IN FOCUS: Caribbean
Interview with Damien Prescod
Technical Officer 1
Caribbean Institute for Meteorology & Hydrology (CIMH)
I wanted to speak about the climate of the Caribbean as a region and generally what are the main challenges when it comes to climate?
In the Caribbean, there isn’t much variation because of special coverage. Climate observations in Barbados, could be very similar to climate observations in St Lucia or St Vincent, which are nearby, just a couple hundred miles.
The Caribbean has been going through a drought over the last couple of years and then obviously you know we had hurricane Maria and Irma passing through the region and more or less crippling some of the islands more to the north of Barbados, more specifically islands like Grenada, Dominica, St Lucia. Those islandstook a very large impact from those storms.
So from a climate perspective, I’d say in the last five to seven years we’ve seen rapid changes in the number of storms passing through the region, the effect of the storms and the strengths. Climate obviously as you would know is different than the weather, so if we keep on the course of climate discussions then challenges that the region is having, is that we’ve never seen such a high frequency of storms.
After being impacted one year, I was just speaking to a colleague in Dominica and they were saying that they are of the opinion that this year was going to be a slow year and then here we go now having three storms in the Atlantic, whereby two of them are going to impact Dominica from the trap that’s been predicted. It’s almost as though every time they get back on their feet, there’s another hurricane or storm passing through leaving them more or less crippled.
One example of how serious the impacts of these storms have been is that Ross University, the American veterinary clinic that was housed in St Kitts and Dominica, made the decision that is was too risky to keep operating there and have moved to Barbados.
Funnily enough, this year is the first year in a long while that Barbados could have a hurricane pass so close to it. The island has been protected the last couple hundred miles to the North of Barbados, but obviously, we will still get some impact because they’re fairly large storms.
The climate changes that we’ve witnessed in the last seven years have significantly impacted the agricultural and health sectors. Some countries, who weren't prepared for the full impacts of these storms, would have a lot of dead decaying creatures and stagnant water, resulting in increased rate of mosquito growth. Most islands were not able to adapt as adequately as they would have like to, but they were supported regionally and internationally.
They did manage to get back some sort of normality, but not as quickly as they would have liked. I myself was recently in Tortola, which was a post-Irma visit, and their airport is still some ways off from being fully functional in terms of the infrastructure reconstruction.
The climate changes really have done their damage and inflicted a significant toll on the region. I don’t have numbers and facts in front of me, but I can tell you from my experience and knowing a lot of people in the region. The last couple of years have not been easy. I am not certain where we will be after Zach and Helene passed through; so my fingers are crossed and my prayers are with the people that I know on these little islands.
We have thought we would have a reprieve this year, with nothing major, and then low and behold, we’ve got three storms coming through. That is generally what I have observed, witnessed and heard about on the ground. With regards to the climate, I just want to say there has been a lot of help internationally and regionally to these disaster struck countries so it’s not that they’re not able to help themselves. We’ve all come together: CDEMA the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency, the World Bank, UNDP and the other Caribbean territories.
I remember sending some equipment and supplies to Dominica, and my colleague Marvin Ford went down to Dominica himself. Even the countries that had not been impacted were affected by the storms because resources had to be pooled and moved to those areas that needed it.
In terms of the institute itself, what do you see as a potential solution in terms of preparation for these sorts of weather events or how does the institution get involved regionally to combat the effect of these?
Well, one of the products that our principal is very proud of is our manage forecast. I know the principal’s very proud of that because we were able to issue forecasts in St Lucia, St Vincent and St Kitts who have gone through a serious drought period in the last five years.
The feedback from the farmers in those territories was very positive as it would relate to them being more prepared by the impact of the drought and implementing some mitigation programmes, whereby they would have seen a little greater crop yield than if they hadn’t hadn’t received any information from CIMH.
In terms of hurricanes and the storms, the CIMH is not allowed to give forecasts, but we work in tandem with the Barbados Met office, who would issue forecasts and warning alerts. We’re closely tied in our operations especially from the equipment and management levels. All the information gathered at the airport. They’re stationed there and others across the island, those are managed by CIMH.
It’s very important for us to make sure these stations are up and running and that they’re recorded accurately, and that the information that is acquired from them is of a high accuracy. This means that the Met office can give proper forecasts and warnings as opposed to losing valuable information because an air temperature sensor or rain gauge is not operating correctly.
I would not say we get directly involved in the forecast part, but as soon as these storms pass through or as soon as there’s an impact we get rolling. It doesn’t even have to be locally. Most of them are regional and we help countries that would have been impacted and we get weather stations up and running. I remember going to Dominica and over the last three to four years Dominica has severely been impacted by storms. We’ve reinstalled at least three weather stations at the airports. There are two main airports in Dominica, one was previously Melville Hall, I think that is called the Douglas–Charles now and there’s a smaller one called Canefield. So we had to go to Dominica and get the weather stations back up and running at the airports so that they can have commercial and private aircraft landing again. So from that perspective, you can have a better understanding of how CIMH will get involved pre and post impacts of storms.
