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Predicting fire, flood, and food shortages

In lands ‘of droughts and flooding rains,’ predicting the weather means saving both lives and livelihoods.

The work of Indonesian and Australian scientists, which began with a visit to Jakarta in 1981 by climate scientist Professor Neville Nicholls, has given the countries the ability to forecast rain in the dry season, and during the lead up to the wet season. This means the fires, haze, and food shortages that often go hand in hand with droughts can be predicted—and planned for.

During the initial four-month trip, funded by the United Nations Development Programme, Neville met with colleagues from Badan Meteorologi, the Indonesian Bureau of Meteorology. They worked to investigate how the El Niño–Southern Oscillation was related to Indonesian rainfall, leading to methods for predicting seasonal rainfall variations. This cyclic weather pattern brings droughts and floods to Australia, Indonesia, and other nearby countries.

Knowing how much rain is likely to be on the way can be particularly invaluable in areas of big population growth—for example when fires are used during Indonesia’s dry season to clear land ahead of crop planting, the beginning of the monsoonal rains can be used to help extinguish or keep them under control. And with reports of increased extreme fire weather and a longer fire seasons across many areas of Australia, earlier warnings for potential bushfires are relied upon by many.

“The El Niño–Southern Oscillation has been causing droughts, fires and haze in Indonesia for hundreds of years,” says Neville, previously of the Australian Bureau of Meteorology and now of Monash University.

“Now, with modern methods of monitoring the phenomenon, we can predict its behaviour, months in advance, allowing effective action to reduce the worst impacts.”