THE CENTRALITY OF METEOROLOGY IN LIVELIHOODS, SOCIOECONOMICS, AND SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT – Advances in Meteorological Training and Research

Last year, in 2020, the University of Nairobi attained 50 years since becoming a national University in 1970. This ushered in the ongoing, year-long celebrations that we have branded as UoN@50. But the history of the University of Nairobi dates back to the 1950s: In 1956 the institution became the “Royal Technical College”. In 1961 the institution was placed under the University of London and renamed the “Royal College of Nairobi”. In 1964 she became a constituent college of the newly formed University of East Africa and was subsequently renamed “the University College of Nairobi”. And in 1970, we became the “University of Nairobi”.

But the Department of Meteorology, having been established in 1963, is an age mate to the nation of Kenya. It is not surprising, therefore, that most meteorologists in English-speaking Africa have been trained in the Department.

Moreover, the discipline of meteorology dates back to the days of Aristotle, the infamous Greek polymath and philosopher. The writings by Aristotle covered over twenty (20) different subjects. In the year 340 BC, Aristotle, who was a student of the Greek philosopher Plato, wrote a book entitled “Meteorologica”. This book covered the disciplines of meteorology, hydrology, geology, and geography.

But meteorology, as we know it today, did not gain prominence as a science until the sixteenth Century. This followed the inventions of the thermometer, the barometer and the hygrometer. With these instruments, it was now possible to quantify weather and climate. Meteorology in its current form is a fairly new science. And in recent years, we have acquired much knowledge about the subject.

We now understand, in a much better way, what drives our weather and climate. We have made meaningful advances in research. We can now predict the weather and climate with better accuracy than before. Nowadays, everybody seems to know about El Niño. Climate change is a global buzzword. Everybody knows about tropical cyclones. But does everyone using these terms know exactly what they mean? We have made leaps and bounds in the science of meteorology. But we still have a long way to go; there is much more that we are yet to learn; we still have much ground to cover.

And, what is meteorology? To some people, meteorology is all about weather prediction. And to many people, weather prediction is like biblical prophecy. To other people, weather prediction is only relevant for extreme events, like very hot temperature or very cold temperature or extreme droughts or floods. To some other people, a meteorologist is a rainmaker, and should take the blame whenever rains are excessive or whenever the rains fail.

You might have seen the recent joke on social media about courses that won’t be offered in the years to come. The joke stated that meteorology will not be taught in future because people will be getting information about the weather and climate on mobile phones!

Meteorology transcends historical timelines. Meteorology was relevant in the past. It is what drives the present. It is the discipline of the future. Meteorology sits at the very core of our existence. Meteorology is central to sustainable development and it drives the socioeconomics of all nations.

First, meteorology was relevant in the past. In ancient times, whenever the rains failed, sacrifices would be offered to the gods. Wars were won or lost because of adverse weather conditions. The lifestyle of our ancestors was determined by the prevailing weather and climate. The way our fore parents designed their houses, the clothes they wore, and the foods they ate depended on weather conditions. In ancient times, people foretold the coming rainy season by looking at signs in the sky or by examining the behaviour of animals and plants. Humankind has always wanted to know about the future weather and climate.

Secondly, meteorology is relevant about the present. Money makes the world to go round; we are now experiencing a medical catastrophe that has brought the whole earth to the precipice of hopelessness and despair; and we all desire to live well. Yet, the best and most powerful computers in the world are not usually installed in banks, or used for Mpesa transactions, or even for sequencing DNA data in medical research institutions. The best computers are not used for mapping the terrain, or for studying animal and plant behaviour. The best and most powerful computers are used for predicting weather and climate.

Until only recently, the best satellites were not used for communication, or for navigation, or for military purposes, or for demarcating land. The best and most advanced satellites are dedicated to monitoring weather and climate. Why is this the case? This is because the extremes of weather and climate can be detrimental to our overall wellbeing as a people; they can determine whether we live or perish.

Global natural disasters are mostly meteorological, geological, due to wild fires, or due to disease epidemics. More than 90% of these are related to weather and climate. These disasters cause the loss of lives and property.

On the lighter note, the most common matters, whether these are presented on our TV screens in the news or discussed in other places, are politics and the weather. Sports, especially football, comes a distant third!

Governments invest in the monitoring and prediction of weather and climate to bring about order, preparedness, calmness, and hope. Let me illustrate this using current events. In the last week of April 2021, meteorologists predicted with accuracy and exactness the path, the intensity and the area of Tanzania in danger of the tropical cyclone Jobo in the Southwestern Indian Ocean. On Friday, 21st of May, eleven (11) army personnel, including the army chief of Nigeria, died in a plane crash at an airport in Kaduna, which was attributed to adverse weather conditions. On Saturday, 22nd of May 2021, at least twenty one (21) athletes died during a marathon race in China, due to bad weather. A day before, on Friday, the meteorological bureau had issued warnings for bad weather and sub-zero temperatures, rain, hail and sleet. At the end of May, farmers here in Kenya were up in arms demanding to be given an updated forecast, because of depressed rainfall in the long rains season. A few days ago this month, June 2021, temperature values of over 50C were predicted with accuracy over parts of the Middle East.

Thirdly, meteorology is relevant about the future. Climate change is not just a global buzzword, it was one of the three things given prominence by the G7 meeting that ended on Monday, 14 June 2021. The other two were the global health crisis (the Covid-19 pandemic) and the global economy.

Climate change is about climate, and climate is about meteorology. Climate change without climate information is just hearsay; climate change without climate data that supports it is mere speculation. Without climate science and climate models, climate change is like a football without air, like a meal without food, or like a song without melody. Climate change without meteorology is hollow; it is an absolute contradiction; it is an oxymoron.

What advances have we made in meteorological training since its inception? What challenges do we continue to encounter in training? What opportunities are spread out for us to exploit? What strides have we made in research in meteorology? What shortfalls do we still have to surmount? How do meteorological services affect our livelihoods and influence policy? What is the future of meteorology? These questions will be answered in the ongoing webinars.

Our overall theme for the webinars is: “The Science of Meteorology: Its Evolution and Centrality to Livelihoods, Socio-Economics, and Sustainable Development”. Under this overall theme we have two subthemes. The first subtheme is, “Advances in Meteorological Training and Research”. This is our focus in today’s webinar. The second subtheme is, “Climate Services and Applications”.

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