News Archive

posted 02/14/02

IRI Climate Scientists Work to Help East African Farmers Cope
By John Dorfman

Columbia University scientists are predicting a return to normal rain levels this spring for the drought-stricken Horn of Africa. Representatives of Columbia’s International Research Institute for Climate Prediction (IRI) will be presenting their forecasts at the annual Climate Outlook Forum in Eldoret, Kenya, which will take place from February 18-22, 2002.

At this meeting, climatologists from East Africa and around the world will compare and combine their various forecasts for the region to create a unified consensus forecast. The biannual forum will be hosted by the Drought Monitoring Center, a regional nonprofit institution, based in Nairobi, which interacts with all 10 countries in the Greater Horn of Africa.

From 1998 to 2000, East Africa suffered from severe drought, which caused crop failures and shortages of drinking water and electric power. Since then, the drought has been lessening, and IRI’s prediction indicates that the 2002 long rainy season, which lasts from March to May, will finally bring normal amounts of rain to the region. In Tanzania and southern Kenya, rainfall is expected to actually be above normal.

During their trip to Kenya, IRI researchers will also present the results of a study of Kenya’s Machakos District to agricultural and village leaders, and get feedback from them. The study surveyed local farmers and agricultural authorities to find out how they interpret and use climate predictions. As Jennifer Phillips, an agricultural systems researcher with IRI who will be traveling to Kenya this month, says: "To our surprise, we found that more than 80% of the survey participants hear the forecasts and know about them, but don’t quite know how to use them in their farm management. We need to help farmers use this information in a way that will help them."

IRI’s predictions are made with a method known as numerical modeling, which uses superfast computers and is based on the physics of heat transfer. IRI’s approach to climate prediction is based on knowledge of ocean temperatures. The usefulness of this method to agriculture was first realized in the early 1990s, when Mark Cane, a Columbia climatologist, observed that a graph of the ups and downs of maize production in Zimbabwe was the inverse of a graph of the sea-surface temperature of the Pacific Ocean.

Over the past 25 years, climatologists have come to understand how El Niño, a periodic warming of the Pacific Ocean’s surface around the equator, has a profound impact on weather worldwide. "Discoveries about El Niño were what really helped us to get where we are," says Dr. Phillips. "The ocean is a big, slow-moving fluid that controls the atmosphere, which is fast-moving. Our forecasting ability is pegged to an understanding of oceans." Numerical modeling can forecast climate three months in advance. By using this modeling method on East Africa, IRI provides local climatologists with access to information that, because of the lack of advanced computers and sufficient manpower, they would not otherwise have.

Despite the state-of-the-art technology behind climate forecasts, Dr. Phillips says that she and her colleagues ask farmers about traditional methods of climate prediction. "There’s always someone saying, "My shaman does it better," says Dr. Phillips. "The Western scientific community has something to learn from traditional prediction methods. There’s a whole trust issue at the community level, so it’s useful for us to understand how people get information, what they value, what they trust. The way people utilize their ability to see into the future tends to be pretty fatalistic, so we need to help them feel they have more control and that they can influence the outcome of a weather event. Bad weather doesn’t automatically mean they will have a bad year." If communities know what weather is coming, she explains, they can react by taking measures such as using different kinds of seed, putting in wells, and providing more mosquito nets to fight malaria.

Dr. Phillips’s specialty is working directly with local farmers and farm managers in order to understand how they interact with climate information and how best to communicate prediction information to them. In pursuit of these goals, she has traveled extensively in southern and eastern Africa. Speaking through interpreters and working with local partners, Dr. Phillips conducts household surveys, asking people who live on the land how yearly climate variations affect their food production and their lives. These surveys help the climate community to refine its research and to provide products that better respond to the needs of local communities. IRI’s involvement in the Machakos project was funded by the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). "This idea of mitigation is new for the Office," says Dr. Phillips. The purpose of mitigation, she explained, is "to decrease the impact of a disaster instead of just mopping up after it."

Founded in 1996, the International Research Institute for Climate Prediction aims to improve quality of life and environmental sustainability through the use of climate prediction science. From climate forecasting and modeling to fishery management, IRI researchers focus on where climate information and public policy intersect. By collaborating with societies to make climate a routine part of regional planning and decision-making, the IRI enables communities to better manage the challenges posed by climate fluctuation. For more information, visit


About The Earth Institute
The Earth Institute at Columbia University is the world's leading academic center for the integrated study of Earth, its environment and society. The Earth Institute builds upon excellence in the core disciplines — earth sciences, biological sciences, engineering sciences, social sciences and health sciences — and stresses cross-disciplinary approaches to complex problems. Through research, training and global partnerships, it mobilizes science and technology to advance sustainable development, while placing special emphasis on the needs of the world's poor. For more information, visit