In Uruguay, Columbia scientists are working on a forecasting system to help farmers cope with climate change.


Seeds of Hope

As climate change creates agricultural instability around the world, Columbia scientists are testing a seasonal forecasting system in Uruguay to give farmers a fighting chance.

by David J. Craig Published Spring 2015
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Farm scenes in southern Uruguay.

“We now have a steady stream of Columbia scientists coming here,” says Baethgen, whose role on the project is to coordinate the collaborations between Uruguayan scientists and their Columbia partners. “Eventually, the new IRI office will be promoting the involvement of Columbians on similar climate­-risk­-management efforts throughout the Southern Cone region of South America.”

The first Columbians to work on the project were climate scientists led by Paula Gonzalez, an associate research scientist at IRI who specializes in operating computer models that generate seasonal forecasts. These computer models, Gonzalez explains, are similar to those used to create the daily weather forecasts delivered by TV meteorologists. The main difference is that whereas meteorological forecasts are based solely on analyses of the planet’s current atmospheric conditions, seasonal forecasts also incorporate predictions of how sea-­surface temperatures are likely to change over the next three to six months. Scientists have learned to anticipate sea­-surface temperatures this far in advance, Gonzalez says, by observing the atmospheric cycles known as El Niño and La Niña, which cause predictable changes in water temperature across the eastern tropical Pacific and, in turn, affect weather patterns around the earth.

According to Gonzalez, the computer models that she and her colleagues are developing for Uruguay’s National Agricultural Information System (SNIA) will produce seasonal forecasts that will in some ways be the most sophisticated in South America. In addition to being geographically precise — the Lalindes, for instance, will get different forecasts than will cattle farmers in neighboring districts — the forecasts will describe the future climatic conditions of each region in unusual detail. Rather than simply predicting average temperature or rainfall accumulation for the next season, for example, they will indicate whether intense heat waves or dry spells may be coming.

“This is what climate scientists call ‘weather-­within-­climate’ pre­dictions,” says Gonzalez, whose team is also training Uruguayan technicians to operate the models. “We can’t possibly say what the weather will look like on any given day, or any given week, months in advance. But we can get an idea of how wet and dry periods are likely to be distributed, based on the patterns of high-­ and low-­pressure systems that are appearing in our simulations.”

A separate group of IRI researchers led by Catherine Vaughan ’09GSAS, an environmental scientist who studies how people make decisions related to climate change, was recruited by Baethgen to develop the Web portal that farmers will use to access SNIA’s climate forecasts. This portal is the most distinct aspect of SNIA’s service, according to Vaughan; never before, she says, have seasonal climate forecasts been made available to people in a form as user-friendly and practical. In addition to telling a farmer what climatic conditions to expect next season, the portal will also tell him how these conditions could affect the yields of his crops. It will do this, Vaughan says, by analyzing the farmer’s climate forecast against a database containing huge amounts of information on past harvests.

“If he tells the website where he lives, what type of soil is on his land, how he irrigates, and what fertilizers he uses, he’s going to get individualized feedback about what his crop yield could look like,” says Vaughan, who is working with Uruguayan social scientists and agriculture experts in creating the portal. “Maybe he’ll see what the predicted outcome is for corn, and then get a similar analysis for soybeans so he can compare the two.”

To Baethgen, a lot is riding on the project’s success. He believes that if large numbers of Uruguayan farmers use the forecasting service — and if this has a demonstrable impact on their productivity and livelihoods — other countries might implement similar forecasting systems. The approach could be effective, he says, anywhere people have Internet access and a well­-functioning agriculture ministry.

“The reason you don’t see systems like this operating in the US or Europe is because wealthy countries have government­-subsidized insurance programs that bail out farmers whenever there is a bad harvest,” says Baethgen. “As a result, there’s not much demand within the agricultural industry for something like this. Developing countries, on the other hand, can’t afford expensive farm subsidies. But they can afford to give their farmers the information they need to pursue efficient, climate-­smart agriculture.”

Francesco Fiondella contributed reporting to this article.

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