By Gift Briton

Agricultural outcomes in Kenya are expected to improve in the coming years following the launch of a research project that seeks to enhance weather prediction during the long rain season.

Climate scientists from the United Kingdom (UK)’s Oxford University, the University of Nairobi (UoN), and the Kenya Meteorological Department (KMD) have partnered to make weather predictions for the March-April- May season (MAM) more reliable and beneficial.

This would be made possible by analyzing the data collected from the upper atmosphere using weather balloons which will be released six times a day to the atmosphere at an interval of four hours for a period of 45 days starting March 1, 2024.

A weather balloon is a special balloon filled with hydrogen or helium gas that carries gadgets to the upper atmosphere to send back information on atmospheric pressure, temperature, humidity, and wind speed and direction using a device known as a radiosonde.

Depending on prevailing weather conditions, the weather balloon can rise to 26 kilometres and can take up to one and a half hours before it bursts into space. The balloon has a thermometer and hydrometer attached to it which measures temperature and pressure respectively. It also sends back information on the direction and speed of wind as it rises.
Before this project, KMD- Kenya’s weather body- used to release two weather balloons a day into the atmosphere to collect weather-related information.

However, upon realizing that just two weather balloons a day may not be enough to gather all the information necessary for a more reliable prediction, climate scientists, under the REACH programme, have partnered with KMD to release more weather balloons into the atmosphere with the hope that it will improve forecasting.

“We are not doing anything new but we are expanding observation where we can get a better picture of what happens in the atmosphere during the long rains. A lot of time what determines the rains we receive depends on the winds and moisture conditions high above the surface in the layers and so the balloon will sample through those layers and measure temperature, humidity and winds,” Dr. Callum Munday-Climate Scientist at the University of Oxford.

“You need data to be able to forecast. We have a lot of ground station data but we have only one station in Kenya that does upper air monitoring. So, this project will try and increase the frequency of upper air monitoring to six times a day to see if it will improve the forecasting for the March-May (MAM) season because our forecast for this season has not always been very accurate because our data is not a lot. MAM is usually our best season for agricultural activities yet it is the season where we do not have a very good forecast. This programme is looking at enhancing data for this season so that we can make better national forecast” Prof. Gilbert Ouma- Climate Scientist at UoN said adding that, “if we could accurately predict and plan on rainfall, water security will be achieved.”

Dr. David Gikungu Director-KMD, who was represented by Charles Mugah at the project launch event at KMD headquarters in Nairobi, expressed hopes that the data obtained will improve weather forecasting in the country noting that “The data arising from the campaign will be jointly owned and analysed jointly pursued with KMD. Publications arising from the data will be led by the REACH programme.”

“Climate is really important for water security. 80 per cent of Kenya is either arid or semi-arid yet these arid or semi-arid areas are important for our agricultural Gross Domestic Products. One of the biggest issues has always been the uses revolving around water. So, we have tried to understand this from the atmospheric point of view,” Prof. Daniel Olago- Country Director REACH Programme said.

“The information collected from this project will influence and impact policies and planning based on scientific evidence. We are interested in understanding the onset of long rains and its dynamics within the season. We are hoping that this information will be of immense use to planners, farmers, the insurance industry, and anything to do with water supplies and water services.”