Combining data from specialized sources and local knowledge builds a clearer picture of climate change.
‘In many parts of the world agricultural systems are based largely on tradition. Farmers have been able to rely on the methods used by their forefathers because the climate has been the same for centuries. But as the climate changes, how robust will those systems continue to be?’ Carlo Buontempo, senior climate consultant at the Met Office Hadley Centre in the UK, emphasizes that it is no longer a question of whether the climate will change, because certain processes can no longer be prevented. Temperatures will increase, sea levels will rise, and both will alter how farmers are able to use the land worldwide in the years to come.
‘It’s important,’ adds Buontempo, ‘to provide other tools to help farmers move from traditional agricultural systems, relying on historical information, and to adopt new practices based on data and our understanding of the climate system.’
This may sound somewhat alarmist, but there is room for optimism. Climate researchers at the Hadley Centre are using supercomputers to produce models of likely weather patterns across the entire planet. This information could be useful for planning responses to the future impacts of climate change. Climate research unified model team manager, Michael Saunby, also of the Hadley Centre, explains: ‘For once we’re getting a long-term warning, something that hasn’t been achieved in other areas of natural disaster science, such as with earthquakes or volcanoes. The science of climate change is developing rapidly, and if we can try and make the evidence of it part of people’s lives then, as the changes occur, they won’t be hit with sudden disastrous effects.’
To be able to provide such relevant information, says Michael Saunby, means that the work of the Hadley Centre, and that of other weather services, will have to change. ‘So far, we have tried to warn people about something that will happen tomorrow or the day after,’ he says. ‘But now we can talk about things that are going to happen years into the future. That information will help people decide far more than whether they should arrange a picnic at the weekend, but whether it’s sensible to build new houses in a particular area, or if roads will have to take different routes, and even if different technologies will have to be used. Changes in temperature and rainfall, for example, could mean that in some places the materials used to build homes, roads and railway tracks will have to change to withstand those long-term effects.’
Web 2.0 could provide an opportunity to make that information part of people’s lives. Government departments, international agencies and even local NGOs will be able to take the information provided by weather centres and combine it with local data that organizations are already collecting. ‘Tools such as wikis, mashups and blogs provide other means whereby people can examine and make use of the information we generate,’ says Saunby. ‘The particular tool that I’m working on at the moment, although it’s still experimental, looks at the impacts of climate change on certain areas, along with seasonal weather forecasts that look six months into the future. These weather details can then be merged – mashed up – with other web 2.0 tools such as Google Maps or blogs to produce local maps showing, for example, how the risk of flooding may increase in the future.’
Such maps could provide planners with valuable information on where to build new roads or houses. They could also give farmers a better idea of where to plant next season’s crops or how best to irrigate their fields. ‘I don’t know what the ultimate outcome of this work will be,’ admits Saunby, ‘but that’s one of the reasons for doing it. If I knew what could be produced I would just do it myself.’ He hopes others will be able to combine climate data, using web 2.0 tools, with details from development organizations, such as regional distribution of crop types or other land use. This information could then be made available to other interested institutions and may even be useful if fed back to the climate scientists to further their research.
Michael Saunby is convinced that the new generation of internet tools can help to make climate data relevant to ordinary people. Farming communities, for example, can now access all the information they need to plan how best to use their land. ‘Web 2.0 will allow those who will be affected by the changes to our planet to engage with decision makers, and with each other, and to come to a shared understanding. It’s important that everyone – including the millions of people in developing countries who will be the most severely affected – has the opportunity to engage in what happens next. Web 2.0 provides some really useful tools for doing just that.’