Africa in mind: building scientific and social bridges to a continent
At a 2005 meeting of the UCAR Board of Trustees in Boulder, Shirley Malcom watched UCAR president Richard Anthes outline the organization’s international reach. Anthes showed a map depicting the countries where NCAR and UOP maintain collaborations, carry out research, or provide support services. One continent came up notably short: Africa.
“This was only a couple of months after Hurricane Katrina,” says UCAR trustee Malcom, who oversees education and human resources at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. “I said, Wait a minute. How can we say that we’re studying global climate systems when there’s so little UCAR presence in Africa?” Malcom’s query served as the catalyst for the UCAR-AAAS Africa Initiative, which is now fostering a wide range of activities.
Coordinated by UCAR’s Rajul Pandya, the initiative’s guiding principle is to integrate research and education while building the capacity for locally based research, with African rather than American institutions setting the agenda. The emphasis is on leveraging and coordinating projects that already exist, instead of trying to launch entirely new efforts. When Pandya and his colleagues started out, “we found there was already a surprisingly large amount of NCAR and UOP activity involving Africa, but many of the participants were not aware of each other’s work.”
In one of the initiative’s first successes, two radars in Burkina Faso and one in Mali—all installed to support weather modification efforts—can now measure winds as well as precipitation, thanks to low-cost, easy-to-use digital processors installed in 2006 through a subcontract with NCAR. The upgrades were completed in time for the African Monsoon Multidisciplinary Analyses (AMMA), a large international study of wet-season weather and climate across the Sahel and nearby areas.
Weather guidance for a region at risk
Benjamin Lamptey, an NCAR postdoctoral researcher from Ghana, has been working with NCAR’s Thomas Warner and colleagues to adapt the multi-institutional Weather Research and Forecasting model (WRF) for use in West Africa. It’s a region where huge variations in rainfall across space and time can yield either bounty or disaster. “People want to know when there will be a dry spell or wet spell, even during the rainy season,” says Lamptey. Also important to residents are bouts of haze and dust produced during the harmattan, a winter wind that can affect aviation as well as air quality.
From the beginning of his NCAR days, Lamptey dreamed of creating an Africa-friendly version of WRF, but as he puts it, “that was just a postdoc talking.” Support from the Africa Initiative soon made Lamptey’s dream feasible. The real-time African version of WRF debuted on the Internet in 2006 and was running 24/7 by early 2007. Up till then, the best operational models for sub-Saharan Africa featured top resolutions of around 13.5 kilometers (8.4 miles). WRF can match that for West Africa and zoom in to a grid as fine as 4.5 km (2.8 mi) in the vicinity of Ghana.
After completing his postdoctoral work, Lamptey expects to return to the Ghana Meteorological Agency in Accra, where he worked before entering graduate school. Lamptey also intends to collaborate with professors in Ghana to help establish a full-fledged program in atmospheric science. “I want to carry out research and maintain the links I’ve built here at NCAR,” he says.
Affordable avenues to research and education
Sherri Heck is another key player in the Africa Initiative. This graduate student from the University of Colorado at Boulder is analyzing regional fluxes of carbon dioxide, a critical part of the global climate puzzle. By working with local schools in poorly served areas of Kenya, Heck hopes to entrain students in gathering data that could prove vital to climate research.
A boon for Heck’s research is the Autonomous Inexpensive Robust CO2 Analyzer (AIRCOA), a new tool developed by NCAR’s Britton Stephens and colleagues. Standard CO2 samplers can cost upwards of $40,000, but each AIRCOA unit runs less than $10,000. The device gathers and relays CO2 readings every 2.5 minutes, and it can be run without human intervention for months at a time. All these qualities make the device nearly ideal for deployment in Africa, where both funding and staffing for long-term measurement campaigns can be a challenge.
At a Sahel conference cosponsored by UCAR in the spring of 2007, Heck met several African scientists eager to help her find a suitable location for an AIRCOA unit. Later in 2007 she teamed with the Kenya Meteorological Office to place the instrument atop Mount Kenya as part of a global CO2 monitoring network. The office has also been working with Heck to set up collaborations with the University of Nairobi and with an elementary or secondary school in the area.
“I’ve struggled almost my whole life to combine my love of science with my love of helping people,” says Heck. “This is my attempt to marry the two.”
Sampling the globe, one school at a time
One UOP activity has years of experience in Africa to build on. The GLOBE Program (Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment) entrains more than 10,000 K-12 students in more than 100 nations who take regular environmental readings at their home schools. Founded in 1994, GLOBE has been managed by UCAR and Colorado State University since 2003, with support from NASA, NSF, and the U.S. Department of State.
In Madagascar, GLOBE students are connecting the dots between insects and illness. They’re measuring variables such as temperature and rainfall and correlating them with the appearance of various types of mosquitoes, looking for shifts in the location and timing of increased malaria risk. These and similar projects elsewhere around the world are guided by teaching protocols developed and refined by local and regional experts with input from GLOBE staff, including chief scientist Margaret LeMone (NCAR). According to director Edward Geary, “We provide the basic infrastructure that makes GLOBE happen, and the regions run with it.”
GLOBE’s first major African meeting is set for June 2008, with as many as 500 students, teachers, and scientists from around the world expected to gather in Cape Town, South Africa, for a weeklong “learning expedition.” Most of the attendees will be middle and high school students chosen by national coordinators to present their scientific work while learning about other cultures, all under the theme of research for sustainable communities.
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