AVUAVU, Solomon Islands (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – An abandoned airstrip overgrown with weeds marks the entrance to this village of 400 people on Guadalcanal, the largest of the Solomon Islands. Since January, it has been home to the Solomon’s first automatic weather station, a device that may help the Pacific archipelago nation bear up to climate change.
“This is the first time we can know what is happening on the other side (of the island) in real time,” said David Hiriasia, director of the government’s meteorology department. “Before we could only use Japan’s rotating satellite, so we received the data half a day later.”
The weather monitoring system measures wind speed, air temperature, rainfall, soil moisture and other indicators to help predict oncoming storms and other weather problems. Information is automatically sent to the National Institute for Water and Atmospheric Research in New Zealand, then back to the Ministry of Environment, Climate Change, Disaster Management and Meteorology in Honiara, the Solomon Islands’ capital city.
Over the last two years, Honiara has suffered floods that displaced more than 10,000 people, while a town on Taro island, part of the Solomons, has had to relocate entirely because of flooding. The new high-tech weather system aims to provide better advance warning of such extreme weather, and close the gap with island nations like Samoa and Fiji, which have already adopted similar technology to monitor and adapt to climate change.
‘EVEN THE FISH ARE CONFUSED’
Residents say improved forecasting will be a relief in the face of growing weather unpredictability that has made traditional knowledge less useful.
“We used to be able to predict the next day’s weather by watching the movement of the clouds, the strength of the winds, and the currents of the ocean. But now the weather changes dramatically in an instant,” said Thomas Tareoha, 46, a pastor.
“When I was a child, our fathers knew when to fish and when to grow. Now with the weather, even the fish are confused,” he said.
With sea level rising and temperatures rising, the new weather data will be particularly important for subsistence farmers struggling to deal with worsening high tides, more saline water tables and changing growing conditions.
In a June report, UNDP administrator Helen Clark said increasingly extreme and erratic weather could “make it very difficult for small farmers to decide what to cultivate and when to sow and harvest.”
Officials from the Ministry of Environment, Climate Change, Disaster Management and Meteorology and UNDP say they hope to use the new climate data to develop things like new cropping calendars for farmers, and to send out early warnings about droughts and other climate-related disasters, in an effort to build resilience.
Farmers and agricultural experts countrywide have seen harvests of their traditional staple, sweet potato, fall in the past decade, and noted changes in fish migration patterns that make fishing more difficult. However, most of the information has anecdotal, or based on irregular recordings.
Alan Porteous, a climate scientist based in Samoa for New Zealand’s National Institute for Water and Atmospheric Research, called the station a crucial long-term investment in climate change adaptation.
Hiriasia, head of the island meteorology department, said the equipment should provide “more material to make decisions on and to prepare communities.”
The equipment installed in January is expected to be supplemented with additional barometric pressure sensors and equipment to measure grass and leaf temperatures and moisture in the coming year. Altogether the equipment will cost more than a million dollars, the officials said.
QUESTIONS ABOUT LOCAL CAPACITY
The toughest challenge ahead, said Hiriasia, one of only three meteorologists in the country, is “lack of local capacity to maintain and run it,” something his agency is working on building.
Local conditions can also be a challenge. The equipment is located near a tumultuous section of ocean called tasi mauri (“alive sea” in the local Ghari dialect). In August, a boatful of supplies and specialists headed for the station were hurled into the raging ocean. The supplies sank, and staff from the UNDP and the Ministry of Environment swam against a forceful current for more than an hour to reach the shore.
“People think they can just check weather data on the internet. But how do you think it gets there? You have to go to (the station) at some point,” said Hiriasia.
While island farmers will not have direct access to the data, the government will use it to design cropping calendars to share with farmers, Hiriasia said.
“These technologies are not solutions in themselves, but rather the means to developing solutions,” Porteous said.