(Bloomberg) — Weather station 61223 had been faithfully recording data on the temperature, wind and rainfall in the legendary city of Timbuktu for 115 years before March 30, 2012.
On that day, the station, a discreet concrete building by the airport, reported a maximum temperature of 105Âº Fahrenheit. Then, it went silent.Â On April 1, rebel Tuareg fighters under the multi-colored banners of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad surrounded and captured the area. Later, the jihadists of Ansar Dine followed, waving their black flag with the shahadaâthe Muslim declaration of faithâemblazoned in white. Soon, Sharia law was implemented across the city.Â
Moussa TourÃ© watched the events unfold from Maliâs capital of Bamako with horror, and a sense of relief. As director of the African countryâs weather observations network, he was responsible for the meteorologists stationed across the country and, luckily, heâd managed to evacuate all the National Meteorological Agencyâs employees fromÂ Northern Mali in time.
That included the three people in charge of Station 61223, one of only three facilitiesÂ in MaliÂ that had collected weather data without interruption for more than 100 years. Their safety had come at a cost. âIt was the only station in the region, the one that allowed us to understand extreme weather events in northern Mali,â TourÃ©Â says, a shade of sadness in his voice. âWe knew leaving our personnel there without any protection would mean putting them at risk.â
One weather station going dark was nothing compared to the chaos that ensued. The fall of Muammar al Qaddafiâs regime in Libya in 2011 had brought hundreds of fighters back to Mali and Niger. By 2012, myriad insurgent groups were causing destruction inÂ the Sahel, a predominantly desert region stretching across Africa from Mauritania and Mali to the west, all the way to Sudan and Eritrea to the east.
Islamist groups linked to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State took hold of several territories. A United Nations peacekeeping mission and a separate French-led counter-terrorism operation were deployed. Almost a decade later, the region is still unstable. Mali has suffered two coups dâÃ©tatÂ in less than a year.Â In July, Assimi Goita, who took power after leading the latest uprising,Â survived an assassination attempt.
But the loss of Station 61223 was keenly felt by the community of scientists trying to better understand the impact of global warming on the Earthâs climateâespecially in Africa, where weatherÂ phenomena are chronically understudied.Â TheÂ complex mathematical models climate scientists depend on are fed with millions of data points from thousands of stations scattered across the planetâfrom the dunes of the Sahara desert to the busy streets of Beijing.Â Measurements of temperature, rainfall, humidity, solar radiation, as well as wind intensity and direction, allow scientists to test the accuracy of their models. The closer their forecasts hew to changes on the ground, the more confidence researchers have in their ability to make predictions.
âWeather and climate have a huge variability, so you need observations over decades and even over centuries,âÂ says Peer Hechler, a scientific officer at the World Meteorological Organization, the United Nations agency that oversees weather and climate issues. âIf you have data-sparse areas, you have a problem understanding the weather and the climate globally.â
Thatâs one of Africaâs biggest problems when it comes to tackling climate change, according to the WMOâs inaugural State of the Climate report released last year. The continent has the worldâs least developed land-based weather observation network, amounting to only one eighth of the minimum density recommended by the WMO. The issue will be under the spotlight next week as the UNâs Intergovernmental Panel on Climate ChangeÂ releases the first part of its Sixth Assessment Report, which summarizes scientific discoveries about climate change from the past sevenÂ years and will form the basis for furtherÂ policy discussions, including the UN-sponsored COP26 conference planned for November.
What weather dataÂ infrastructure is in Africa is deteriorating fast, with only 22% of stations meeting global reporting standards in 2019.
The lack of data makes it harder to protect people against the impacts of climate change on an especially vulnerable continent.Â Africa hasÂ contributed the least to global warming and is also worst-equipped to deal with the devastating consequences of rising temperatures, according to the UNâs Framework Convention on Climate Change. A report by the International Monetary Fund estimates gross domestic product per capita in the Sahel would fall around 2% for every 1Âº Celsius of global temperature rise, compared with a 1% increase in cooler, wealthier countries such as Canada and Russia.Â
For the people of Mali, the consequences of losing Station 61223 were much more immediateâand tragic. The data it gathered was essential for predicting the sudden and violent gusts of wind that sweep over the region, causing sandstorms and dangerous water currents. Residents were well-trained to listen for alerts from Station 61223 warning them of impending gales. The pinasses, long flat canoes that carry people, cattle and goods along the Niger river, would stop their journeys and take refuge.
In 2011, about 10 people died in wind-related incidents around the Niger river and Lake DÃ©bo, Maliâs largest lake. That number soared to 70 the year after Station 61223 went offline.Â
Youba Sokona has been frustrated by the lack of African weather data for almost half a century.
