New tool to make latest climate science accessible to Vanuatu

New tool to make latest climate science accessible to Pacific governments

Imagine you were in charge of constructing roads and bridges for a string of Pacific islands. Shipping materials and personnel across seas can be challenging and costly, so you would likely want your developments to last years, even decades, into the future.

As a result, you may decide – as civil engineers in weather-hardy Pacific archipelagos often do – to use existing data around rainfall and weather patterns to plan your towns, ideally ensuring your infrastructure can withstand the maximum rainfall and harshest storms the country has ever faced.

Usually, such an approach works well. Prepare for the worst conditions ever seen, and you should surely build sustainable and resilient cities. But, as warming global temperatures buck existing weather predictions, Pacific engineers on the frontlines of climate change are struggling to adapt and prepare. 

That includes planners in Vanuatu, who have found their roads, buildings and towns have been unable to bear rapidly rising sea levels, more frequent storms and devastating floods in recent years.

Person stands in front of vanuatu flag and banner with national development goals
Raviky Talae.

“During these extreme weather events, there’s a lot of waste coming in which destroys most of the coasts and a lot of infrastructure,” says Raviky Talae, the infrastructure sector coordinator at Vanuatu’s Public Works Department.

“The pavements are not strong enough to withstand the amount of water that has been flowing along the roads.”

Last year, three intense cyclones pummelled Vanuatu, including the Pacific region’s earliest ever category 5 storm, Cyclone Lola, which brought devastation to its northern and central islands last October. Climate scientists predict the frequency and intensity of these extreme weather events will continue to rise in the Pacific, straining countries’ public services.

“It’s scary, but it is what it is. We can’t run away from it,” Talae says.

Faced with such a predicament, a new platform aims to arm Pacific authorities with effective, science-based climate predictions to help them prepare to meet the climate fight.

Dirt road in tropics with potholes
A road in Vanuatu. Credit: Ellian Bangtor, Van Kirap

The Vanuatu Climate Futures Portal, launched in November as part of Vanuatu’s Van-KIRAP project, is a web-based tool that provides a snapshot of how the country’s climate may be 30 years, 50 years, or almost a century into the future. It presents users with an interactive map of Vanuatu, with predicted precipitation, and minimum and maximum temperatures listed for each location. These predictions change depending on the years and geographical area users select, giving government workers like Talae a peek into what Vanuatu’s islands might look like decades into the future.

The Portal tries to translate the dense climate modelling often stored within the pages of IPCC reports and scientific journals, into more practical, accessible information policymakers can visualise and use, says Geoff Gooley from Australia’s research agency CSIRO, who helped develop the website.

“The science of climate change, which is based in large part on projections of future climate, using model output, is quite complex and technically challenging,” Gooley says.

“The idea of the project was to turn the science into these more user-friendly services.”

Person walks through village with bucket of water
Credit; Gina Ishmael / Van-Kirap

The Portal’s modelling is built on varied datasets, including current and historical data drawn from satellites and weather stations. These predictions aren’t as precise as the week’s weather forecasts, of course – Gooley explains that since the timescales are so large, “there’s always uncertainty inherent in the models”. But he says they do provide valuable information to decision-makers in Vanuatu.

“We use global climate models to simulate the current and future climate, and then we can run these simulations over longer timescales to project what the range of potential climate futures might look like,” he said.

“We’re not saying this is what the future is going to be. We’re saying the future climate could range from this to this depending on which model you use, and what confidence we have in those models.”

The Portal’s mapping is also contingent on how humanity responds to the climate crisis in the coming years. Two different scenarios play out in its projections: one for “high emissions” and one for “low emissions”. They each represent different outlooks depending on whether or not world leaders stick to the proposed Paris climate targets to keep global temperatures no more than 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels. 

Unsurprisingly, Vanuatu’s future, if we take the “high emissions” path, presents many challenges. Under this worst-case scenario, the portal shows that by 2070 average temperatures could rise by more than 2°C, and most areas could see a rise in heavy rains and extreme temperatures.  

Such a worst-case scenario could lead to significant challenges not just for roads and infrastructure, but for businesses, agriculture, and food security across the country. 

Person with root vegetable pulled out of the ground
Root crops. Credit: Gina-Ishmael / Van-Kirap

Sunny Kamuta Seuseu from SPREP, an intergovernmental body that partnered with CSIRO and Vanuatu’s government to deliver the portal, says the dire predictions show that country leaders need to be aware of and prepare for the coming decades.

“We’re trying to transform the systems, transform how policy is adjusted [so that] climate change information in the long term will be available to people right now,” Seuseu says.

“They can put the plans and policies in place to make sure that whatever they’re building now, it will last into the future.”

That means ensuring it’s not just city planners who hold this information. Eventually the team wants to take the Climate Futures Portal to communities around the country, to ensure village chiefs, local fishermen and farmers can benefit from learning about how their landscapes and environments will change with the climate.

“Remote communities still rely on traditional knowledge to manage the climate risks and hazards that they face on a day-to-day basis,” Seuseu explains.

“But the limitation of that is that there is no traditional knowledge on long term, climate change timescales. So, this is where the portal really complements that knowledge.”

Person standing near ocean
Fishery work. Credit: Gina Ishmael / Van-Kirap

However, with the potential for climate change to have deep and pervasive impacts on Pacific islands, it’s difficult to know exactly how the information provided by the Climate Futures Portal will be put to best use. Governments don’t tend to make plans decades into the future, and adequately planning for a potential climate catastrophe is near impossible – particularly for cash-strapped Pacific governments who can struggle to even serve their communities’ most immediate needs.

For Seuseu, it’s less about making massive changes to the country’s policies or economy, but rather ensuring climate information is used in everyday planning. He takes the example of a tourism operator to showcase his point.

“If they’re putting in a million-dollar resort or development, they need to understand what are the calculated risks for putting that investment in that area,” Seuseu explains.

“[Questions like] whether it should be closer to the sea or closer to the river, the climate change portal that we have developed allows them to inform that decision.”

Some of that work is already happening. Back in Vanuatu’s public works department, Talae’s team has used the Portal to create a new Road Designs Guide, which incorporates the rainfall projections to make more robust suggestions on where and how to build the nation’s roads. As they are not climate scientists, he says some of this information is “quite new” and unexpected. But he already sees it having a positive impact on his work.

“All the information is out there but it’s up to us now on how we are planning to use them,” Talae says.

“That will determine how resilient we become.”

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