Super computer “Sparks” climate data sharing revolution in the Caribbean

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A report by Gail Hoad for Climate Investment Funds

It is a terrible irony that although the small island and coastal states of the Caribbean contribute very little to greenhouse gas emissions driving global climate change, the region is disproportionately affected by the impacts of a changing climate. 

Their small size, geographical location, topography and heavy reliance on natural resources all make Caribbean countries particularly vulnerable to climate change impacts including more intense storm systems, extensive droughts, rising sea levels and the resurgence of dengue and emergence of newer vector borne diseases such as Chikungunya and Zika in the region.

And it’s an added irony that up to about eight years ago Caribbean countries, simply because of their size, did not have enough access to the localised climate information and data needed to inform planning and decision making. Climate models produced globally did not provide data at the scale of the Caribbean’s territories. The small states of the region also did not have access to the technology and technical capacity to conduct this type of modeling.

It was only in 2009/2010 that climate modelers got significant data to be able to say something about the Caribbean climate and even then, the resolution was not adequate to report on the smaller islands, according to Jayaka Campbell of the Climate Studies Group at the University of the West Indies’ (UWI) Mona campus in Jamaica.

All that changed with the 2016 introduction of a high performance computing and storage system for climate modeling dubbed the Scientific Platform for Applied Research and Knowledge Sharing (SPARKS). Sparks was acquired with funding of $750,000 from the Climate Investment Funds, through the Inter-American Development Bank. It is housed at the UWI Mona campus.

The Climate Studies Group at Mona is a co-implementing partner and working to improve the availability of future climate projections to support the region’s adaptation planning, decision making, and sectoral modeling and projections.

“Now we can drill right down with Sparks,” says Jayaka who is also a data analyst working with the high performance system. He explains that Sparks allows the region to isolate geographical areas within countries for better resolution and to provide more refined climate data for planners.

“This data is useful for farming, construction, health, the work governments do with planning and development – all of which have to take climate into account,” Jayaka notes.

Sparks is now ensuring the Caribbean region is well positioned to provide down-scaled results for the Sixth Assessment Report for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Jayaka explains enthusiastically that this was not possible before, and that previous IPCC assessment reports had remarked on the dearth of information from the Caribbean.

“We have always been three to seven years behind in getting the modelling done and now we are less than a year behind in providing the down-scaled results for the Sixth Assessment Report.”

Programme Manager for the PPCR Regional Track, Ainsley Henry, feels these results demonstrate that Sparks is living up to expectations by providing information that can be used to make decisions for climate resilient planning and development in the Caribbean, and by positioning the region’s climate modellers to take their rightful place among their colleagues across the globe.

Finally, Jayaka notes, Sparks has been a great support to the climate data sharing community in the region. It has improved the quality of data being shared and it has also improved the process of sharing data, including providing a space where all data can be housed.

“Even though it is done through the PPCR for the Caribbean, the data is also being made available to our partners and neighbours in Central America and parts of South America.”

And what’s ahead for our climate super computer? By the end of 2018 Sparks will provide a data sharing portal on Caribbean climate information that is open to the public. This means that the ordinary man or woman in the Caribbean (and the wider world), without any specific technical training in climate science, will be able to generate maps, graphs and other information products related to the climate in the countries of the region using Sparks’ data and systems.

Sparks is indeed working to help the Caribbean cut the challenges of climate change down to size!

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