He first encountered the problem when he was working on his PhD at age 28, researching ways to optimize dam construction in the Senegal River basin. âIn order to design a dam, you need a long-term series of hydro-meteorological data of a minimum of 100 years,â says Sokona, now 71. âI had only seven years of observation for the entire river system.â
That sort of information is usually readily available for projects in Europe and North America. The discrepancy became more obvious to Sokona as heÂ rose through the ranks of the global climate community. An expert on sustainable development in Africa, he was appointed lead author of the IPCCâs Fifth Assessment Report in 2014. The massive document is published by the UN agency every six to seven years, summarizing the latest scientific discoveries about climate change in order to guide world leaders on how to tackle the crisis.Â
Speaking from his home in Bamako, where heâs returned after a decades-long career leading climate institutions all over the world, Sokona recallsÂ the fraught politics around the document, which has to be approved by all UN member countries. âSuddenly African members realized that there was lots of information on climate change in the Northern Hemisphere, but nothing on the South,â he says. âIt wasnât because climate change didnât happen in the South, it was because there was no data, no previous research the IPCC could rely on.â
African representatives threatened to reject the 2014Â report, and harsh words were exchanged during meetings in Stockholm and Yokohama, Sokona says. Still, theÂ document was eventually published, laying the groundwork for global leaders to set the target of keeping global warming below 1.5ÂºC compared to pre-industrial levels that underpins a swathe of climate policies today.Â
The experience, however, had underscored an uncomfortable inequity. IPCC authors launched a program to get more academics from Africa involved; more than 700 have since attended talks and conferences that highlighted gaps in the IPCCâs African data, Sokona says. Theyâre encouragedÂ to gather informationÂ in their own countries, publish papers, and give feedback on existing publications to bring African issues to the attention of authors in developed nations.
The upcoming IPCC report includes an unprecedented number of African authors and is expected to highlight the lack of data from the continent, according to sources familiar with the document who asked not to be named because itsÂ contents are confidential.
But the gap in research between developed and developing countries is still large. âLimited information is one of the main problems,â Sokona says. âWe have made a huge progress and impact in Africa since the Fifth Assessment, but a lot more is still needed.â
Still, no one in the Sahel needs a scientist to tell them that the climate is changing in dangerous ways.Â
Those who liveÂ there haveÂ watched over the past few decades as rivers dried up, rain became less predictable, and deadly droughts and extreme heat became more common. The harsh weather has made it more difficult to grow crops such as rice and cotton, both major economic drivers. Thatâs forced hundreds of thousands of people to move to the capitalÂ Bamako to find work, or to take their chances embarking on dangerous migration routes along the Sahara to try and reach Europe.Â
There was a time, prior to the events in 2012, when Maliâs then-president Amadou Toumani TourÃ© kept a close eye on the weather. âHe followed all weather forecasts on TV and he would call the minister for the weather to ask about specific information,â says TourÃ©, the meteorological agency director. (The two arenât related.) TourÃ© the formerÂ president was overthrown by a coup in 2012.
Since then, climate change has risen to the top of the political agenda in many Western countries as citizens demand stronger action.Â But in Africa,Â there are often more pressing matters. With national meteorological agencies running on stretched budgets and political leaders uninterested in funding climate research, AfricanÂ researchers rely on support from international institutions or nonprofit organizations. The World Bank, International Monetary Fund and dozens of nonprofits have initiatives to expand the continentâs network of weather stations. But as soon as a program ends, so does its budget. The facilitiesÂ fall into disrepair, and the data stops coming in.Â
âIt turns out thereâs quite a long road between a good idea and having something in the field that actually works,â says Nick van de Giesen, a professor at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands. Heâs spent the last seven years running the Trans-African Hydro-Meteorological Observatory, or TAHMO, a network of weather stations scattered across Africa that provides data to about 300 scientific organizations, including the WMO.Â
The most common type of facility is known as a synoptic weather stationâthatâs what Timbuktuâs Station 61223 was. Theyâre usually manually operated and include delicate equipment used to measure everything from soil moisture to barometric pressure. A team of operators is needed to digitize data and maintain the instruments. In the African countryside, that means a constant fight against insects and animals.
âInsects love to get into weather stations because theyâre usually cooler than the outside,â Van de Giesen says. âWeâve found nests of wasps, ants, birds, anything you can think of.â
When he launched TAHMO, Van de Giesenâs vision was to make weather stations more affordable. The goal was to cut the cost of establishing oneÂ from $20,000 to just $200. To cut maintenance costs, the group designed a compact station with no moving parts that transmits data automatically through a cell phone. The whole process is so simple, it can be maintained by a child. In fact, one of the nonprofitâs initiatives installsÂ stations in local schools as part of an effort to educate young people on the importance of weather stations.
Van de Giesen hasnât quite reached his target of $200 per station, but the current cost of about $2,000 per unit makes TAHMOâs much more affordable than other alternatives.
