Excerpt from profile piece with TED fellowship holder VK Madhavan, on traditional weather forecasting in the face of climate change.
The following excerpt from an online profile piece with TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) Fellowship recipient VK Madhaven is particularly pertinent to my recent blog post: Fine with a chance of rain…. getting the weather forecast right July 29, 2013; in which the importance of weather forecasting in developing nations was highlighted – as well as the challenges. VK Madhaven briefly discusses his interest in traditional weather forecasting methods which have failed in the context of climate change conditions. He points to the spread of mobile phones as a key tool in keeping small-holder farmers informed of short-range forecasts. This can prove crucial for sustaining agricultural livelihoods.
I’ve heard that you’re interested in traditional weather forecasting. What is traditional weather forecasting?
Historically, over time, people in many different traditional cultures noticed a correlation between changes in wind direction, for example, or certain changes in vegetation, and found relationships between the behavior of animals and insects and rainfall or other weather patterns. People had these methods for predicting the weather that they developed over time.
I first learned about this in the desert of Rajasthan when I was walking with a farmer on a hot June day. He pointed out ants carrying their bits of food out of their anthill to higher ground, and said, “It’s going to rain in the next seven days. It’s going to be a good year this year.” He explained, “If the ants are moving their food out of their anthill to a higher ground, it means they know their anthill is going to get flooded.” And I’ve been interested in traditional weather forecasting ever since.
Traditional societies are caught in a bind, though. The rate at which climate is changing now is much faster than it has done in the past. So suddenly they are challenged by the fact that because there are dramatic changes in the microclimate around them, some of these observations, which have withstood the test of time, and have been passed on through generations, suddenly aren’t all relevant any more. I don’t think we should sit back and romanticize all traditional knowledge and say that all traditional knowledge should be followed today, but it had a value in it, and it has an interesting process by which it was arrived at. While it might not all be necessarily relevant or true, the fact is, it’s still worth learning from.
As people have more access to, and increasing faith in modern education, they tend to dismiss traditional knowledge. I think that’s really sad. At some point in my life I’d like to write a book on traditional weather forecasting.
Part of your Senior Fellow project is to use new technology — mobile phones — to help with disseminating weather predictions to local farmers.
Well, I’ve had a modern education as well, you see. What we’ve done is set up nine automatic weather stations in the area we work in. We’ve been tracking forecasts and we’re now talking to a service provider that can provide us forecasts every three days or so from each micro weather station. In these mountains, from valley to valley, the weather can be completely different, even when they are just five kilometers away.
We hope to start providing localized weather forecasts basically as a risk mitigation strategy. If, for example, you’re going to spray your crop, and you know it’s going to rain in the next 24 to 48 hours, better to wait for it to rain, and then to spray. Otherwise it will all get washed away.