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Science key to grasping change

Saturday December 08, 2018 Written by Published in Weekend
Met Service director Arona Ngari shows the server room for the automatic weather station in Titikaveka. Photo: Melina Tuiravakai/CI Govt 18120504 Met Service director Arona Ngari shows the server room for the automatic weather station in Titikaveka. Photo: Melina Tuiravakai/CI Govt 18120504

This feature by Melina Tuiravakai, Climate Change Cook Islands Division of the Office of the Prime Minister and Kate Jean Smith, UNDP, describes how automatic weather stations are helping to fill the gaps in our understanding of climate change.

Fishing and planting are our communities’ livelihoods. In this, weather is everything. If the weather takes a turn for the worse while I am at sea, it can be a safety issue.

If I am unable to catch enough fish to feed my family and provide for my community, then how can we survive? With the remoteness of our island, we must be resilient. We must adapt for our existence, and if technology is the pathway then let’s learn how to use it.

For centuries, Cook Islands communities have used traditional knowledge and skills, passed down through generations, to read their environment and provide food for their families. Nature has provided.

But farmers, fishers, and practitioners of traditional livelihoods have witnessed changes over the past decades. Typical seasons for the spawning of fish have shifted.

Rainfall, wave, and wind patterns have become less predictable. The islands are seeing coral bleaching and the disappearance of some native fish and shellfish delicacies. Storm surges and sea-water intrusion are increasingly impacting crops.

While these trends are being observed first-hand by communities, scientific data is the key to fully understanding the changes.

The Cook Islands government is focused on filling the gaps and now, with the installation of automatic weather stations and a new online app, the Cook Islands Meteorological Service (Met Service) is modernising the capture, analysis, and distribution of climate information – a key piece of the puzzle in building a more climate-smart future.

What was once a manual process is now a seamless, automatic one, achieved through the collaboration of Met Service; the telecommunication’s company Cook Islands Bluesky; New Zealand's National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA); Fiji’s Meteorological Service; and the Pa Enua (outer island) governments, with the support of the UN Development Programme and Adaptation Fund.

Nine automatic weather stations have been installed and upgraded on the islands of Atiu, Mangaia, Mauke, Mitiaro, Rarotonga, Manihiki, Rakahanga, Penrhyn, and Pukapuka and are capturing and transmitting data on atmospheric temperature, wind speed, wind direction, humidity, rainfall, and atmospheric pressure. Anyone with an Internet connection can now access live information and forecasts.

Supporting the transition to the next generation of technology are young staff at Met Service (eight of the department’s eleven staff are under 30). No strangers to using technology in every aspect of their lives, they are proudly leading the way in embracing technology and providing the community with easier access to forecasts.

“We’re excited to be moving with modern technology to improve the availability of climate information to our communities.

“People can now access information through an app on their smart phones. This is a big step in the right direction for our remote and vulnerable islands.

“It’s really key to enabling them to become more ‘climate-smart’ and therefore more resilient to changes,” says Arona Ngari, director of Cook Islands Meteorological Service

The goal of the Strengthening the Resilience of the Cook Islands to Climate Change project, running since 2012, has been to boost the long-term capacity of the Cook Islands to better manage current and future climate change-driven pressures. The vision of providing real-time climate information to communities was a key component of the project.

That vision is on its way to being realised.

With real-time data via the online app, fishers and farmers will be able to make more informed decisions.

Farmers will be able to plan when to plant, to protect their crops from weather damage, and to make better irrigation decisions. Fishers will be better able to judge conditions for going to sea.

Meanwhile, with enhanced, up-to-date data on incoming weather, decision-makers will be able to make better-informed decisions.

For example, with improved data and forecasts for rainfall and temperature, the Ministry of Infrastructure and Ministry of Agriculture will be better equipped to plan water storage requirements.

The Ministry of Health will be enabled to provide better advice on vector-borne diseases such as malaria and dengue.

More reliable information will also support the Cook Islands Port Authority and Cook Islands Airports in the landing of aircrafts and guidance of large sea vessels, as well as transportation to the remote outer islands, vital to delivering essentials including medication, project materials, food, fuel, and fresh water.

The access to enhanced data also contributes to more effective disaster early warning, and climate-resilient adaptation on the remote islands.

The hardware is crucial, but so is increasing awareness and building local capacity for how best to use the newly available data. A ‘train-the-trainer’ approach was therefore taken at the time of installation, with continuous follow up from the islands to Met Service staff.

Youth were also targeted, via the project’s partnership between Met Service and Te Ipukarea Society to conduct awareness workshops in Pa Enua schools. Over 60 students were trained using a learning-by-doing approach, allowing the students to be hands-on in understanding more about their microclimate, measuring variables on their own and being able to interpret their collected data for signs of upcoming rain and even cyclones.

Comprehensive data is now available online for Rarotonga. The team continues to work on linking data from the rest of the outer island automatic weather stations to their database, to be uploaded to the website and app in the coming months.

With more accurate climate information, Cook Islands communities are better prepared than ever for the future.

Truly the Pacific island state is 'Akamatutu’anga i te iti tangata no te tuatau manakokore ia e te taui’anga reva', strengthening the resilience of their islands and communities to climate change.