Being Better Together through Humanitarian Science
This article was written by Chris Funk. He is the Director of the Climate Hazards Center (CHC) at the University of California Santa Barbara. He works with an international team of Earth scientists to inform weather- and famine-related disaster responses. Chris studies climate and climate change while also developing improved data sets and monitoring/prediction systems.
On August 25, 2020, sitting at the edge of a beautiful lake in the high Sierras, I watched fat, beautiful rain drops race to oblivion before me, each eager to disappear into the depths of Cliff Lake. Yet each extinction triggered reverberation, sending rings of information in all directions. Where these rings intersected, complexity increased. Complicated patterns formed as the waves’ highs and lows amplified or canceled (see the short video). Now, 12 months later, I want to write about how those intersecting circles symbolized, for me, how we are being better together as information flows through and across overlapping communities of practice, translating data into information, knowledge and, ultimately, wise actions that safeguard lives and livelihoods, while increasing resilience and well-being.
A year ago, as I sat shoreside, rock-seated and rain-coated, savoring experience after months of COVID-enforced encapsulation, I couldn’t help thinking of work as the splatters patterned (video). “Gosh,” I thought, “those beautiful interactions could be a good metaphor for the emergent intelligence that arises when multiple communities of practice combine their efforts to provide better humanitarian interventions.” I’d been spending a lot of time in my basement. I had also just finished two books related to these ideas. The first book, “Drought Early Warning and Forecasting,” co-authored with Shraddhanand Shukla, was selected as a PROSE 2021 finalist. Much of the book is copyright free and available online. The second book, “Drought, Flood, Fire: How Climate Change Contributes to Catastrophes (DFF),” has just been published by Cambridge Press. DFF is also available as an audiobook (Audible, Google Play) and on Amazon. DFF provides an accessible overview of recent (2015-2019) climate extremes. As a climate hazard scientist, bad news is my stock in trade, but diving into the data, I was still stunned at how rapidly bad goes to worse. Since 2015, CO2 concentrations have increased by 14 ppm, the Earth has warmed by approximately +0.5 degrees Celsius, ocean heat content has increased by 4.5x1022 Joules and global and U.S. disaster databases document weather-related impact costs totaling $860 and $625 billion.
Following the 2015 El Niño, global temperatures jumped up, and the approximate +0.5 to +1.5 degrees Celsius temperature increases associated with this jump are making climate and weather extremes more frequent and more intense. But, if we understand how climate change is resulting in these changes, then “climate change impacts” transform into “opportunities for prediction, mitigation and adaptation.” Understanding climate change can be empowering, especially when such understanding is embedded in a humanitarian Earth science (HES) framework. Like complex rain-rings, the diverse and ever-expanding HES community uses satellite and in situ Earth observations (EOs), weather and climate forecasts, and hydrologic and crop model simulations to inform early warning, adaptation planning and disaster risk management. “Humanitarian,” however, does not mean without rigor. Rather, the importance of these applications demands excellence. HES should be accurate, timely, evidence-based and make use of best-in-science practices.
But HES guidance and interventions also need to be local, appropriate and context-sensitive. So, last August, while lakeside, I mused that the best HES can only arise through overlapping communities. One of many potential representations of such arrangements is shown in Figure 1. At the left, we find observations and modeling systems. These technical domains focus on technical problems, like maintaining the NASA Global Precipitation Measurement Mission Core Observatory, or running complex weather models like the Global Ensemble Forecast System (GEFS). We can consider the output of these systems “data.”
At the next stage, data is translated into information. Often, multiple sources of information can be “stacked.” At the CHC, our gauge- and climatology-enhanced gridded satellite precipitation products provide a good example of “stacking.” Satellite information; high-resolution, long-term mean fields; and time-varying precipitation gauge data are combined to produce reliable, timely, low-bias, accurate, high-resolution precipitation grids.
