Q&A with Tufa Dinku | Filling in Africa’s Climate-Data Gaps

December 05, 2017

Across Africa, many countries lack continuous, reliable, climate records, making accurate weather and climate forecasts a serious challenge. Tufa Dinku wants to change that.

A research scientist at Columbia University's International Research Institute for Climate and Society, Dinku is on a mission to integrate Africa's sparse weather-station data with comprehensive satellite measurements beamed from space. He began this work with a 2008 project in Ethiopia, funded by Google.org, to improve malaria and meningitis prediction. Since then, his quest to improve access to quality climate data has expanded across East Africa and the West African Sahel. The Enhancing National Climate Services project, or ENACTS as it's now called, serves nine countries in addition to Ethiopia, with funding from a range of international collaborators: the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Agency for International Development, NASA, U.K.’s Department for International Development, the African Climate Policy Center, and a host of national governments in Africa. Dinku estimates it would cost $25 million to scale the ENACTS climate-services model across Africa, and in a new paper in the journal Climate and Development he discusses the details. 

Dinku recently spoke with us about his work.

How did you get interested in weather?
I was born in Ethiopia, in a village near the capital, Addis Ababa. We moved to the south when I was 10, after my father joined the army, and I started school then. It was a drought-prone region, and I saw the devastating effects first hand. I witnessed the 1973-74 drought and subsequent army uprising that led to the eventual overthrow of Ethiopia’s emperor, Haile Selassie. Looking at the clouds for rain might have contributed to my becoming a meteorologist.

How did you end up at Columbia?
I did my Master’s and Ph.D. in civil engineering/hydrometrology at the University of Connecticut.  I joined Columbia's IRI after learning it was doing applied research and fieldwork across the world, exactly what I was interested in.

You’ve spent the last eight years working to fill in gaps in Africa’s weather and climate data. Why?
The quality and availability of weather and climate data has declined significantly in the last 40 years due to conflicts and lack of investment. Weather stations for collecting data are unevenly distributed, with many in cities and towns along the main roads. As a result, we know very little about climate trends in rural areas, where communities are most vulnerable to drought, heat waves, and other extreme events.  Some countries have good historical data, but haven’t yet digitized the data or made it accessible to people beyond their national meteorological agencies. Wars and civil conflict have also left large gaps in the record. The Rwanda genocide, for example, led to the loss of 15 years of data.

Why are consistent climate records so important?
They help us understand natural climate cycles and their effect on agriculture, human health, and water supplies, which also influence hydropower capacity. High-quality climate data allows us to see how climate varies in one place season-to-season, and over years and decades, and how common severe droughts and other events have been. Climate models depend on historical data. If the records are incomplete, our climate forecasts are likely to be less accurate.

How is ENACTS addressing the data gap?
We use satellite data and climate model outputs to supplement the weather-station data that countries make available through their national meteorological services. Satellite data has less detail, but helps to fill in geographic gaps as well as gaps through time. We work with the national agencies to help the public to access, analyze, visualize, and download these hybrid datasets through the IRI’s massive Data Library, now available at national met services across Africa.  The IRI Data Library receives more than 3 million page views a year from users in dozens of countries.

How are the data used?
Historical climate data are critical for investment planning, particularly in regions where climate is changing rapidly. It’s critical to have a baseline to evaluate trends and validate climate models.  It’s also useful for building climate resilience, for example, understanding how to prepare for a rising risk of malaria or lower yields of maize.

Where have you implemented ENACTS?
Ethiopia, Madagascar, Tanzania, Mali, Ghana, The Gambia, Malawi, Rwanda, Zambia, and most recently, Kenya and Uganda. We also work with West and East Africa’s regional climate centers.

What impact have you had?
Ethiopia’s high-resolution ENACTS data has allowed researchers to link rising temperatures in the country’s highlands to increased malaria risk. In Zambia, insurance companies have used it to develop more accurate index-insurance policies to protect small farmers against drought-related crop losses. In Rwanda, a recent analysis found that seasonal forecasts made with ENACTS data are more predictive than forecasts made with other data products.

Does this project have a personal appeal?
I worked as meteorologist in Ethiopia for more than ten years before coming to the United States. I experienced the frustration of not having enough data or the right data to make the predictions that could help people. Being able to go back and contribute something of value to Ethiopia, my home country and where we first launched ENACTS, gives me great satisfaction.