What the Weather Will Do

40th Anniversary of the WMO Tropical Cyclone Programme

Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama
Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama

“The increasing ferocity of tropical cyclones due to climate change presents the greatest ever threat to Fiji's development. These disasters can shave off years of Fiji's economic growth and, if left unmitigated, will blow us entirely off course from the aims of the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda,” said the Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama in an interview with WMO. Tropical cyclones (typhoons and hurricanes are the same phenomena named differently in different regions) are among the most frequent, frightening and life-threatening of natural phenomena. They can generate winds that ravage harvests and tear apart homes and infrastructure, deadly storm surges and torrential downpours that trigger floods and coastal inundations.

Over the past 50 years, 1 942 disasters have been attributed to tropical cyclones, which killed 779 324 people and caused US$ 1 407.6 billion in economic losses – an average of 43 deaths and US$ 78 million in damages every day. The WMO Tropical Cyclone Programme, which celebrates 40 years in 2020, has facilitated research, coordination and communication to improve tropical cyclone forecasts and early warning systems. Its main focus over recent years has been on improving impact-based multi-hazard early warning. The importance of that work was highlighted in a series of interviews earlier this year, following Tropical Cyclone Harold in Fiji.


Mitigating cyclone risks during lockdown

When Tropical Cyclone Harold hit the small-island state of Fiji in April 2020, COVID-19 restrictions were in place. Mr Jone Usamate, Fiji’s Minister for Infrastructure and Meteorological Services, told the Bulletin, “COVID-19 is having an impact on our ability to plan and mitigate the impact of disasters. When Cyclone Harold happened, COVID-19 restricted movement. It restricted our ability to go out and assist people.” He could see the benefit of further improvement in early warnings to provide more lead-time to emergency services in times of crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

Jone Usamate, Fiji’s Minister for Infrastructure and Meteorological Services

Jone Usamate, Fiji’s Minister for Infrastructure and Meteorological Services 

“Numerical Weather Prediction has benefited tremendously from advances in science and technology, especially satellites and the advanced capacity of supercomputers. Today, the accuracy of a tropical cyclone tracking forecast with a three-day lead-time is comparable to that of the two-day lead-time 20 years ago” explained Cyrille Honoré, Chief, WMO Disaster Risk Reduction and Public Services.

The gains in Numerical Weather Prediction are particularly suitable for severe weather forecasting in tropical and sub-tropical regions, but they are extremely computationally intensive and can only be supported by a few leading Severe Weather Forecasting Centres. Thus, WMO devised a Cascading Forecasting Process for World Meteorological Centres (WMCs) to make global-scale products available to Regional Specialized Meteorological Centres (RSMCs) who integrate and synthesize these to provide daily short-range and medium-range forecast guidance products for hazardous weather conditions and weather-related hazards to NMHSs in their geographic region. Participating NMHSs have improved their ability to forecast severe weather events and to issue effective severe weather warnings to disaster managers and civil protection authorities in their respective countries. Their lead-time for issuing early warnings is up by 3 to 5 days.

As part of the Cascading Process, NMHSs conduct near real-time verifications and evaluations, based on observations of meteorological parameters collected at local meteorological stations and information gathered on the impacts of the severe weather phenomena, to feedback information to the WMOs. This permits a constant honing and refining of WMCs’ products.

“The work to improve cyclone forecasting is vital because it gives us a lifesaving window of opportunity to prepare for a storm's arrival, allowing relevant authorities to make accurate and timely predictions for better-informed decisions,” said Prime Minister Bainimarama. “This allows for better management of related risks and supports clear messaging of critical information to the public. It also ensures the better management of scarce resources and enables better planning before, during and after disasters. I'm confident this work will help save Fijian lives. It will help manage and minimize risks and help build resilient communities, filled with families who know what to expect and how to effectively respond to tropical cyclones.”

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Impact-based early warnings

“During Tropical Cyclone Harold, people were prepared for the cyclone, but not really prepared for the storm surges and the coastal inundation. So, it is obvious that we need to improve the way that we teach people and get the message across to them,” said Minister Usamate. “When you explain a disaster, or potential disaster in terms of its impacts, it drives the message home. People realize it's going to affect my life, my plantation, our homes. They understand intensely and that compels them to change their behaviour, to take on the right behaviour.” He further noted, “We also need to work in partnership with other bodies in the country to make sure that we have face-to-face interaction so that people are trained on how to deal with these disaster issues.”