The group is proceeding with caution. Their priority, Van de Giesen says, is to install only what they can actually maintain. Of the more than 600 TAHMO weather stations in Africa, none are in Mali.
Stories from Timbuktu, the ancient center of learning and trade in theÂ southernmost corner of the Sahara,Â haveÂ captured Hienin Ali DiakitÃ©âs imagination since he was a child. His father, a Malian migrant in Burkina Faso, would spend hours recounting his own long journeys across the desert and the Niger river, waxing lyrical about the cityâs golden ages.Â
Timbuktu was a central node in the region, luring visitors from all over. In the 16th century people travelled for weeks and months to learn Islamic theology, history, and philosophy from the wise sages who lived there. Bedouin tribes that cruised the desert passed through as they led caravans of camels carrying salt, gold and slaves across the desert.Â
All of them brought new knowledge, from treatises of medicine, astronomy, and Islamic law to poetry, popular culture, agriculture techniques, andâcruciallyâupdates on the weather. The information was recorded in manuscripts written mostly in Arabic, but also in local languages such as Songhay and Tamasheq. The sheets passed within families from one generation to another, hidden away in the cityâs signature mud mosques and houses.
By the 19th century, the fall of the Malian empire and colonization by the French brought an end to the centuries-old practice of studying theÂ manuscripts. The documents faded away, forgotten by almost everyone. When western scholars found them more than a century later, they were baffled. Their findings allowed them to rewrite West African history, which they previously thought had been preserved solely through the oral tradition.
DiakitÃ©âs obsession with Timbuktuâs rare manuscripts prompted him in February 2012 to travelÂ to the cityâs Ahmed Baba Institute, which was working on digitizingÂ about 20,000 of the ancient documents. DiakitÃ© didnât know it at the time, but he was one of the last researchers from outside of Timbuktu to see the manuscripts in person before insurgents took over the city. Back home in France, he watched on televisionÂ as the city was taken over. He followedÂ the story from the victory of the Islamist radicals toÂ the destruction of religious mausoleums, the devastating news of manuscripts burnedÂ by terrorist groupsâand, later, the reports that Timbuktuâs longtime custodians had saved many of the manuscripts, either by hiding them in the cityÂ or by smuggling them to Bamako.
Now a cataloguer of West African manuscripts at the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library at Saint Johnâs University in Collegeville, Minn., DiakitÃ© spends his days scanning and analyzingÂ a trove of somewhere between 10,000 and 15,000 manuscripts. Theyâre just a small part of what are thought to number in theÂ hundreds of thousands total.Â
The texts, some of which can be accessed online, give hints of what the weather was like centuries ago. One talks about a drought-led famine in 1785; others include passages on the precise places where rivers sprung up in the desert during the rainy season. The large number of magic intonations said to invoke rain, or to make it stop, indicate that the weather was something people spent a lot of time trying to control.Â
In Europe, researchers have used manuscripts and old books from monasteries and libraries to understand what the climate was once like, but no one seems to have done the same with the Timbuktu manuscripts until now. âThe first thing is to preserve everything, and the second thing is to make sure you can see these manuscripts from anywhere,â DiakitÃ© says. âWeâre going well, but thereâs still a lot we need to work on.âÂ
DiakitÃ©âs effort to save that valuable information echoes a larger push to recover lost African weather data. Hundreds of books and files of valuable weather readings are sitting in archives across the continent, many covered in mold, others left at the mercy of termites, fires and floods.Â
âWe have a wealth of information still on paper in Africa, in the meteorological services and in other institutions that measured and observed weather and the climate in the past,â says Hechler, from the WMO. âWe need to hurry up to locate this data on paper, scan it, make inventories and code the dataâitâs a huge effort that needs a lot of people.âÂ
The WMO has sponsored data-rescue programs and worked to attract donors. From 2014 to 2016 the organization partnered with stateÂ meteorological offices in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger on a large-scale weather data rescue operation. Thousands of documents that had been piled up haphazardly in storage rooms are now kept in neatly-aligned boxes, all properly coded and classified.Â
In Mali, 14,655 monthly climatological tables have been scanned and linked them to the national database. The information allowed agency experts to develop models for the beginning and the end of the rainy season in different regions in the country.Â
As for Station 61223, it remains offline because the meteorological agency still canât guarantee the safety of employees and installations, says TourÃ©. About 90% of its instruments will need to be replaced if it ever resumes its work. Still, TourÃ©âs agency has managed to install 40 new weather stations in Mali over the past decade.
âThereâs sort of a skeleton of data in Africa now,â Hechler says. âWith all these initiatives we can connect the new data weâre gathering today and in the future with existing data. Itâs the second-best way to do things, but itâs still a good way scientifically.âÂ
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