Meteorologists Can't Keep Up With Climate Change In Mozambique : Goats and Soda As world leaders gather for a climate summit in Madrid, some of the countries most vulnerable to climate change say they need improved forecasting tools.
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Meteorologists Can't Keep Up With Climate Change In Mozambique

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Meteorologists Can't Keep Up With Climate Change In Mozambique

Meteorologists Can't Keep Up With Climate Change In Mozambique

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NOEL KING, HOST:

World leaders are at the annual United Nations climate meeting this week, and one question they're asking is, how can vulnerable countries adapt to storms, floods and droughts? Better forecasting could be one answer. NPR's Rebecca Hersher brought us this from Mozambique.

REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: November in Mozambique is hot and sunny with a chance of epic rainstorms. On one particular Thursday, the cellphone of Mozambique's lead forecaster, Acacio Tembe, keeps ringing with local officials who want to know whether that's going to happen today.

ACACIO TEMBE: (Speaking Portuguese).

HERSHER: The city's drainage director is calling him because just an inch and a half of rain can flood the roads here in the capital, Maputo - totally possible if a thunderstorm passes right over the city. But Tembe can't tell him if that's going to happen.

TEMBE: (Speaking Portuguese).

HERSHER: To figure it out, he turns to his computer and pulls up a weather map from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration 8,000 miles away near Washington, D.C. In another tab, he pulls up a weather map managed by the European Union and then one from the United Kingdom and then one from Japan. On every map, clouds and bands of rain move in lazy, constantly refreshing loops across Mozambique and neighboring South Africa. But Tembe can't zoom in close enough to see in high resolution what exactly is coming toward the capital. All he can tell is that it will probably rain some amount sometime this afternoon somewhere in the province.

TEMBE: (Speaking Portuguese).

HERSHER: "Right now, we're using global models," he says. "But what we really need is a weather model all our own for Mozambique with better resolution because the weather threats are getting more severe."

TEMBE: (Through interpreter) Nowadays, we have more intense phenomena, more cases of strong rains. The heat is stronger. The winds are stronger. It's different from the past.

HERSHER: The effects of climate change are obvious for people in Mozambique. This spring, two massive cyclones hit the country in two months. Hotter-than-normal oceans and air make intense rainy cyclones more likely. And forecasters couldn't tell where the worst flooding was going to happen until after the storms had already made landfall. Antonio Queface is a climate scientist at Eduardo Mondlane University in Maputo. He says upgrading the country's climate and weather modeling will require better raw data about wind and humidity and rain.

ANTONIO QUEFACE: They used to say garbage in, garbage out on the model. So the model itself doesn't solve anything.

HERSHER: He says, there's not enough information being collected every day on land and off the coast, where a lot of extreme weather systems form.

QUEFACE: Africa as a continent, as a whole, may be excluding little bit South Africa. There's scarcity of meteorological data, even on the continent side. And it's worse when you go to the ocean side.

HERSHER: To gather more weather data, in the early 2000s, Mozambique's government and the World Bank worked with a German company to install two weather radar stations on the coast. One of the two radar towers was in the town of Xai-Xai, about three hours from the capital. The president himself cut the ribbon when it opened in 2004. Today, the lawn around the tower is neatly trimmed, thanks to Solomao Mausse, the janitor for the local meteorology office. For years, he's been walking the three miles up here every few days to dust and sweep.

Can we go inside? Is it open?

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: (Speaking Portuguese).

SOLOMAO MAUSSE: (Speaking Portuguese).

HERSHER: It's a steep red ladder up into a hole in the ceiling. Wow.

It's a dome like a telescope. Mausse stands in the dark in the dome and tells a story.

MAUSSE: (Speaking Portuguese).

HERSHER: "For a long time before the radar went in, people here didn't get much from the weather forecasts," he says, "because the forecasts were often wrong. When there was flooding predicted, people would just stay in their homes and leave their cattle out in low-lying fields. And then in 2008, four years after this radar was installed, there was a storm with heavy rain and wind. The local meteorologists could see from the radar data that the storm was sitting over the neighboring province, not moving. They warned people the storm wasn't over, to be careful, and they were right. There was flooding, and everyone was really impressed. They were like, are you talking to God with that thing? This radar made people in this province very proud," Mausse says. "But shortly after that, the radar started to malfunction. It was difficult to keep it calibrated. It was hard to get things fixed because the company that made it was in Germany. And local technicians didn't have any experience with radar."

Researchers have found that the company's radar systems in southern Africa have not been successfully maintained. It's unclear who, if anyone, feels responsible for that. This particular radar tower stopped working around 2013, so Mausse has been keeping it clean ever since, hoping it will be fixed someday.

It sounds like he's really frustrated.

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: (Speaking Portuguese).

MAUSSE: (Speaking Portuguese, laughter).

HERSHER: "Of course," he says, "yes." He hopes it will start working again, although there is no indication that will happen. Meteorologists and climate scientists say that another source of weather information may be more reliable than radar in the long term - satellite data. Weather satellites that are already in orbit are collecting information that could be useful to meteorologists here. But getting and using that information every day will require better Internet, more computing power, more training and a better weather model, all of which costs money. And how to pay for that capacity is one issue on the table at this week's climate conference in Madrid because the countries that contributed the most to climate change are also the ones with the cash. Rebecca Hersher, NPR News, Maputo, Mozambique.

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