Zimbabwe Disaster Miss Adds Priority To Ministers of Meteorology Meeting

Victoria Falls one of the Seven Wonders of the World

By Patrick Luganda
Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe

A brief insignificant meteorological event on Sunday almost caused disaster at Victoria Falls International Airport in Zimbabwe. Thanks to the rapid reaction of the quick witted South African Airways pilot, Flight SA40 licked the tarmac with the hind tires, and thendramatically picked speed to become airborne just short of the end of the runway.

Aboard the SAA Airbus 319 100 liner, were some of Africa’s leading climate scientists and yours truly. The intercom crackled to life as the plane hastily ascended in a sharp nose rise towards the heavens.

“This is your captain speaking, please stay calm. We hit an upward draft. We abandoned landing for your safety and comfort. The situation is now under control. We will shortly attempt a second landing,” the captain expertly soothed the passengers who sighed in relief.

The second attempt was a seamless landing. The passengers grinned as they disembarked. They chattered as they separated ways. Disaster narrowly missed adding another statistic to its vast arsenal.

“It does not have to be a huge weather event to cause disaster. That is why observation of the weather is reported every thirty minutes to the central meteorological center for analysis and interpretation, so as to advise pilots correctly,” explained a meteorologist on board.

Experts later explained that updraft and downdraft, in meteorology, refer to upward-moving and downward-moving air currents, respectively, that are due to several causes. To summarize the story: adraft is a small gusty air current that moves upward or downward abruptly; hence the terms updraft and downdraft.

“The sharp changes in wind direction associated with drafts near the ground are a threat to aircraft during landing and takeoff,” said Dr. AugustineKanemba, a climate specialistfrom Tanzania.

Flight SA40 from O.R. Tambo International Airport Johannesburg to Victoria Falls, survived the threat.Predicting or forecasting, then interpreting to the world in advance of the type, intensity and occurrence of weather or climate events worldwide is what earns meteorologists their bread and butter.

But why were so many top meteorologists and leading climate experts on the same place, headed for the same destination? Rewind the clock…In April 2010, the First Conference of Ministers Responsible for Meteorology in Africa took place in Nairobi. During the meeting, the African Ministerial Conference on Meteorology-AMCOMET- was established as a high level mechanism for the development of meteorology and its applications in Africa. The declaration also requested that AMCOMET meets regularly at least every two years.

There is common global agreement that application of meteorological information has far reaching benefits besides air safety. Robert Masters of the World Meteorological Organization summarily enumerates why all the knowledgeable scientists from Africa and beyond are descending on this vast, magnificent expanse of wilderness gifted by Mother Nature.

The Second Conference of ministers taking place at Victoria Falls is a tripartite partnership between the Africa Union Commission, the World Meteorological Organization and the Government of Zimbabwe. The ministers start jetting in mid-week.

Masters speaking at a WMO supported meeting in Brazzaville in September said it was imperative for understanding the effect of weather and climate globally and to apply it locally. Information from satellite observing systems widely available in Africa, can be downloaded, interpreted and used at the local level. However, most African meteorological services lack the capacity to apply the information.

“Although basic measures to utilize the information have been made, over 60% of the countries cannot produce sophisticated outputs to address the challenges faced by their countries,” explains Masters.
The contribution of Africa to the global climate observation system was lacking with hundreds of meteorological stations in many countries silent as opposed to almost 100% operational stations in the northern hemisphere. The silent stations produce lots of holes in global climate information production, making it urgent to put in place concerted efforts to seal the shortfall.

He further explained it was important for climate information to get to decision makers, such as heads of state, ministers and members of parliament. A large number of partners were required to enable the ability to apply data to a wide variety of practical users. Agriculture, water, health and disaster reduction were priority areas for this information to be used for decision making across wide time scales.

Masters further explains that other areas of priority include helping individual countries in Africa to develop and build meteorological services. Much of the efforts to do this can be carried out with WMO serving as a catalyst to turn pilot initiatives into operational projects.

Steven Njoroge, with the AMCOMET secretariat explains that the African Ministers Conference on Meteorology called for an Africa Strategy for weather and climate services improvement.

“An action plan has been developed and will be presented to ministers. The ministers will among other issues discuss the status of implementation of the 1st ministerial conference declaration,” explained Steven Njoroge.

Robert Masters concludes that the role of National Hydrological and Meteorological Services (NHMS)is to create a balance between science and community needs for decision making. He also notes that climate change is politically charged yet climate services are politically neutral but politically important.

As the elephants and other wildlife around Victoria Falls spur up dust as they trek to the watering points this Monday morning, climate experts begin their three day sojourn to advise the ministers on the future of meteorology for the good of Africa. Ends

Attribution: The Africa Climate Communication Institute