The COVID-19 pandemic is impacting all sectors and activities across our societies, and there is no exception for meteorologists, hydrologists and their organizations. In such a dire situation, should National Meteorological and Hydrological Services (NMHSs) be given special assistance to keep performing their duties 24/7, 365 days a year similarly to other critical infrastructures and services? Yes, without doubt. The reason: climate change and weather, climate and water-related hazards, and their associated risks to lives and property, have not stopped for the COVID-19 pandemic!
Since the beginning of 2020, no region has been left untouched by natural hazards and many countries have faced the challenge of protecting populations from extreme events during the pandemic. In April, Severe Tropical Cyclone Harold caused widespread destruction in the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Fiji and Tonga. In May, Tropical Cyclone Amphan ravaged parts if India and Bangladesh – a country that in July experienced its worst monsoon flooding in a decade. The 2020 Atlantic hurricane season exhausted the regular list of storm names and moved on to the letters of the Greek alphabet for the second time on record. There have been floods across the African continent and other regions. Europe experienced a summer of heatwaves. Wildfires and drought in Australia, Russia and the United States captured headlines. The impacts are severe, especially among those most vulnerable people – refugees, internally displaced people, the poor – who are also hard-hit by COVID-19.
Fully aware of their core mandate and responsibility to serve the common good, our colleagues in NMHSs around the world are doing their best to maintain critical services to society as well as national early warning systems and to support national resilience-building efforts. From a business continuity perspective, COVID-19 has placed different activity areas across the hydrometeorological and early warning system value chain at risk – from observation (hazard monitoring) and forecasting to the issuance of warnings and their dissemination in support to early action decision-making.
WMO survey of Members
In early spring, the WMO Secretariat launched a global survey across all the NMHSs of its 193 Members to assess the impacts of the COVID-19 crisis on their operations and identify areas where potential support would be needed. More than 140 responses were received from 126 Members. One thing was immediately apparent: COVID-19 mitigation measures, such as lockdown and travel restrictions, had varied impacts on NMHSs, depending primarily on their resources, status and recognition.
The WMO World Meteorological Centres (WMCs), most of the WMO Regional Specialized Meteorological Centres (RSMCs) and the members of the Coordination Group for Meteorological Satellites (CGMS) were well-organized and had the resources to ensure that their regional or global service delivery commitments would not be compromised by COVID-19 restrictions. The continuity in service that they are providing is evidence of the relevance of the WMO supportive frameworks and of the importance of activities established and carried out under the Global Data Processing and Forecasting System (GDPFS), the Severe Weather Forecasting Programme (SWFP), the Flash Flood Guidance System (FFGS) and various other projects.
At the national level, less than 10% of respondents reported serious concerns or impacts. Some 30% stated they were well-prepared for such events and at least 55% stated that they had the situation in control. Teleworking arrangements had been implemented by almost 3 out of 4 respondent NMHSs at different levels and in varied proportions. But teleworking is not always an option for tasks such as the maintenance of the observation networks, IT operations, and forecasting and warnings. In order to maintain operational staff in their offices even in limited numbers, specific arrangements were made to comply with health authority’s guidelines, but travel authorizations and derogations to general restrictions were necessary in a number of cases. Less than 60% of the responding NMHSs stated that their governments recognized that they offered an essential service and should, therefore, benefit from the same exceptions and practical support as other essential services.
From a user perspective, preparedness and early actions in response to hazard warnings could not be carried out as usual in this unprecedented situation. Evacuations, sheltering and the prepositioning of response resources had to comply with health and pandemic mitigation guidelines. Additional shelters had to be identified to minimize contamination in overcrowded buildings. Existing evacuation routes had to be adapted. Re-assessment of the necessary lead-time to safely evacuate people at risk were needed. While these are not in the mandate of NMHSs, the information and warnings they provide support decision-making by National Disaster Management Organizations (NDMOs) on these matters as the case study below demonstrates.
Case study: Typhoon Vongfong landfall in the Philippines
Himawari 8 satellite image of Typhoon AMBO intensifying over the Philippines on 13 May 1540 UTC.
Typhoon Vongfong (named Ambo in the Philippines) made initial landfall on 14 May in San Policarpo, Eastern Samar, Philippines. The Category 3 typhoon brought destructive winds and intense rainfall as it moved northwest towards mainland Luzon and Metro Manila, a major COVID-19 hotspot. Large parts of the country were under movement restrictions and lockdowns, which put strain on emergency response efforts.
The Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (PAGASA) provided early information of the pending threat four days before landfall and named the Tropical Depression that had developed east of Mindanao “AMBO” on 10 May. (The international name, Vongfong, was attributed by WMO Regional Specialized Meteorological Centre for Tropical Cyclones in Tokyo when the system developed into a Tropical Storm.) The National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC) convened a Pre-Disaster Risk Assessment meeting on 11 May, three days ahead of the typhoon’s first landfall. They worked with telecommunication companies to disseminate emergency alert messages via mobile phones to people in the affected areas and regional emergency operations centres were activated. The Department of Social Welfare and Development readied standby funds and stockpiled family food packs, and other food and non-food items amounting to US$ 23.4 million (PhP1.18 billion).
The Department of Health advised local government authorities to allot wider spaces in evacuation centres to ensure adequate physical distancing: families to be evacuated were to observe minimum health standards, which included wearing face masks, proper hygiene and cough etiquette. The NDRRMC also urged local authorities to explore alternative evacuation centres, since schools could not be used as many had been designated as quarantine facilities for COVID-19 patients. Further to its initial warning and contributions, PAGASA monitored the evolution of the typhoon and provided continuous weather updates throughout the event.
Eight-day rack of Typhoon AMBO from 10-18 May 2020
Local officials pointed to the double challenge of keeping their residents safe from COVID-19 and the typhoon, noting the difficulty of maintaining physical distancing in temporary shelters. Several local governments decreed that evacuation centres were only to be filled to half their usual capacity to prevent the spread of the coronavirus disease. The Catholic Church offered the use of its church buildings and chapels as additional shelters and some shopping malls did the same.
This led to the pre-emptive evacuation of 46 812 families or 182 916 persons, almost one-third of the total of 140 147 families or 578 571 persons who were affected in the country.
Governments, emergency services and public attention are focused on the pandemic situation. Meteorologists and hydrologists, therefore, need to be pro-active and anticipate beyond existing institutional arrangements and national warning policies concerning the issuing of official warnings. Specific notifications and strong relationships with national stakeholders do make a difference in early preparation and action to mitigate the impacts of hazardous events, as shown in the Philippines case.
More than ever, there is a critical demand for early, actionable warnings and advisory services. Clarity on possible impacts, taking forecast uncertainty into account, and as much accuracy as possible on chronology and localization allow early targeted action to save lives and limit damages. The combination of these types of requirements is the classical challenge that the WMO community has been confronted with for decades. It is the driver to our continued efforts in research, Earth system understanding, monitoring and forecasting, and sharing science and technological progress across all WMO Members in a cooperative spirit. In this time of pandemic, the challenge is even bigger for most NMHSs, but they need to remain vigilant and dedicated to the provision of essential services for the common good.