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Weather stations for Africa

Laura Postma, Delft, Netherlands
February 27, 2013

Climatologists in Africa face a challenge monitoring the weather because of very few observation networks. Delft University in the Netherlands is helping design a network of cheap weather stations in Africa.

disdrometer measures rainfall by measuring the dropsize of each drop falling on it (Copyright: Eeke Dekker)
Image: Eeke Dekker

Monitoring the weather in Africa can be a challenge for climate scientists in Africa, where there are very few observation networks. To help design an affordable, dense network of 20,000 weather stations across the African continent, Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands and Oregon State University in the US have initiated the Trans African Hydro Meteorological Observatory (TAHMO) project.

"The number of measurement stations in Africa are just very, very limited," Professor Nick van de Giesen, an engineer at Delft University of Technology, told DW.

Van de Giesen, who has more than 30 years experience of working in Africa, is one of the initiators of the TAHMO project. Measuring weather-related variables like rainfall is difficult in Africa because of the lack of stations, he says, adding that the data would help understand the African climate and the possibilities the African continent offers for agriculture and other water-related activities.

a standard temperature sensor that became unusable because wasps built a nest around it. This is a typical problem in Africa and implies it is not a good idea to have open structures/cavities. (Courtesy: Jens Liebe)
This standard temperature sensor became unusable because wasps built a nest on it - a typical problem in AfricaImage: Jens Liebe

Adapting to African needs

But the project doesn't just aim to install about 20,000 weather stations in various African countries, it also wants to include local design and technology. The university is involving African students in a competition to design cost effective rain sensors.

"You know, Africa is huge. I've spent a lot of time there, you cannot compare Lesotho with Chad - these are just completely different environments," he said. "So we need this large network of people on the ground who are willing to think about this, work with us, test things, etc."

Nigerian Gboluwaga Olubunmi, who is pursuing a master's degree in strategic product design at Delft University of Technology says he wants to design a device that will help the whole continent.

"The thing about product design is you find the commonalities. Like, there should be a common ground for some of the cultures and that's what you base your design on. You don't base it too much on the differences," he said. "When you think of those types of attributes, then you can resonate it in your product and see the peculiarities to African weather, to the African environment, to the climate and see how you can put that into your design."

Nick van de Giesen, chair of water resources management, Delft University of Technology, Netherlands. (Copyright: Laura Postma/DW)
Professor Nick van de Giesen tries out one of the sensors in his officeImage: DW/L. Postma

Giving students practical experience

Professor Van de Giesen is encouraging students like Olubunmi to design sensors for different elements like rain, dust, smoke and wind.

Olubunmi wants to build a rain sensor. "I think that's the primary one, the dust is also important, but maybe the rain is more important," he said.

The 26 year old Nigerian believes focusing on collecting data on rain would help agriculture on the continent. For van de Giesen, TAHMO is also about involving schools in Africa, so that students and teachers can be included.

"What I've noticed myself with African students, especially when they come to the university, is that they are good with math. But when it comes to practical things like measuring, actually measuring things outside, that's often not as well developed. For the simple reason that they never had the opportunity to go out and measure things. Because the stuff was just not there," he said.

Building a curriculum around measuring the environment and understanding how the data relates to the bigger picture can give more practical experience to African students, van de Giesen added.

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