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High price of climate data damaging disaster preparedness - researchers

by Santiago Ortega Arango | @sortegarango | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 3 December 2012 17:22 GMT

Lack of access to affordable weather information is affecting planning and may place lives at risk, experts say

Colombia should be better prepared for violent storms than almost anywhere else in South America.

Nearly 4000 weather stations are dotted across the country – the region’s best network after Brazil’s. And it’s adding 210 more, refurbishing another 247, buying new weather radars and plugging all that information into one technical platform for fast use.

But researchers claim that a policy of charging hefty fees for climate data keeps most information locked up, affections decision-making processes and may even be placing lives at risk.

When La Nina flooded the central and northern parts of Colombia in 2010, and three million people had to flee their homes, the National Planning Department recognized the need for timely and accurate information to prepare the country properly for extreme events and climate change.

But if El Nino brings droughts, blackouts and forest fires to Colombia next year, as it has in the past, the lack of data could leave Colombians as vulnerable as they were two years ago. 

Colombia’s main climate data service – the Institute of Hydrology, Meteorology and Environmental Studies - charges more for access to its information than similar agencies in its Andean neighbours, but Colombia is not the only country where people pay a price for hidden climate data.

The World Meteorological Organization, a UN agency based in Geneva, notes that other developing countries also limit free access to data, either claiming national security reasons or because they want to recoup some of their own costs.

And when it’s hard to get current climate data, the organization says, researchers use “suboptimal, out-of-date data” instead.

That can result in all sorts of bad planning, from where a country locates its farms to how it builds storm-resistant infrastructure. It can also mean bad long-term weather forecasting, leaving whole populations vulnerable to weather disasters.

Last year, a High-Level Taskforce at the World Meteorological Organization proposed a Global Climate Services Framework that would “promote the free and open exchange of climate-relevant observational data” between countries. Its main goal: to help developing countries that are “least able to provide climate services” themselves.

“Climate services are weakest in the places that need them most – climate-vulnerable developing countries,” the High-Level Taskforce said in its 2011 report to the WMO. Fixing that problem could “achieve great benefits in terms of reduced disaster risks, increased food security, improved health, and more effective adaptation to climate change.” 

Colombia is a dramatic example of how bad the problem of inaccessible climate data can get. Colombian scientists have to spend $1,200 just to get one record of basic atmospheric pressure data they might need to study tropical climate change. That’s about the monthly salary of a young researcher.

A scientist researching extreme winds behaviour could spend $23,000, for one basic data series. That’s a two-year scholarship for a Colombian graduate student. Peru, Venezuela, Bolivia and Chile, by comparison, all share their climate data for free on the Internet. So does the US National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. 

The Colombian Institute of Hydrology, Meteorology and Environmental Studies  - IDEAM - says it has to charge for climate data because the data costs so much to gather. The organization says it spends roughly $20 million a year to run its network and earns around one million dollars a year by selling data.

The agency has never employed more than 75 percent of the staff it actually needs to effectively run the climate data network and actually had to cut 18 percent of its staff in a 2004 restructuring, says a report by the National Planning Department, released in 2011.

But the result is that cash-strapped Colombian researchers scrounge neighbouring countries for whatever free data they can find, even if it doesn’t actually measure the region they’re studying.

Just as problematic is that the information that Colombia produces and keeps out of reach eventually becomes useless itself. When data are priced out of a scientist’s reach, scientists don’t test it and revise it regularly, says Oscar Mesa, a professor at the School of Geosciences and the Environment at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia in Medellín.

Data sets are left incomplete, inaccurate and packed with statistical problems – useless, Mesa says, when planners and forecasters need them most.

In its 2011 report, Colombia’s National Planning Department designed a kind of war game to test the real-world impact of those problems. Consultants designed different weather alert systems for one Colombian river, based on different amounts of historical climate data. They then simulated different storms.

Alert systems based on the incomplete data that Colombian forecasters often use effectively missed 14 percent of the large storms they should have predicted. In the real world, Colombians would have paid a big price for such mistakes.

Even Colombia’s fight against malaria is stymied by the lack of good data, says Daniel Ruiz, a professor at the Escuela de Ingenieria de Antioquia, in Medellin.

Public health officials need solid climate data because high temperatures allow mosquitoes to grow faster, and rain creates ponds where mosquitoes breed. Bad climate data leads to bad weather forecasting, which leaves Colombian public health officials less able to predict malaria outbreaks.

Colombia’s destructive 2010-2011 flooding showed the need for timely and accurate climate data. In January, President Juan Manuel Santos announced $29 million in new radars, weather stations and technology for the country’s climate data network. 

Meanwhile, IDEAM’s director-in-charge, Maria Claudia Garcia, says the agency is thinking about revising its policy of charging fees for data.

Santiago Ortega Arango is a Colombian engineer and freelance journalist interested in climate change and renewable power issues. He is an associate professor at the Escuela de Ingeniería de Antioquia and a Fellow in Global Journalism at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto.

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