One Size Fits None: Drought forecasting in the Caribbean

A summary of the first-ever dry season Caribbean Climate Outlook Forum

By Elisabeth Gawthrop

Most extreme climate and weather events involve an unwanted surplus — too much rain, too much wind or too much snow and ice. Drought is a little different: it’s the absence of something. It takes time for a drought to build, making it fundamentally different to monitor or forecast than many climate and weather events. In the Caribbean, much of the interaction between forecasters and decision makers has revolved around the wet season events— especially hurricanes and floods. These short, high impact events deserve this attention, but scientists and decision makers have also started working together to develop useful information about other kinds of climate impacts, namely drought.

In an effort to improve drought forecasts and their use by stakeholders, the first dry season Caribbean Climate Outlook Forum (CariCOF) took place in St. John’s, Antigua in December 2014. CariCOF is one of many regional COFs around the world that bring together climatologists, meteorologists, and the people who might use the information they produce (e.g. representatives from health, agriculture, water management, etc.).

Before this past December, the Caribbean only hosted such a meeting just before the wet season. But if rainfall during the wet season isn’t sufficient, drought can manifest and become further exacerbated during the dry season. Adrian Trotman of the Caribbean Institute for Meteorology and Hydrology (CIMH), the main organizer of the event, explains in the video below why the Caribbean needed a dry season COF. Trotman is an assiduous, energetic scientist who constantly motivates the conference attendees; he brilliantly blends the fun, laid-back Caribbean spirit with the focus needed to move climate resilience in the region forward.

Adrian Trotman of CIMH explains why a dry season Caribbean Climate Outlook Forum is needed.

Day 1: The forecast

Caribbean drought outlook using the Standardized Precipitation Index (SPI), December 2014.

Following opening remarks on the first day of the COF, scientists from CIMH gave an overview about the dry season in the Caribbean. They then presented the temperature, precipitation and drought forecasts for the next several months.

The drought forecast received the most interest and sparked the most discussion. The drought forecast was debuted to stakeholders at the CariCOF last May in Kingston. Marck Oduber from Aruba’s Meteorological Service explains his successes in learning and using the drought tool:

But for those not trained in atmospheric science, interpreting the drought information can be a bit trickier.

The complexity of drought stems not just from technical monitoring and forecasting challenges, but also from its differing relationships among the economic sectors it influences.

Droughts affecting agriculture, for example, are made more or less severe not only by precipitation, but also by soil type and conditions. Water resources may face more or less demand during certain seasons. In the Caribbean, for example, the dry season coincides with tourist season, which puts additional strain on water supply if there is a drought during the dry season.

Tailoring drought tools for different users.

With the goal of creating climate products that are more tailored to specific needs, CariCOF organizers rotate the location of the COF each time to try to reach more stakeholders. Given the relatively small distances, it is surprisingly expensive to travel between Caribbean islands, so many stakeholders only come when the COF is closer to them. While this rotation is important, the difficulty of communicating drought information is compounded by the fact that although many of the same climatologists and meteorologists come to each CariCOF, the attending stakeholders varies by location. Because of this turnover, climatologists can sometime feel each COF is like starting over again, with the same barriers to progress of using forecasts persisting. But everyone also recognizes that the forecasts are continually reaching new people this way, and the climatologists do learn fresh insights about forecasts’ usability from new stakeholders. Organizers feel that the rotating nature of the COF fosters the necessary trust-building for honest engagement, but it’s a process that takes time and can sometimes frustrate.

To limit the hours of traditional-style presentations and foster more exchange between forecasters and decision makers, CariCOF incorporates several interactive segments throughout the workshop.

Directed by Shelly-Ann Cox, “CIMH Theatre” — which held its premiere performance in the CariCOF in Kingston last May — performed again at this COF.

The CIMH Theatre’s actors are all climate scientists from the region. The humorous play at this COF featured CNN (CariCOF Network News) reporting on local conditions of drought and alleviation measures taken by people and organizations (e.g. The Ruthless Toothless Retirement Community). The play’s end featured a live band and scientists-turned-dancers performing “Heat Wave.”

The proceedings of the first day ended just in time:

Day 2: Learning together

The second day of the forum continued with more interactive elements.

