Science and simulation for the greater good
November 5th, 2006 by JTJ

A former student of colleague Steve Ross sends this interesting report on how simulation models can/are being used in the real world:

I’m the communications officer for the International Research
Institute for Climate and Society
at Columbia University. The IRI specializes
in making forecasts of climate for every part of the world by using data from
satellites, meteorological stations and proxy records (tree rings, corals, etc)
to run models. The models tell us, with varying degrees of certainty, how much
off the “norm” rainfall, temperature and humidity will be for a given place in
the world.  We’re not so much interested
in long-term climate change (global warming, sea level rise, etc) as we are in
season-to-season changes (e.g. monsoonal patterns, drought, flooding, etc.).
And the IRI isn’t a purely academic institution — its main objective is to use
the forecasts and climate monitoring to develop and undertake projects that
mitigate the effects of climate change in developing countries. We never do
this alone: all of our efforts are in collaboration with scientists, policymakers
and NGOs in these countries.

Here’s a brief description of some projects we’re currently working

*Climate and malaria:*
The IRI collects an enormous amount
of temperature, rainfall and humidity data for southern Africa. As it it turns
out, the presence or absence of malaria in a given region depends strongly on
these three climate factors, so scientists here developed a mapping tool that
shows the risk of a malaria epidemic for every month of the year in every part
of sub-Saharan Africa. We train health workers from countries in this area on
how to use the information to adequately prepare for epidemics. (see /

*Climate and fire-management*
Fires in Indonesia damage unique
and delicate ecosystems, increase carbon dioxide emissions, and produce noxious
smoke and haze that leads to thousands of hospitalizations every year. Since
the intensity and duration of these fires depend on the amount of rainfall the region
receives every season, the IRI is using its rainfall forecasts to develop an early-warning
system that policymakers and NGOs can use for planning purposes. For example, if
our models tell us there is a strong chance of drought conditions in the next 3-month
period there, our Indonesian partners can take specific actions, such as conserving irrigation water so that the fields where these fires
occur aren’t drained completely and therefore aren’t as susceptible to burning.
(see /

*Index-based weather insurance for farmers*
The IRI and the Commodity Risk Management Group at the World
Bank are involved in a project to develop insurance contracts that protect Malawi
farmers against periodic, crop-destroying droughts. Traditionally, farmers would
take out loans to buy seeds at the start of every season. If a drought occurred,
the farmers’ crops would die, and they wouldn’t be able to pay back the banks. But
under this new program the farmers can purchase an insurance (a very small percentage
of the price of the seeds) against crop loss when they buy seeds. If a drought occurs,
the farmers get a full or partial payout and can use the money to repay their loans.
IRI’s role in this is to use its weather monitoring data for the region to help
the local insurance companies develop reliable contracts. The fascinating aspect
of this program is that it is completely subsidized by the farmers.  (no link
available yet)

My role in all this is to make these and other projects known
to the public at large.  Many of you receiving this email are journalists of
one species or another. If you are developing stories or graphics that have to do
with climate or earth science, think of me. I’ll put you in touch with experts or
send you bucketfuls of GIS and other data.

Francesco Fiondella
Communications Officer
International Research Institute for Climate and Society
Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory
61 Route 9W
Palisades, NY 10964
francesco [at]

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