Early warning is a major element of disaster risk reduction. They can prevent loss of life and reduce the economic and material impacts of hazardous events, mitigating disasters. But to be effective, early warning systems need to actively involve the people and communities at risk, facilitate public education and awareness of risks, disseminate messages and warnings efficiently and ensure that there is a constant state of preparedness and that early action is enabled. Impact-based multi-hazard early warning services translate hazard warnings into sector and location-specific impacts, and develops responses to mitigate those impacts in advance of hazards. In an effort to move forward together, the National Meteorological and Hydrological Services (NMHSs) that have adopted this approach are assisting other NHMSs to do the same.

Mr Honoré explains, “Impact-based forecasting and warnings require the processing and integration of large amounts of information to tailor the services and warnings to the specificities and needs of people at risk, including small communities. It implies the development of technical capacities, skills and competencies, and their sustained implementation.” One of the most common challenges, however, “is developing strong technical and institutional partnerships nationwide.” NHMSs must complement the forecasts and warnings developed through the Cascading Process with country-specific information – such as topography, flood and landslide hazard maps, population demographics and geo-located critical infrastructure and other vulnerability and exposures – to produce impact-based forecasts and risk-informed warnings. They must also participate in preparatory work with other government agencies in order to rapidly identify populations at risk, exposed assets, physical and social vulnerabilities and to support the quantification of impacts for early action.

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It is essential that disaster management plans include evacuation strategies that are well-practiced and tested.


“We need to make sure that forecasts are given in a language that people understand not in terms of only English and iTaukei, but also the choice of words, removal of scientific terms. At the same time, we need to make sure that we use the right mediums. Newspapers obviously don't work for rural areas. Radio works, but face-to-face interactions have proven to be the best. And that is something that we need to do,” said Minister Usamate.

NMHSs need to disseminate clear and consistent early warnings quickly and effectively down to the last mile. There are ever more communications tools at hand to do so: websites, mobile phone apps and SMS, radio, television, Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, etc. They should know which tool is best for reaching which audience.


Preparedness and response

What the Weather Will DoIt is essential that people understand the risks, respect the national warning service and know how to react to warning messages. Education and preparedness programmes play a key role. It is also essential that disaster management plans include evacuation strategies that are well practised and tested. People should be well informed on options for safe behaviour to reduce risks and protect their health, know available evacuation routes and safe areas and know how best to avoid damage to and loss of property.

There are many key actors that should be included in preparedness and response initiatives if they are to reach the last mile. National and local disaster management agencies should take the lead in coordinated scientific and technical agencies such as NMHSs, health authorities, ocean observing organizations and geophysical agencies; military and civil authorities; humanitarian and relief organizations such as United Nations agencies, the Red Cross and non-governmental organizations; community-based and grassroots organizations; the list goes on, in planning and coordinating. Schools, universities, the informal education sector, and media organizations can play important roles in informing and educating the public.

“We have a good mechanism in Fiji. We have the national disaster management council that works with all the parties. We have a cluster system, groupings where we have government, non-governmental organizations and even our development partners.

So, the framework, the arrangement of the natural disaster management consultant committees, is already there. We just need to make sure that it works well and that it continues to be on its toes whenever a potential disaster appears on the horizon,” explained Minister Usamate.


WMO Tropical Cyclone Programme

Impact-based forecasting and risk-informed early warning services facilitate the understanding of tropical cyclones risks and, coupled with preparedness initiatives, permit individuals to make decisions to mitigate impacts and save lives.

“We'll always be needing assistance from World Meteorological Organization to improve the way we do things here and also to assist in capacity building, providing us access to best practice around the world so that we can do our best to prepare our people in our country for potential natural disasters in the future,” stated Minister Usamate.

At the end of 2020, WMO will release updated guidelines for NMHSs to develop and implement impact-based forecasting. The publication will highlight best practices and the lessons learnt by countries that have implemented the approach. Mr Honoré points to the new tool as a reference for NMHSs. It will assist in their efforts to enhance their warning services thus enable early action and better preparation for hazardous events and potential disasters.

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