3 December 2012

Africa: Why WFP Has Recruited a Weather Forecaster

press release

For WFP, working in numerous places where the weather can be a challenge, having accurate information about the what to expect means staff can plan operations better. It can save time, money and even lives. That's why WFP has just recruited Emily Niebuhr, an expert in "extreme weather".

Emily Niebuhr is no stranger to the sort of harsh climates that WFP often finds itself working in. She's been working in Alaska, where she focused on something called 'high-wind events'.

"I ran the latest high-resolution models on mountain waves and gap flows in excess of 100mph to better understand them," she explains. "Our goal was protecting life, livelihoods and property, which is very close to WFP's humanitarian mission."

She is now bringing the scientific skills she acquired working for the National Weather Service in Anchorage to WFP's work fighting hunger around the world. In places such as Haiti and the Philippines, having the heads up about coming rain, wind and sunshine can be invaluable.

WFP's decision to hire a professional forecaster followed a pilot project focused on forecasting the weather for the Yida refugee camp in South Sudan, which suffers severe weather in the rainy season.

In Yida in South Sudan, the forecasts produced helped the humanitarian community to better plan construction work on crucial infrastructure, to use staff resources more effectively and to know the best time to bring in essential supplies. They were able to time airdrops when the refugee camp's more than 60,000 inhabitants were cut off by flooding due to an especially heavy rainy season.

The pilot project was developed as a partnership between the Early Warning, Analysis and Support Team in WFP's Emergency Preparedness and Response Branch (ODEP) and the UK-based European Centre for Medium Range Forecasting. ECMWF - an intergovernmental organization which uses super-computing and advanced methodology for forecasting - helped train WFP staff and gave WFP free access to its industry-leading technology and data.

This access, usually costing around $250,000 a year, is allowing the pilot project to be extended to other areas.

One area of focus will be refugee assistance areas in the Horn of Africa where weather conditions add to challenges with infrastructure and remoteness in keeping the food pipeline uninterrupted.

Emily is now working with the ECMWF data and technology to forecast high impact weather events worldwide - from tropical storms to local flash flooding. "When I was in Alaska, I covered from the most western Aleutian Islands near Russia to the Canadian border.

"Being used to such a large forecast region made it seem almost natural to extend my range to most of the world," says Emily, who studied atmospheric and ocean sciences to postgraduate level in Wisconsin in the USA, before moving on to high wind events in Alaska.

Although she says the substance of her work has not changed enormously in the move from Alaska to WFP HQ in Rome, she admits that out-of-office life is different. "In Alaska I used to dodge moose in the mornings: here it is 'motorini', the ubiquitous Italian motorcycles!"

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