Do you work in an advisory capacity? I know you deal a lot with the equipment, but do you then advise Met services in the region of how to improve things, what to purchase, how to prepare better?
Yes, we do that throughout the year and it gets particularly active in the summertime. If we speak toward the academic side and the management side, the technicians that work at the airports, whether it be in Barbados, whether it be in St Kitts, whether it be in Dominica, St Lucia, they all come here periodically to have training done.
We do not explicitly state to them to buy this piece of equipment or that piece of equipment, but from our experiences letting or purchasing various models of equipment we are able to advise but not instruct the various Met agencies on what products work well. What products are going work better, but at a higher cost because funds are not always freely available. Sometimes we have to do a little juggling in how we put over what is necessary per territory.
Again, we are not specifically allowed to tell them to buy from this manufacturer, but we will certainly say well this sensor works correctly, you can spend on this one if you want something with higher access or you need to go in this direction it will be a little more money.
So what is your opinion on the current capacity? I’m sure it varies, but what is the current capacity to forecast accurately all across the islands? What is your general feeling at the moment? Is there any improvement that is needed?
From what I’ve witnessed, there has been a drastic improvement. I’ve been here 10 years and when I first came there was a lot of activity that we were involved in. Maybe they were in the pipeline or they were not. We get so busy here when there’s an event occurring that yes, I’ll have to say that even though we’re not allowed to forecast, we have the capacity to do so. We run models, climate models and impact models. We’ve even done models for landslides and flooding after heavy rainfall.
So the products and services that are currently available to the public at CIMH have drastically improved. What we can offer privately and the way that that information aids in keeping livelihoods together, keeping economies prepared for impact and sometimes even helping them to come out of these impacts a little better than they would if they didn’t have accurate information. Then yes, I would say the team here at CIMH and the principal through his works internationally and his links have definitely made a very impactful and positive effect on what was not available 10 years ago.
What do islands or the Met service do, generally, to prepare for this impact later this week? What does the process of preparation look like?
Well, I actually had to speak to my boss this morning, but I will give you an example of how it usually runs. Now Barbados is considered to be in God’s hand in some persons’ opinions. It’s very rare that we get a hurricane passing. This has been about 50 years that we’ve not had anything serious pass close enough to us to say that it’s hit Barbados.
Nonetheless, we have about 50 alerting weather stations in the region and these are GPRS based. Those weather stations send information back to CIMH. We have a server here collecting the information from these stations and we run that information through our models and tell each territory what is to be expected from historical data, what we are seeing and this is real time as well. What is to be expected and again what impacts are possible.
We’ll be running 24/7 after Wednesday evening to be quite honest. We are going to be monitoring every station we have in the islands to the north of Barbados and we are going to be sending information back and forth to those Met offices, those disaster agencies and then letting them make executive decisions. We don’t make decisions for them we just provide them with the information.
We have a management software package for all those stations that the information goes into so each director can go onto a GUI like it was based on Google Maps and they can click on their country and pull up all of their weather stations and they can see what’s going on.
A case in point, you are resident of the East side of Dominica and you have rainfall in the last five minutes of over 15mm, you know there’s a high possibility of land slippage. On their end, they issue alerts given the information that has come in from our stations and ask those people to either leave their homes, look for somewhere safer to be and it will trickle down to their disaster management agency in the county.
So again the CIMH draws the line at the information provision, we don’t tell them what to do, but we give them that accuracy as it will relate to the information that is needed in real time instantly.
At that point do theydeal with that information and interpret it and roll out their own emergency procedures from there?
Their own policies, exactly correct.
That makes sense. That’s fascinating Damien, I think it’s hugely important what you guys are doing and I think you really add to the capacity of the islands. It would appear to me that without an institute like yours in place, they wouldn’t have got as far as they’ve got or certainly have the capacity that they have. Do you find that they rely on you as an Institute, some of the smaller islands? Do you find that they rely on you for this type of information?
Yes, that is for certain. I would say they are heavily reliant upon CIMH to offer various services or information, due to the fact that again, funding is not always available locally. What they need is easier access through an agency like the CIMH who has larger global and even regional partners that can pool funds and resources together, and make available for these territories what is necessary pre and post impact.
You may have a project that relates, you want to provide 20, 30 weather stations to these countries but we know CIMH has the execution ability to get this project started, implement it and to close it out. There may not necessarily be an agency in Grenada that’s able to do that locally and the agency in Dominica that’s able to handle five weather stations that have the technicians and capacity and capability to get them installed correctly, get them working and get the information to the persons that need it in a timely manner.
Everybody more or less bottlenecks back to CIMH and then we execute knowing the tendencies, the capacity, the skill sets available at each territory. We don’t work heavily in areas like Granada, Jamaica or Trinidad. Those countries have enough technical capability that we don’t have to be travelling to those territories and doing work. I would say that you are correct that they are reliant on CIMH, but I would go a little further to say heavily reliant. This is not a problem because that is our mandate. We are here to provide a service.