Participants discuss climate resilience efforts on the island model of Caribba at the 2014 Dry Season CariCOF.

One activity debuted a physical model of a small island developing state called Caribba that CIMH has created as an education tool about climate resilience on island states. Conference goers were divided into teams and given a budget with which to decide the most effective and efficient ways to make the island more resilient. Later in the month, CIMH took the island model to the fourth International Conference on Climate Services (ICCS4), where they used it to demonstrate island vulnerability (video tour of the island model from ICCS4 here).

Shelly-Ann Cox, the researcher in charge of the Climate Impacts Database development, led a session taking participants through the process of tweeting a climate impact to the database.

The new Climate Impacts Database seeks to gather information about past climate impacts as well as impacts moving forward. The goal of this database is to help scientists and decision makers understand what threshold levels of climate events such as heavy rainfall, droughts and heat waves lead to impacts in a given area. One entry method for the database is Twitter. Disaster professionals or others involved in climate impacts can tweet a photo and/or description of a climate impact. If they use a designated hashtag, the impact will automatically be entered into the database, although it will still have to be approved by a database manager.

There was also more discussion about the drought alert system, which resulted in the change of nomenclature of the stages of drought as presented to the public. Progress was made, but challenges remain. For example, the system was now judged to be fine in the English-speaking Caribbean, but for those from islands whose primary language is Dutch, Spanish or another language, it doesn’t make as much sense.

Adrian Trotman talks about what’s needed for a successful drought early warning system.

CariCOF concluded with a few exercises led by scientists from the International Research Applications Program, or IRAP, which is a joint partnership between IRI and the University of Arizona funded by the US Agency for International Development and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

IRAP’s role in CariCOF is to identify why climate information being produced isn’t being used — or is being underused — and to help with the development and dissemination of climate information products that are more widely used. Much of the discussion during this COF centered on communication of the climate information. Zack Guido from Arizona and Simon Mason from IRI explain more:

Breakdown in communication is not the only roadblock to better climate information use. Sometimes, the scientific knowledge simply isn’t advanced enough to give decision makers the answers they would like. Lack of buy-in from policy makers and high-level officials can also inhibit information use. To tease out conference attendees’ opinions on where resources might be put to the best use, participants were asked to write down their impressions of roadblocks. They used a green or orange post-it note to signify whether they thought it was an easier or more difficult change, respectively, and then categorized it as a communication, scientific or policy barrier. Simon Mason describes the results:

It’s clear after this event that the region’s decision makers, media and public will compare and contrast any drought alert system to the warning and preparedness systems in place for hurricanes. This provides a starting point at which most people speak the same language. However, while there are clearly lessons to be learned from hurricane preparedness, the nature of drought demands preparation and response on different time and spatial scales. The best ways to do this have yet to be worked out, but despite these challenges, Adrian Trotman sees progress at the COF events:

As a start to the media coverage Trotman hopes to see more of, The Gleaner published an article on drought following the CariCOF.

But effective use of dry season climate infromation will need more than media involvement. Committment from high-level officials signifying climate preparedness as a priority is needed for a thorough system to be implemented. There are signs this is starting to happen, including the attendance at this COF from Garfield Barnwell, the Director of Sustainable Development from CARICOM (the economic union of the Caribbean).

“CariCOF is an extremely useful capacity building initiative for the Caribbean,” said Barnwell in a video interview. “This is something that the region needs to institutionalize so that we can get the greatest impact from this kind of capacity building initiative.”

Barnwell also said that the time used and invested in the initiative is extremely important because it provides the attendees with up-to-date methodologies for addressing hydrometeorological issues, and it provides CIMH the opportuntiy to build tools with the participation of CARICOM member states.

“We certainly do thank our development partners who have provided assistance,” Barnwell concluded. “Particularly USAID and NOAA, who have been playing a very important and instrumental role in developing this particular initiative and activity.”

View more photos from the COF on Flickr.



International Research Institute for Climate & Society uses climate science to benefit society. Tweets by @fiondella & @egawthrop.

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International Research Institute for Climate and Society

International Research Institute for Climate & Society uses climate science to benefit society. Tweets by @fiondella & @egawthrop.