Translating Monsoon Models for Farmers and Priests, Peter Webster Hopes to Halt ‘Treadmill of Poverty’
by Ben Young Landis
In recognition of an outstanding career built around using science “for the benefit of society in developing nations,” Peter J. Webster, Ph.D., of the Georgia Institute of Technology was recently honored with the International Award from the American Geophysical Union.
“Peter’s work really demonstrates the amazing impacts that can result when communities and researchers bring science to bear on real-world decision-making,” said Thriving Earth Exchange (TEX) Program Director Raj Pandya, Ph.D. Webster served as an Advisory Board member during the TEX launch and helped shape the organization’s vision.
A leader in the study of monsoons and tropical weather systems, Webster has long focused on applying atmospheric and Earth science discoveries and data to support the needs of communities in the developing world.
Timely Warning to Protect Lives and Livelihoods
Annual monsoons are a fact of life in India, Bangladesh and Pakistan, three of the most populous countries in the world. Ten straight days of rain and flooding — a common occurrence during these events — can wipe out a family’s crop and destroy an entire year’s worth of income. Particularly devastating is the loss of livestock.
But although residents in these regions know monsoons are inevitable, they historically have had no way to tell exactly when and where a flood will strike.
Without accurate forecasts, farmers affected by such floods “would have nothing, and they would have to start all over again, in the treadmill of poverty” after each monsoon season, said Webster in an address at the University of Oxford earlier this year. Improving rain forecasts on the scale of 10 to 15 days would be enough to give farmers a head start to harvest crops early, or relocate livestock and belongings to high ground.
Recent advances in atmospheric science and monitoring have given scientists a much better grasp of how seemingly unrelated geographic features — the Tibetan-Himalayan Plateau, Pacific Ocean sea and air temperatures, and possibly even El Niño — all play a part in bringing heavy precipitation to these regions year after year. In partnership with the Bangladesh government and the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF) and with support from the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Agency for International Development and the nongovernmental organization CARE, Webster and his team orchestrated the development of regional forecasting networks that take advantage of these scientific advances to provide early-warning systems for catastrophic floods in South Asia.
In his Oxford address, Webster explained how the system delivered a timely flood report to a village priest in Bangladesh in 2008: “The forecast was made in ECMWF, rendered at Georgia Tech into a hydrological model, sent off to Bangladesh, and disseminated to this guy, all [in] about eight hours.” At the village, the forecast was presented in the form of flags on a “flood pillar” marking the estimated height of flood waters. This approach helps citizens — literate or not — quickly understand flood risk and take action.
Webster said sustaining such a regional network at a large scale and in the long term would require time and capital; thousands of sensor buoys and numerous satellites are required for gathering real-time sea and air data alone. But while expanding the system to provide 10- to 15-day warning for monsoon floods, droughts, and tropical cyclones across South Asia and East Asia would cost around $2 million to $3 million per year, Webster has emphasized that investment would be a scant sum compared to the human anguish and billions of dollars in property damage that could be averted.
“Asia and Africa stand on the threshold of great economic advancement,” Webster wrote in a 2013 essay in Nature. “Faced with possible climate change, societies that learn to cope with and mitigate hazards now will be most adept at dealing with more frequent and intense hazards in the future.”
Long-range weather forecasts would strengthen the resilience and future of communities across the world. Efforts like those Webster has spearheaded during his celebrated career provide ample inspiration for more researchers to participate in global collaborations and help communities thrive in our changing world.
Ben Young Landis is a freelance science communicator and a contributing writer for Creative Science Writing and the Thriving Earth Exchange.