In Focus interview: Evan Thompson, Director - Jamaican Meteorological Service

We got the chance to catch up with Evan Thompson from the Jamaican Meteorological Service to chat about the intense weather events in the Caribbean and the solutions going forward for Jamaica.

Could you give us a background of yourself and your work at the meteorological service?

I’m director of the meteorological service here in Jamaica. I have been in this position for the past two and a half years or so. However, prior to that, I served as the head of the weather branch in the division.

I was responsible for all the affairs of the weather branch that would include our National Meteorological Centre where our forecasting services are provided. That’s our 24-hour up to three or five-day forecasting, as well as our meteorological technicians,  operate from that section.

We also have a substation which is the National Meteorological Centre is in Kingston and a substation in Montego Bay where we also have aviation services provided but not forecasting just observation.

We also had in the weather branch our upper air station where we do the sensing of the atmosphere and our radar station, which are also a part of the weather branch. That was my responsibility prior to becoming the director.

Before that, I served as the head of the National Meteorological Centre where the forecasting services are produced. I did that for about five years prior. Overall I’ve been in the meteorological service for about 30 years.

Am I right to say that you are a broadcast meteorologist as well?

Yes. I am a broadcast meteorologist. I began doing that with television Jamaica Limited in 1999 and I did approximately 17 years.

Could you give us an overview of the climate of Jamaica and some of the main challenges?

Well the climate generally, of course, we’re in the tropics so we have a tropical climate, somewhat wet because we’re an island surrounded by the Caribbean sea. We go through the usual weather is bright and sunny conditions generally with rainfall occurring mainly during the afternoons.

This would normally be primarily because of orographic lifting. We have a chain of hills or mountains in the centre of the island going right across so with orographic lifting during the day and regular convection taking place we have the cloud cover developing mainly over interior areas, spreading to the coast during the afternoon. That’s the general thing.

Throughout the year we have two seasons designed by the rainfall patterns. Our main rainfall season, our primarily rainfall season occurs in September, October and then we have our primary dry season that starts in December and continues through to about March or April. That’s where we tend to have droughts from time to time.

Then we go into our secondary rainfall season which is May to June and then we go through somewhat of a dryer period again as we go into July and August, but during the summer months as well that’s the hurricane season for us. The rainfall that we experience during that time is usually because of tropical waves, tropical depressions and the occasional storm or hurricane moving across our area.

In terms of extreme weather events how impacted are you?

We are very much impacted by those. Of course, the main thing that we look to is the hurricane season and the hurricanes that could be formed. The last time we were directly impacted by a hurricane was in 2012 with hurricane Sandy. Prior to that, we’ve had a number of close brushes a few times when we were actually hit. We were hit in 2004 and 2007. This is by Ivan and then Dean in those years.

Before that, we had hurricane Gilbert. Which I think was one of the biggest that we have experienced in modern times. In 1988, just after I entered the meteorological service, we were hit by this hurricane Gilbert and it was quite devastating for the island. Then Ivan followed soon in 2004. And then Dean in 2007. Those were our most recent in terms of severe weather from hurricanes.

We do have the occasional tropical storm or depression but flooding is our main cause of any kind of destruction across the island. We have those from the tropical systems but also from troughs developing across the Jamaican area that would happen primarily in our rainy seasons in the May period.

As well as in October we have a number of broad lower level troughs that would tend to produce significant rainfall during those times and quite often flooding events. We do have some occasional flooding events from frontal systems as well as they move across the area.

We do have fronts that the tail end of cold fronts that move across the Jamaican area primer, between January and March. That basically defines the scenario across Jamaica with the extreme weather events.

We do have thunderstorm activity from time to time during the summer months during the afternoons. Occasionally there would be severe thunderstorms that could produce flash flooding or even hailstorms, sometimes microbursts. Occasionally we have a tornadic event so we do experience some small tornadoes from time to time on the island as well.