Our CHC InfraRed Precipitation with Stations-Global Ensemble Forecast System (CHIRPS-GEFS) downscaled weather forecasts provide yet another example of “stacking.” By tuning coarse-resolution GEFS weather forecasts to match CHIRPS, higher resolution climate information is added. We refer to this product as CHIRPS-GEFS. By matching distributions, we can then “stack” the information in the observations (CHIRPS) with the information in the CHIRPS, providing a continuous stream of information that extends from the past to the near future.
Then, at the next stage, HES can take one step closer to impacts by leveraging the tremendous advances being made by groups focused on modeling hydrologic and crop systems. Early warning systems, for example, are now benefitting from hydrologic simulations from the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET) Land Data Assimilation System (FLDAS), and crop assessments produced by the Group on Earth Observations Global Agricultural Monitoring Initiative (GEOGLAM) Crop Monitor project and the NASA/SERVIR projects.
Finally, we come to a stage that I know the least about — wisdom. Remember, I’m the one sitting on the rock in the rain, while everyone else is in their tent. But seriously, this is the most important and most difficult step. This is where the people are, and where our efforts may help, or hinder, or hurt. Effective actions at this scale require local information and an understanding of the social, cultural, economic, agronomic context, and how that setting can be affected by gender and livelihoods. So, as we move from left to right in Figure 1, we also move from general to specific, from global to local. The laws of atmospheric physics and radiation are constant everywhere, but wise action is best determined in local context.
An Exciting Example — Plant Village, Mercy Corps, NASA Harvest and CHC in Kenya
Even though I am, by nature, an introvert, age has taught me the value of conversations, of the stories we tell each other and ourselves. As Yuval Noah Harari tells us in “Sapiens,” stories give us the ability to act cohesively, to join together to build a mosque or cathedral, run a corporation or pursue policies that represent the best or worst of our angels. So, the stories of HES can be especially important because they help highlight all the tremendous work that is already being done, while also emphasizing the great potential for improvement as we learn to get better at doing good by working together more effectively.
Conversations matter. A conversation with David Grimes and Rogerio Bonifacio at the 2012 2nd Crop and Rangeland Monitoring meeting ultimately helped lead to CHIRPS in 2014. SERVIR/USAID-supported conversations with Ethiopian agro-meteorologists in 2015 helped lead to the development of CHIRPS-GEFS in 2017. Conversations between PlantVillage lead David Hughes and NASA Harvest lead Inbal Becker-Reshef, pointed David in my direction in 2020. In January, David wrote me in an email, “We have built an SMS alert system through PlantVillage. We provide some smallholder farmers with smartphones with built in AI for crop diseases and links to remote sensing (UN FAO WaPOR system). These are sensors and we send out SMS alerts to a broader community.”
In October, David called. He had seen my Nature Worldview piece, which referenced our concerns about potential back-to-back East African droughts. In June of 2020, the CHC had partnered with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Physical Sciences Laboratory to issue a concerning alert, concluding “that the current (June) OND Sea Surface Temperature (SST) forecasts indicate an increased likelihood of dry October-November-December 2020 and dry March-April-May 2021 rainy seasons.” As we saw in 2010/2011 and 2016/2017, these types of consecutive La Niña-related droughts could be incredibly damaging. Unfortunately, our concerns were verified, and eastern East Africa suffered poor 2020 and 2021 rainy seasons.
But, in October of 2020, thanks to the tremendous work done by PlantVillage and Shamba Shape Up, CHIRPS observations, CHIRPS-GEFS weather forecasts and analog-based climate forecasts were flowing into advisories, which then flowed out to almost 500,000 Kenya farmers via SMS messages, and more than 9 million people via television news.
Those messages, crossing the “last mile” to guide wise actions, arose through the virtuous cooperation of dozens of collaborators: rocket scientists, climate modelers, climate hazard specialists and agricultural outreach experts, to “stack” information into useful advisories.
Unfortunately, more extreme weather and climate are already upon us. The outlook for East Africa poses the threat of yet another one, or even two, poor rainy seasons (CHC blog and GEOGLAM Crop Monitor). But we don’t need to passively face this future. We can work together to monitor, predict and adapt to these extremes. Individually, we may not make a big splash, but acting together, we are already making a difference