The Inexact Science and Niue Met Service
The year was 1996. It was a time when the then government had become fully engaged with the region by becoming a member of various regional bodies. Niue had been, for a long time, a member of the old South Pacific Commission – now Pacific Community – the Pacific Forum, the University of the South Pacific and others. It was also a time when the world was being alerted to new threats of pollution, terrorism, climate change among others. While the debate raged amongst the experts, self-appointed or otherwise, some unknown public servant decided that it might be useful to pay more attention to the weather. It was a notion that was supported by the then Niue Cabinet.
And so the decision was made to set up another agency of government – the Niue Met Service. Critics at the time said that this was nothing more than someone’s empire building ego trip and was at odds with the general policy of reducing the size of the public service. That argument however was not going to deter the government. Soon the new office was set up and its small staff knuckled down to their daily task of collecting data and keeping an eye on the weather. From time to time the usual questions were raised in the Niue Assembly over the role of the office, the number of overseas trips undertaken, the growing number of the staff, the cost of running the service and so on.
Then in January 2004 the Niue Met Service was propelled to prominence when the most destructive cyclone in living memory, Cyclone Heta, unleashed its fury on the small island. In the aftermath of the trail of destruction left by Heta the role of Niue Met came under scrutiny and for the first time the community had some understanding of the work they were doing.
Twenty-four years has passed since the office opened its doors. Its first director Sionetasi Pulehetoa has now retired. Sixteen years has also passed since Cyclone Heta, a storm that has not only become part of our history but also firmly etched on the face of Nukututaha for eternity.
And the Niue Met Service has also moved on. For one thing, the role has become better defined. There’s a new director at the helm now, Rosie Pulehetoa Misiepo. And yes, if the name seems familiar, she is the daughter of the first director. There are now a total of 10 staff members with one undertaking university studies overseas. Despite the fact that Niue Met has become an accepted part of the public service, not a great deal is known about their role and purpose. It appears that the extent of that lack of knowledge is not confined only to the ill-informed posters on social media but include some of the island’s leading citizens.
In a general, most people would associate the Met Office with the daily weather report that is broadcast on the national radio. In the event of a tropical depression or a cyclone, they are the people that we rely on to track the storm and release regular reports.
For a better understanding of the role of Niue Met we turn to the director Rosie Misiepo.
“Niue Met’s main role is to provide credible and timely information regarding the weather. In the event of severe weather such as tropical depressions and cyclones, we provide information for our people to allow them to take the appropriate action for the protection of life and property”.
In typical public service speak, this is what is known as ‘the mission statement’ – it is the reason for the existence of Niue Met, but what does that mean on a more practical level? And what action do they take to fulfil ‘the mission’? How do they go about providing credible and timely information regarding the weather?
The weather forecasting centre for some of the countries in the region is located at Nadi in Fiji. The Fiji Meteorological Services is a department of the Fiji Government. The service is responsible for issuing general and marine forecasts for Niue, Cook Islands, Tuvalu, Tokelau, Nauru and Fiji. Fiji Met is also the Regional Specialised Meteorological Centre or RSMC responsible for forecasting tropical cyclones.
Each morning, Niue Met receives the weather forecast from Nadi, Fiji. That report is edited where necessary, for example wind speed is changed from miles-per-hour to kilometres-per-hour, translated into Vagahau and is released. That is the weather forecast that is broadcast by the national radio each morning.
For television, Niue Met does a little more. Using the weather forecast received from Nadi, Niue Met’s senior and more experienced staff put together a longer-range forecast of three days and adding to it the tidal information, sun rise and sun set and moon-phase. Using simple graphics, the information is shown on TV Niue.
In the event that a tropical depression has formed into a cyclone and is forecast to affect the island, Niue Met will remain operational 24 hours until the threat has passed. Over the years a routine has been established on how the information regarding the storm is relayed to the public. This is a time of special weather bulletins specifically for Niue issued by the Regional Specialised Meteorological Centre in Nadi. The task for Niue Met is well defined for such events. On receiving the forecast from Nadi, Niue Met edits the report for clarity, plots the movement of the centre of the storm before passing that on for broadcasting. A full briefing is provided for the National Management Disaster council. It is the Council’s sole responsibility to issue the various stages of alerts, from Blue to Yellow to Red. It is also their responsibility to issue an all clear when the storm has passed.
So exactly what is the role of Niue Met when it comes to forecasting the weather on a daily basis? Recordings of weather variables are made each day across the region; these are known in Met circles as observations. These observations are passed to Nadi where meteorologists there use powerful super-computers to help with forecasting. For Niue Met, these observations are done every three hours during working hours and at hourly intervals for aircraft operations. Obviously during a cyclone these observations from Niue Met form an important part of the data used by the RSMC, hence the necessity for long hours.
The question of whether Niue will be able to do its own weather forecasting any time soon is one of cost and expertise. Super-computers don’t come cheap and the software to crunch the data is on a different level to the run of the mill apps on the Internet. In addition to the specialised and expensive equipment, you will also need personnel to make that equipment work; for that, you need science graduates in physics and mathematics and a diploma in meteorology… and a whole lot of on-the-job experience. And then there is the requirement to collect data or observations over a 24 hour period, seven days a week. In short, the cost of setting up a forecasting centre just for Niue would be prohibitive.
The Department of the Environment is another relatively new addition to the Public Service. One of its areas of responsibility is climate change. Given that the Niue Met is also involved with climate, why has the two operations merged? According to the Director-General of the Ministry of Natural Resources Dr Josie Tamate that question had surfaced during the reorganisation of the public service, the so called transformation process. However cabinet had decided against the merge. With the passing of time, the roles of the two agencies have now become better defined according to Dr Tamate. The Department of the Environment focus more on ground based activities with Niue Met providing the data to support those activities.
Which raises the question of how does Niue Met contribute to the development of our little isolated atoll?
Dr Tamate said that the contribution that Niue Met makes to the overall development of the island cannot easily be measured in strict economic terms.
“Much of what they do is collecting data and in interpreting that data, but for that data to have value it has to be collected on a continuous basis over a period of time. Sometimes it can take years because the science we’re dealing with relies on the accurate recording of data and interpreting trends and patterns. There’s anecdotal evidence to suggest that our traditional seasonal events may not be what they used to be. And so the data that we collect over a period could help in understanding the changes. Understanding the changes can often lead to a solution if one is being sought. “
On the wider world stage, when it comes to projects that can assist in the development of Niue, international and regional agencies place a lot of emphasis on the evidence that comes from reliable data. It is the language that they understand.
Rosie Misiepo: “The data that we collect can help government departments and agencies when they present their requests to donor agencies. Not only that but in their every day work, the information that we collect might help in explaining why certain things happen, whether it’s a rise in the air temperature or an unseasonal change in rainfall,” said Misiepo.
An important function of Niue Met is to visit the schools and participate in programmes to help the children understand the weather and the consequences of changing weather patterns. There is also a fortnightly radio programme hosted by one of the longest serving employees Robert Togiamana. While the programme focuses on current issues, Togiamana says he values the input from the older generation whose traditional knowledge serves as a starting point when comparing past weather events with the present.
These days, social media and the Internet have become almost entrenched in everyday life. There are web-based sites with weather information world-wide. Believe or not some of the data collected by Niue Met can often end up being used by one of the more reputable web pages. But with the over-supply of information on the Internet, Rosie Misiepo warns against misinterpretation. In times of severe weather, she said that it is best to use the source of information that is actually based in the region and can be trusted.