In terms of the infrastructure and systems in place, do you find that it matches the challenges you have? Do you tend to prepare well for those? We find that a lot of countries have a gap between the challenges they have and how prepared they are when disasters happen.

I think Jamaica is not too bad off actually because we do have adequate equipment to be able to monitor our environment and then, of course, to issue the warnings when necessary. I believe that we have been doing very well in terms of the issuance of the warnings beforehand, the early warnings for these severe weather events.

We do have some challenges from time to time. For instance, we do have as a part of our equipment portfolio, a Doppler radar. It is now over 17 years old. 18, 19 years old actually and it is actually on the verge of obsolescence. We are looking toward a replacement for that radar that would happen within the next two years we will have it replaced.

We are currently in a project that will provide for that but as this is now we do have some down times from the radar and then that would pose some challenges in terms of not being able to monitor accurately exactly what is happening over or around the island in terms of the quantity of rainfall, the intensities. That poses some challenges sometimes because we do use satellite imagery but sometimes it doesn’t provide the kind of resolution that we would require.

That is the position with us in terms of our equipment. We think we are more or less doing well. We are still trying to improve because we do look for opportunities to modernise what we do have, in terms of the reception of information for the monitoring as well as the ways that we communicate our information.

We have seen significant improvement in the past year or so, however, with the communication of warnings and other forecast messages.

What sort of ways do you tend to communicate those? Is it SMS or over the broadcast? Or is it various?

Yes. Apart from the media that we depend on very heavily because we send our forecast via email to all our electronic and even print media, so they would be broadcasting but outside of that we also use emails directly to persons who require them. Whether agencies or individuals, we will accommodate sending emails of our forecasts on a twice-daily basis.

We also communicate via text message sometimes and also via our website that is always up. We ensure that our forecasts are always posted to our website. Any warning messages posted there as well. We have automated telephone answering services as well. So dialling a toll-free number allows our residents to be able to receive the latest warning message if there is such a message in effect.

We also utilise another warning platform that sends out via command alert protocols. It’s CAP-enabled that we send out a colour coded message that would give an idea of where warnings are in effect and the severity of those warnings when they’re issued.

We try to make use of as many platforms as possible to get the message out in as many ways. We also use social media to a small extent, mainly Twitter.

We always try to improve. There is always something else that we recognise that the demand is constantly growing. As much as you will provide more, there will always be the need for more. And so in that regard, we always look at what the customers tend to ask for and we try to see how best we can try to help them.

You touched briefly on your infrastructures and you mentioned you have a radar hopefully on the way. What about your weather station infrastructure? Is that good at the moment? Or is it manual, automatic?

We do have a manual network across the island that is read by voluntary observers. We do offer them an honorarium at the end of the year but basically, they are volunteers. They provide the services of actually reading the rainfall data and having that’s sent to us. They send it on a monthly basis unless we require otherwise what has happened over the past month from the rain gauges.

We also have network inspectors who go out and collect data at the end of every month just to have an idea of what occurred in the prior month. The network is probably about 180 stations across the island.

We do have two primary automatic weather stations between international airports of course. We also have another approximately 80 stations that are located across the country as well that are automatic. Some of them are reporting in real time but that is a minuscule number that’s one of the challenges we have getting them reporting directly in real time.

The 80 stations we have currently we find they are insufficient to appropriately measure right across the length and breadth of the island. For example, what is happening in and near the coast and over the hilly areas, as well as the planes just to have a very good idea.

Do you have challenges with maintenance for those? As in are they in areas that are difficult to get to? Is that a challenge?

Yes. We try to have them sited at locations that are secure and where we have partnerships with the landowners. They will provide some kind of security and some monitoring of what is happening with the station but most of them are remote locations.

We do go out at the end of each month to visit these stations, just to check up to see how they’re operating. Our team of instrument technicians though is very small.

