19 Aug 2019

Call for more investment to cope with extreme weather in Pacific

11:35 am on 19 August 2019
A woman carries bananas found amid the destruction caused by Cyclone Pam.

A woman carries bananas found amid the destruction caused by Cyclone Pam. Photo: AFP

The President of World Meteorological Office Regional Association 5 has called for significantly more investment into dealing with extreme weather events.

Ofa Fa'anunu was speaking during a meeting of the Pacific Meteorological Council held in Apia earlier this month.

Ofa Fa'anunu

Ofa Fa'anunu Photo: Moera Tuila'epa / RNZI

The Samoa meeting brought together directors from the international development agency - the National Meteorological and Hydrological Services (NMHS), donor and funding agencies as well as the private sector to strengthen climate and weather services in the Pacific.

Mr Fa'anunu, who is also the Director of Tonga's Meteorology office, said the Pacific was at the forefront of the world's changing climate.

"But we feel that the things that are happening today like stronger tropical cyclones, a lot more flooding, a lot more droughts, even tsunami are big issues in the Pacific," he explained.

"These are the things that are affecting us daily. We don't need to wait for 30 years to see the impact, this impact is happening now."

Mr Fa'anunu said a lot more investment was required to deal with current weather patterns.

"Weather, extreme event matters that are happening right now, to get that correct because that is how we are going to save peoples lives, that's how we are going to reduce the impact on the economy, now.

"It's not something that we looking at 20 or 30 years into the future. We have to respond now."

Mr Fa'anunu said the Council would be working towards next year's ministerial meeting, reviewing the investment into this area to date, and looking to upscale the response to extreme weather events.

Being prepared

Being adequately prepared for extreme weather in the Pacific requires robust observing systems.

Mary Power speaks at the the fifth meeting of the Pacific Meteorological Council in Samoa.

Mary Power speaks at the the fifth meeting of the Pacific Meteorological Council in Samoa. Photo: RNZ Pacific / Moera Tuilaepa-Taylor

That's according to the World Meteorological Organisation's director of development and regional activities is Mary Power who described the role of weather services in the Pacific as critical in many ways.

"The most obvious one is early warning systems is relation to extreme weather events, particularly cyclones which also generate floods, flash floods and coastal inundation."

She said the oceans played a significant role in climate and how climate evolves.

"It's really essential that for global models and regional models to look at climate prediction and that sense, climate change prediction, it's quite critical to have really robust observing systems and that these observing systems are operated and maintained and the data is managed by the meteorogolical services also."

In the past five years the Pacific has had two category five cyclones - Pam in Vanuatu 2015, and Winston in Fiji 2016 - while Gita in 2018 was a category four in Tonga. They wrought widespread destruction on public infrastructure, villages and personal lives in these countries.

Given the severity of the impacts of such natural disasters, the Fiji Meteorological Service now dispatches multi-harzards early warning systems in forecasts.

Fiji Meteorology Service's Director Misaeli Funaki

Fiji Meteorology Service's Director Misaeli Funaki Photo: RNZ Pacific

"It's not just about warning, just for cyclones and high waves," said the Fiji Met Service's Director Misaeli Funaki.

"It's about bringing in things altogther and under the platform of multiharzard early warning systems. It also allows us the ability to incoporate some impact based forecasting into the bulletins that we send out."

The next Pacific Meteorologial Council meeting will be in the Cook Islands next year.

SPREP Director General Leota Kosi Latu

SPREP Director General Leota Kosi Latu Photo: Lisa Williams

Challenges for forecasters

Translating technical and scientific terms into everyday language can be challenging.

The director general of environmental group SPREP, Leota Kosi Latu, said there needed to be targetted training for local media to help them convey messages in a clearer way.

Leota said unlike broadcasters, scientists were not writing for the general public.

"Because when they start writing their scientific outcomes and research, it's not written specifically for the general public. It's written in terms that only the scientific community can understand for obvious reasons and fair enough but that's where the challenge is."

He said SPREP had been running workshops for Pacific met services on how to make terms simpler for people on the ground.

Social media and the lack of radio services in some small Pacific Islands nations also present challenges for local met services during extreme weather events.

With no radio stations on Tokelau, warnings for any extreme weather events such as a cyclone are conveyed to the local community via a different route

Margaret Paul of the Tokelau meteorology service.

Margaret Paul of the Tokelau meteorology service. Photo: RNZ Pacific

Margaret Paul of the Tokelau met service said any warnings are issued via email to officials on each of the country's atolls, who then alert locals.

"And then they will raise the alarm and they will use sirens, if there's a warning or a tsunami warning, they will raise alarms to the public."

She said the dream is to have radio services on the atolls one day.

"Especially for disaster warnings and cyclones for my people and also for the benefit of our country."

On the state of Chuuk, in the Federated States of Micronesia, there are just two radio stations. One of them, the government-owned station, operates only Monday to Friday, 7.30am to 4.30pm.

Johannes Berdon of the Chuuk met office said he was hoping the government would change this.

"Well it's not something that is new, the issue has been around, they know it. I just don't know when they are going to act on it."

One of the challenges for the Tuvalu Meteorological office is social media and the spread of misinformation.

Nikotemo Iona of the Tuvalu meteorology service.

Nikotemo Iona of the Tuvalu meteorology service. Photo: RNZ Pacific

The acting director of Tuvalu Meteorology said if the Pacific tsunami warning centre sends information after an earthquake, his office needs to analyse the data before any warnings are issued.

But Nikotemo Iona said problems arise when people start posting non-official information.

"Other people or the public already put the information on social media which can cause panic for our old people when they receive the information."

The director of the Republic of Marshall Islands weather office is Reginald White.

His country's service faces a similar challenge to other met offices in the islands region - isolation.

"They have no electricity, no communication method other than AM radio and HF (shortwave radio) these are key challenges, it's hard to get material there, information there. Sometimes it must feel like you are forgotten."

Meanwhile for him and his office social media is something to be embraced as a platform to get information out.

"The social media, I think more people are more aware of disaster preparedness and climate change information"