurate climate models.
For the last decade, researchers have debated whether Kenya’s highlands are getting hotter—a question that might begin to explain why new cases of malaria rose dramatically in the 1980s and 1990s. In a paper published in Malaria Journal earlier this year, IRI epidemiologist, Judy Omumbo and colleagues, showed conclusively that the region had warmed by 0.6 degrees C since 1979. In short order, Omumbo was able to resolve a question her colleagues had wrestled with for years by gaining access to climate data from a regional tea plantation that had never been analyzed before.
Getting a hold of that data was not easy. At first, the Kenya Meteorological Department wanted $52,000 for it. But Omumbo, a native of Kenya, convinced the department to share it for free by collaborating with one of its meteorologists and citing him in her paper. Another researcher at the IRI, Ethiopian Tufa Dinku, has established similar collaborations in his home country.
If those breakthroughs are to continue, policy makers need to rethink how Africa’s national weather services are funded, the researchers at the IRI say. Ideas include a mix of public and private funding arrangements.