We do try to cover as much as we are able but we are not able to see every station every month admittedly because we have only three persons who are engaged in as instruments technicians. Then there are another three who are actually collecting data who also provide assistance with maintenance. Mainly for manual gauges but some of the automatic as well.

It’s just a total of six persons to service the entire island over 4000 square miles so it takes a good two full weeks out of every month just collecting the data and doing that kind of maintenance, two or three weeks of every month. And then, of course, the data has to be analysed.

One of the challenges is that sometimes, the data does not come in quickly enough for us to analyse and send out our products to indicate what our plan is. Sometimes it does take a little time for us to get the data put together and have it analysed.

What is your relationship like with the CIMH (Caribbean Institute of Meteorology and Hydrology) and what kind of things do you collaborate on? But training is one of them?

Yes. Training is one. In fact, our climate staff are actually in training this week with representatives of the CIMH here in Jamaica. They have come to conduct training not in our office but at some other location that will go on for 2 weeks.

So from time to time, we do have training. They also assist us when we are threatened by and in severe weather. They would offer us products or services just to do their own analysis and give us an idea of what they are seeing in terms of the movement of some systems that could be severe weather producers. They provide that kind of expert assistance.

And of course, the formal training where we actually send students to their classes, that also happens. We have one class that concludes today or tomorrow that has been going on for the past eight or so months.

We do have that kind of training, at various levels. We have the entry level, mid-level, the senior level and also at the meteorologist level at the University of the West Indies. They collaborate with the CIMH to provide the first degrees in meteorology as well.

Almost all our staff have been trained at CIMH and continue to do training because we also have competency skills that we have to ensure are kept up to date. We do access those shorter training courses, right refreshers from time to time. It’s a very good relationship.

I’ve heard a lot of, especially some of the smaller islands really rely on CIMH to assist them when it comes to forecasting and training. It’s good to hear that they’re still, and they’re also servicing the larger players in the region like yourself.

Yes, they are. They have an obligation to all the CARICOM states, that’s the Caribbean Community states. So we do support them with the financing but they also support us with their technology, with their products, with their services with their expertise. And they’re usually on call. If there’s any need that we have they will even custom create things if it’s within their ability. Whether they can.

They are a bit short staffed but they do try to do as much as possible with what they have. Their staff are excellent in terms of the dedication to work and they’re always reliable

We have been trying to improve our stock of equipment. As I said both in terms of numbers and in terms of modernisation. So we are trying to build out a network. We do have what we consider to be the optimal network that would measure within every say five or so kilometres of the island.

We’re trying to have a network of almost 200 stations. Right now we’re at about 80. In another four or five years we’re hoping that gradually we may increase that and get much closer to the ideal situation.

Then many of the stations are not currently real time. We are investigating a solution to ensure that they are able to transmit directly to a central location and have that displayed for our forecasters and other personnel as well.

So that’s your mid to long term plan is to hit that number?

That’s right. Sometimes there’s a challenge of funding because we are a central government organisation. We’re not a statutory organisation. We don’t actually contribute to the purse of government but we do not generate our own revenue right now, or at least we’re not collecting revenue. Although we believe we have that potential.

We are quite often strapped for government funds and so much of what we are able to achieve is done through projects. Whether they are supported by the Caribbean Development Bank or World Bank or IADB or USAID. We try to get as much assistance as possible.

Is there anything else that you wanted to say?

Really we do have a long term plan for the development of the Met service generally. Not just in terms of equipment but in terms of getting more into research and development. We find that there is that gap right now so we’re looking toward moving in that area, more research, more development locally, understanding our climate even better.

We want to produce a new climate of Jamaica publication. We want to produce a publication that includes all the meteorological variables up to 2010 at least and so we’re looking to do that in the medium term as well within the next two years. Hopefully, we can produce that document and then we keep it updated every few years as soon as we move to the next decade we would have another publication. We’re trying to do that, get more into the research and even having a meteorological conference locally.

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