Weather forecasts to save species

by Vicky Boult

Extreme weather events impact the lives and livelihoods of people all over the world, a story we hear more and more often as climate change increases the frequency and severity of weather events. But as climate change throws more challenges our way, so science rallies to address them.

Scientific advances in weather forecasting now mean many extreme weather events can be reliably anticipated. Forecasts therefore provide an early warning system, alerting individuals, organisations and governments to an approaching hazard. Early warnings allow for early action. For example, early warnings of flooding give at-risk communities time to evacuate, and early warnings of drought give farmers the opportunity to choose drought-tolerant seeds for planting. Early action means people are better prepared, so that when an extreme weather event hits, the impacts are less damaging.

Traditionally, humanitarian organisations would respond after an extreme weather event, launching an international appeal for funds to support relief efforts. However, major humanitarian actors have come to recognise the benefits of acting early, before an extreme weather event occurs. Better preparation through early action reduces the humanitarian burden, saving lives, infrastructure and livelihoods, whilst also sparing limited funds and resources (because impacts are reduced and there are cost-saving efficiencies in acting early).

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, the world’s largest humanitarian network, have called this movement Forecast-based Action. Forecast-based Action is recognised as one of the most important ways to minimise the impacts of climate change on human lives.  

Part of my role within the Department of Meteorology involves working with the Red Cross’ National Societies to develop Forecast-based Action protocols for drought across Africa. The aim is to identify forecasts which reliably anticipate drought and can therefore be used to trigger early actions and reduce drought impacts.

Personally, I find the Forecast-based Action movement incredibly exciting. Not only because Forecast-based Action has the potential to save lives and livelihoods, but also because I believe the Forecast-based Action concept can be applied to reduce the impacts of climate change elsewhere.

Before joining the Meteorology department in early 2019, my studies and research focused on ecology and conservation; during my PhD, I studied the influence of food availability on the movement and abundance of African elephants. Now with both my conservation and my meteorology hats on, I realise there is huge potential to adopt Forecast-based Action in conservation.

Just like people around the world, species too are increasingly at-risk of extreme weather. Drought can lead to food shortages for herbivores, cyclones can destroy precious coral reefs, and bush fires can burn through woodland habitats. Despite the obvious implications of extreme weather events for species survival, research in ecology and conservation has focused more on the gradual effects of climate change on species over much longer timeframes, and relatively little research has focused on the impacts of extreme weather. Whilst a long-term view has highlighted the threats posed by climate change for biodiversity, such warnings are not very actionable and, in the meantime, extreme weather events push species closer to extinction.

What might Forecast-based Action look like in conservation? Here’s one example.

Sea turtles lay their eggs on sandy beaches around the world. Nest temperatures below the sand are important for hatching success; if temperatures get too hot, the developing turtles inside the eggs die. So, if a weather forecasts indicates very high temperatures are expected at a turtle nesting beach, conservationists can take early action to prevent losses. One option is to install temporary structures over nests to provide shade and prevent overheating. Alternatively, nests can be excavated, and eggs artificially incubated at safe temperatures. In this way, forecasts can help to improve turtle hatching success and contribute to the conservation of the species.

Image: Forecast-based Action to improve hatching success in sea turtles. Cartoon adapted from International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies media.

Realising Forecast-based Action in conservation will require overcoming several challenges, including deciding when to act on forecasts (even the best forecasts can be wrong) and how to fund early action. But these challenges have already been addressed in the humanitarian sector, and conservation should use lessons learnt there for guidance.

As climate change demands increasing intervention from conservationists to prevent species extinction, I hope that advances in weather forecasting developed in meteorology and innovation in practice established in the humanitarian sector, might inspire and guide more anticipatory action in conservation.

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