Weather data, used for flight safety, disaster relief, crop and property insurance, and emergency services, contributes over $30 billion in direct value to U.S. consumers annually. Since the 1990’s in Africa, however, there’s been a consistent decline in the availability of weather observations. Most weather stations are costly and require highly trained individuals to maintain. As a result, weather stations in African countries have steadily declined over the last seventy years. Oregon State University’s, Dr. John Selker and his partners intend to remedy the problem through his latest endeavor— the Trans African Hydro Meteorological Observatory (TAHMO).
Origins of TAHMO
TAHMO is a research-based organization that aims to deploy 20,000 weather stations across the continent of Africa in order to fill a hole that exists in global climate data. TAHMO originated from a conversation between Selker and Dr. Nick van de Giesen from Delft University of Technology while doing research in Ghana. Having completed an elaborate study on canopy interception at a cocoa plantation in 2006, they hit a “data wall.” There was virtually no weather data available in Ghana, a problem shared by most African countries. This opened the door to what would later become TAHMO.
Logistics and Equipment
Originally Selker and van de Geisen set out to make a $100 weather station, which Selker admitted, “turned out to be harder than we thought.” Not only was making a widely-deployable, affordable, research-grade, no-moving-parts weather station difficult, but additional challenges presented themselves.
“The model of how we might measure the weather in Africa, the whole business model, the production model, infrastructure support, the database and delivery system, the agreements with the countries, agreements with potential data-buyers, that all took us a long time to sort out.” Despite these challenges, in 2010 it started to look feasible. “That’s when we really started to figure out what the technology we were going to use was going to look like.”
After giving a lecture at Washington State University, Selker spoke with Dr. Gaylon Campbell about the project, which led to a long development-deployment-development cycle. Eventually, the final product emerged as a low-maintenance, no-moving-parts, cellular-enabled, solar-powered weather station.
Agricultural Benefits of Weather Stations
Crop insurance, a service that is widely used in developed countries, relies on weather data. Once historical data exists, insurance rates can be set, and farmers can purchase crop insurance to replace a crop that is lost to drought, weather, wildfire, etc. On a continent with the largest percentage of the total population subsistence farming, this empowers farmers to take larger risks. Without insurance, farmers need to conserve seed, saving enough to eat and plant again if a crop fails. With crop insurance, crop loss is not as devastating, and farmers can produce larger yields without worrying about losing everything. Hypothetically, this would lead to more food available to the global market, stabilizing food prices year over year.
Crop insurance aside, weather data provide growers with information like when to plant, when not to plant, what crops to plant, and when and if to treat for disease. For rainfed crops, this can mean the difference between a successful yield and a failure.
“Currently in most African countries, the production per acre is about one-sixth of that in the United States. That is the biggest opportunity, in my opinion, for sustainable growth without having to open up new tracts of land. The land is already under cultivation, but we can up productivity, probably by a factor of four, by giving information about when to plant,” Selker comments.
Despite the social benefits, Selker makes it clear that the TAHMO effort is based on mutual benefit: “We are here for a reason, we want these data to advance our research on global climate processes. This is a global win-win partnership.”
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Next week: Read about some of the challenges facing TAHMO