The Big Idea: Farsighted Forecasts

by David J. Craig Published Winter 2017
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Farmers in El Paraíso, Honduras, are benefiting from climate forecasts produced by Columbia scientists. / Photograph by Elisabeth Gawthrop

Lisa Goddard directs Columbia’s International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI), which helps developing countries anticipate and manage the impacts of climate change. We asked her to explain how climate scientists can predict weather patterns months in advance, and how their work is improving people’s lives.


Columbia Magazine: IRI is at the forefront of a field called climate services. Can you explain what scientists in your field do?
Lisa Goddard: We collaborate with farmers, public-health officials, water managers, and others to understand how climate conditions affect their work. We then help them make better decisions, based on predictions of what climate conditions will likely occur from a few weeks to several years in the future.


What types of decisions do you help people with?
Well, if farmers know there’s a good chance of a drought occurring in the next growing season, they might plant crops that don’t require a lot of rain, even if those crops are less profitable than ones they’d ideally like to plant. Or if health officials in the tropics know that the next rainy season is likely to be wetter than usual, they might make a bigger investment in malaria-prevention measures, like bed nets. It’s all about helping people use their resources wisely and in a timely manner.


How can you predict the weather so far in advance?
Unlike TV meteorologists, we don’t attempt to say what the weather is going to look like on any specific day. Rather, we offer forecasts that describe the range of total rainfall and average temperatures that a region is likely to experience in a given season. So whereas meteorologists track the movements of particular pressure systems, we study phenomena that may cause a region’s climate to differ from previous years. One of the key factors we consider is the temperature of the oceans. The warmth of water near the ocean’s surface has an enormous impact on climate, because it affects the temperature and humidity of the air above it. And since ocean currents change slowly, they are predictable weeks to months in advance. This enables us to anticipate their effects on the atmosphere. The most important example of a predictable climate phenomenon is El Niño, which occurs when waters in the eastern and central equatorial Pacific Ocean become uncharacteristically warm every few years. El Niño robustly influences weather conditions over nearly 30 percent of all land on Earth, all the way from the western coasts of North and South America to the Horn of Africa and India.


Didn’t Columbia researchers play a key role in discovering El Niño’s global effects? 
Yes, Mark Cane, a Columbia climate scientist, was the first one to predict changes in El Niño’s sea-surface temperatures, using a forecasting model that he and Steve Zebiak, his student at the time, created in the mid-1980s.

You could say that their work essentially gave birth to the field of climate prediction, which led to the new endeavor of climate services. While there are many ocean phenomena that influence our planet’s climate, El Niño is the most powerful in influencing annual variations. Over the years, we’ve gotten better and better at predicting El Niño and its effects.

Farmers in the village of Diouna in southern Mali listen to weather broadcasts as they prepare their field for planting. / Photograph by Francesco Fiondella,

When was IRI founded? 
The US government, through its National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, awarded Columbia a major grant to create IRI in the mid-1990s, with the aim of sharing our knowledge of seasonal climate variability and forecasting with the rest of the world. Mark and Steve’s presence here was a huge factor, as was the fact that Columbia is home to many other top climate scientists. We now have a staff of nearly fifty researchers, and we are the world’s preeminent research group dedicated to creating seasonal forecasts and translating our results into actionable information.


Where do your scientists work?
We have ongoing collaborations in dozens of countries. In some, we’re working with government ministries to develop their forecasting systems from scratch. In others, we’re working behind the scenes, providing technical support to local scientists who are seeking to improve their forecasting systems. A big part of what we do is sharing our forecasting technology and decision-making methods with other scientific groups.

We also work with aid organizations. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, for instance, uses our forecasts to anticipate what parts of the world are most likely to be hit by floods, droughts, and other types of severe weather several months in advance. This enables them to mobilize relief workers ahead of time and respond to emergencies faster and more cost-effectively.

“Nearly 80 percent of the world’s farmers still depend primarily on rainfall, rather than irrigation, for watering their crops.”

So you are predicting specific weather events.
Not exactly. Not in the sense of saying, “A hurricane is going to hit Jamaica six weeks from now.” But sometimes, in addition to projecting the total rainfall that a region may receive in a given season, we can also predict whether that rain will fall nice and evenly over the course of the season or arrive in a few big bursts. In some cases, we may also be able to say something about the frequency of intense heat waves. This can be just as helpful to know. It can tell farmers the risk that certain types of crops may get washed away or dried out, and if aid agencies should be prepared for the possibility that thousands of people may get displaced by floods or droughts.


One of the places you’ve done extensive work is Uruguay.
Yes, our scientists have collaborated with the Uruguayan government to build a forecasting system for farmers that is the most advanced of its kind. Today, a farmer in Uruguay can log onto a website that we helped to create and learn what kind of climate conditions are likely to materialize in his specific county. A typical forecast might state: your area has a 50 percent chance of receiving less rain than usual, a 30 percent chance of receiving an average amount, and a 20 percent chance of receiving more rain than usual. He can then use the website to find out how much money he’s likely to earn by planting various crops — say, corn, wheat, barley, or sorghum — under each of those climate scenarios. He can also find out the potential benefits of fertilizing or irrigating. The tool is individualized, sophisticated, and extremely easy to use.

Uruguayan government officials are also using the forecasts to decide where droughts may necessitate the distribution of emergency assistance.


Despite having an agricultural economy, Uruguay is a fairly prosperous country. Don’t you typically work in poorer ones?
Most of our work is focused on helping developing nations. One of the reasons we took on the project in Uruguay is because its agriculture ministry is extremely well run and the country has a vibrant scientific community. This helped us to create a top-notch forecasting system. And our goal was always to create a system that could serve as a sustainable model for other countries.

Developing countries need our help because they’re especially vulnerable to climate variability. Nearly 80 percent of the world’s farmers still depend primarily on rainfall, rather than irrigation, for watering their crops. That means that if little rain comes, they’re completely out of luck. They might not be able to afford to send their children to school, to pay back a loan they’ve taken to buy fertilizer, or to feed their family.

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