The Numerical Weather Prediction and Geographic Information System Training Workshop for SADC

The Numerical Weather Prediction and Geographic Information System Training Workshop for SADC

Plotting its way to leave weather and climate forecasting “suitcase science” behind, the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region is improving its high-performance computing (HPC), numerical weather prediction (NWP), and geographic information system (GIS) infrastructure and expertise.

HPC is an ultramodern technology which provides sufficient computational resources used to improve the accuracy of short-term weather forecast systems models, all in a bid to mitigate the severity of weather and climate related natural disasters. 

Weather and climate scientists from Botswana, Ethiopia, Kenya, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe gathered at the National Research Foundation (NRF) from 21 to 25 November for a training workshop on HPC, NWP and GIS. The delegates were scientists from the National Meteorological and Hydrological Services; higher education institutions; hosts of HPC systems; and other custodians of environmental datasets.

The organising partners were the South African Environmental Observation Network (NRF-SAEON); the Accelerating Impacts of CGIAR Climate Research for Africa in Eastern and Southern Africa (AICCRA-ESA); the South African National Integrated Cyber-Infrastructure Systems’ Centre for High Performance Computing (CHPC); the African Climate Policy Centre (ACPC) of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA); the South African Weather Service (SAWS); the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) – Regional Office for Africa; and the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI).

Trainers at the workshop focused on HPC concepts and NWP with a focus on weather research and forecasting (WRF) models, QGIS and the grid analysis and display systems (GrADS) geared to improve forecasting and the analysis of meteorological and earth observations datasets.

Bishen Singh, the Group Executive: Finance and Business Systems and Chief Financial Officer of the NRF, told the delegates in the workshop’s opening address that they were gathering at an opportune time. “This workshop occurs at a very critical point in time when the world has suddenly stepped up and taken note of the impact of climate change. You found a flurry of world leaders gathering to fast-track efforts in decarbonisation, renewables, policy imperatives to move to lower carbon economies and sustainability efforts,” Singh said. 

“This workshop, in essence, is well aligned to contribute to these initiatives as well as to the mandate of the NRF, as defined in our Act 23 of 1998 as amended, which includes the support, promotion and advancement of research and human capacity development to facilitate the creation of knowledge, innovation and development in all fields of science and technology.”

Dr Happy Sithole, Centre Manager at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research’s National Integrated Cyberinfrastructure Initiative (NICIS), told the delegates southern Africa’s recent and ongoing developments around HPC facilities indicated the region has entered a new era on weather and climate forecasting. “NICIS is home to the Centre for High Performance Computing (CHPC), which is widely credited for increased research in weather and climate modelling in South Africa,” Dr Sithole said. “Its construction, which kicked off in 2007, was the beginning of the end of so called “suitcase science”.

He described this concept as the reliance on overseas countries for research to improve weather forecasting and other HPC reliant sciences. “Prior to the building of the CHPC, we were doing what we call “suitcase science”, because for you to have access to scientific resources, you had to pack your suitcase and either go to Europe or the US or Asia. You all know that those countries, with their resources, have their mandate. It means that the priorities of those countries are directed to the mandates of their countries,” said Dr Sithole.  “In that, it was obvious that whatever that we planned to do, as African countries, was always going to remain behind. Hence, we put this to our government that we would like to have these facilities n the continent.”

Thanks to the SADC Cyber Infrastructure Framework, HPC centres are being rolled out across the region, Dr Sithole added. “One of the key sellers in the SADC Cyber Infrastructure Framework is that we will have to harmonise how we deal with climate issues in the region. The challenges that we see on climate broadly require collaboration,” he said.

The HPC infrastructure projects were now completed in many SADC countries, Dr Sithole added. “We’re left with only five countries. Already this year we’re working with Eswatini where we deploying a system. We’ve done the groundwork and established the data centre. We’re confident that before the end of this year, Eswatini will be having their own HPC systems. By the end of this year, we expect that we will be left with three countries.”

Dr Jonas Mphepya, Weather a Climate Services Executive at South African Weather Service, said the importance of HPC and its optimal use for accurate weather forecasts cannot be understated. “The computing capabilities of HPCs drive weather predictions. The HPC is the engine. It’s like a car, you can’t get further without that engine.

“This training also is timely in a sense that in September there was a SADC Ministerial meeting where the SADC ministers responsible for the weather service met in Mozambique under the auspices of the AU. What they were there for was a call that came from the secretary general of the UN that in the next five years all countries must have access to an early warning system.”

Dr Mary-Jane Bopape, Managing Director at NRF-SAEON, pointed out that the region was prone to severe weather events. “We’ve got a lot of floods, damage to property, loss of life and injuries that happen because of these events. This is for people who might still need to be convinced that we need early warning systems.”

Dr Bopape stressed that the region needs to get the utmost from its HPC facilities to make up for investments that are lower than those of Europe. This necessitated initiatives such as the training workshop. She said, “The European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF), for example, made an announcement around 2020 that it will be investing around €800 million in their HPC system, while the UK announced that it will be spending about £1.2 billion on its HPC system in the next few years. Those are not the type of investments that we can make on the continent. But there are some contributions that we can make in modelling in general.”

Closing the workshop, AICCRA’s Dr Yosef Amha urged the delegates to impart the knowledge garnered at the workshop to colleagues and students at their institutions. “As you know, training has not ended here. Try to address more people when you go back home to share all that you acquired here from your colleagues.”

Also delivering a closing address, Dr Bopape urged the scientists to demonstrate to their governments and funders that the climate research field needs more investments. “As you go home and start to write research proposals to get more resources to do your work, mention this and make it very clear to the funders or to the governments that we need more investment.”

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