The Trans African Hydro and Meteorological Observatory (TAHMO) project expects to put 20,000 microenvironment monitors over Africa in order to understand the weather patterns which affect that continent, its water, and its agriculture. In the conclusion of our 3 part series, we interview Dr. John Selker about his thoughts on the project.
In your TEDx talk you estimate that US weather stations directly bring U.S. consumers 31 billion dollars in value per year. Can Africa see that same kind of return?
Even more. The economics of weather data value may be going up because we’re reaching a cusp in terms of humanity’s consumption of food. Africa, one could argue, is the breadbasket for this coming century. Thus, the value of information about where we could grow what food could be astronomical. It’s very difficult to estimate. One application of weather data is crop insurance. Right now, crop insurance is taking off across Africa. The company we’re working with has 180,000 clients just in Kenya. When we talked about 31 billion dollars in the U.S., that is the value citizens report, but you need to add to that protection against floods, increased food production, water supply management, crop insurance and a myriad of other basic uses for weather data. In Africa, the value of this type of protection alone pays for over 1,000 times the cost of the weather stations.
Another application for weather data is that in Africa, the valuation of land itself is uncertain. So if, because of weather station data, we find that a particular microclimate is highly valuable, suddenly land goes from having essentially no value to becoming worth thousands of dollars per acre. It’s really difficult to estimate the impact the data will have, but it could very well end up being worth trillions of dollars. We have seen this pattern take place in central Chile, where land went from about $200/hectare in 1998 to over $3,000/ha now due to the understanding that it was exceptionally suited to growing pine trees, which represented a change in land value exceeding $3 billion.
Does the effect of these weather stations go beyond Africa?
There’s limited water falling on the earth, and if you can’t use weather data to invest in the right seeds, the right fertilizer, and plant at the right time in the right place, you’re not getting the benefit you should from having tilled the soil. So for Africa the opportunity to improve yields with these new data is phenomenal.
In terms of the world, the global market for calories is now here, so if we can generate more food production in Africa, that’s going to affect the price and availability of food around the world. The world is one food community at this point, so an entire continent having inefficient production and ineffective structures costs us all.
You’re collecting data from Africa. Is it time to celebrate yet?
I think this is going to be one of those projects where we are always chilling the champagne and never quite drinking it. It is such a huge scope trying to work across a continent. So I would say we’ve got some stations all over Africa, we’re learning a lot, and we’ve got collaborators who are excited. We have reason to feel optimistic. It will be another five years before I’ll believe that we have a datastream that is monumental. Right now we’re still getting the groundwork taken care of. By September of this year we expect to have five hundred of stations in place, and then two years from now, over two thousand. This will be a level of observation that will transform the understanding of African weather and climate.
How do you deal with the long wait for results?
In science there is that sense you get when you want to know something, and you can see how to get there. You have a theory, and you want to prove it. It kind of captures your imagination. It’s a combination of curiosity and the potential to actually see something happen in the world: to go from a place where you didn’t know what was going on to a place where you do know what’s going on. I think about Linus Pauling, who made the early discoveries about the double helix. He had in his pocket the X-ray crystallography data to show that the protein of life was in helical form, and he said, “In my pocket, I have what’s going to change the world.” When we realized the feasibility of TAHMO, we felt much the same way.”
Sometimes in your mind, you can see that path: how you might change the world. It may never be as dramatic as what Pauling did, but even a small contribution has that same excitement of wanting to be someone who added to the conversation, who added to our ability to live more gracefully in the world. It’s that feeling that carries you along, because in most of these projects you have an idea, and then ten years later you say, “why was it that hard?”
Things are usually much harder than your original conception, and that energy and curiosity really helps you through some of the low points in your projects. So, curiosity has a huge influence on scientific progress. Changing the world is always difficult, but the excitement, curiosity, and working with people, it all fits together to help us draw through the tough slogs. In TAHMO, I cannot count the number of people who have urged us to keep the effort moving forward and given a lift just when we needed it most. This is a project of hundreds of people across the world putting their hands and hearts in to make this possible. Having these TAHMO supporters is an awesome responsibility and concrete proof of the generosity and optimism of the human spirit.
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