• Saturday, Nov 27, 2021
  • Last Update : 01:07 am

How science can align with indigenous knowledge to forecast weather


Not all old ways of predicting the weather are obsolete, and integrating some of them in nature-based disaster management can be very beneficial

From ancient Greek to medieval India, from Aristotle to Khona, the application of weather forecasting involved nature; through observing celestial objects, animal behaviours, floral response to changing atmosphere and other natural entities over time. 

Early civilizations observed nature closely, and the recurrence of astrological and meteorological events helped them to monitor seasonal changes in weather. Around 650 BC, the Babylonians tried to predict short term weather changes based on the appearance of clouds and optical phenomena such as haloes. The Chinese astronomers developed a calendar observing the changes in nature, which segregated a year into festivals, each representing different types of weather around 300 BC. 

In India, during the early 9th to 12th century AD astrologer Khona’s rhythmic words for weather forecasting based on natural entities became prominent and well-practiced among the farmers. One of her sayings  predicted rainfall over the year if the wind flows from the North-Eastern direction at the beginning of the year, helping  the farmers to cultivate crops accordingly.

Moreover, in ‘Meteorologica’, Greek philosopher Aristotle mentioned the occurrences of various natural phenomena and made remarkable observations of weather. However, many of his ideas were overthrown around the 17th century during the Renaissance when it became evident that speculations of the natural theories were inadequate to understand and predict the changing atmosphere more accurately, leading to the necessity of innovating sophisticated instruments to measure the properties of atmosphere such as moisture, temperature, and pressure. 

Nowadays, advanced technology and instruments help us observe and predict the weather system more precisely. However, nature dependent weather forecasting practices still prevail and to some extent are considered to be effective. For instance, many sailors in the deep sea yet navigate depending on their past observation which relates to nature based weather forecasting like ‘Red sky at night, sailors delight. In the morning, sailors take warning’ where a red sky refers to an increase of moisture in the air, indicating potential rainfall. If it is at sunset, it generally means the storm is moving away and if seen in the morning, the storm tends to head in. Similarly, ‘Circle around the moon, rain or snow soon’ refers to a predicted rainfall within a couple of days as the haze around the moon is caused by the air moisture. 

Just like the sailors, indigenous communities in different parts of the world, such as African pastoral communities, predict weather through observing the natural entities, as they share a deep bonding with nature. While these communities do not have access to modern equipment, they heavily rely on nature to predict changing weather and seasons over time for a better harvest and perform their rituals. 

"The UN General Assembly declared 2021-2030 as the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, emphasizing a roadmap for renewed global action by both Indigenous knowledge and modern science"

Scientific studies show that indigenous communities tend to predict weather based on animal and floral behaviour as well. Some of their observations include daisies and pine cones remaining close during the day ahead of the rain. Similarly, birds, bees and other flying insects are observed to fly low and head home right before foul weather as low pressure and dam condition makes their aviation uncomfortable. 

A recent study (Zeng, 2016) also found that bees spent more time working outside their respective hives 24 hours before it rained than on a day preceding clear skies. The deer and elks are also found to make their way down from their mountain homes several days before a rainstorm. 

All these natural entities help the indigenous and local communities to predict the weather, and they develop certain techniques to forecast the weather by involving nature to make important decisions that enable them to address certain challenges, most importantly climate-induced extreme weather variations. These practices of weather forecasting flow from generation to generation throughout their traditional knowledge and practices, helping to protect their landscapes from potential natural disasters, for better agricultural yield and boost their economy.

Scientists have been acknowledging and embracing indigenous wisdom and traditional knowledge for many years to ensure a better world, as indigenous knowledge has succeeded in conserving and restoring biodiversity in different continents and climate zones. However, many of these rich indigenous and traditional knowledge that ensures sustainable living of millions of people around the world, are yet to be revealed and recognized. 

In this regard, scientific and indigenous knowledge can go hand in hand, where scientific explanation can enhance the indigenous practices to be mainstreamed and to be recognized. Earlier this year, an indigenous organization in western Alaska named ‘Kawerak’ released a call for the indigenization of science, which included the sovereignty of indigenous knowledge. Besides, the UN General Assembly declared 2021-2030 as the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, emphasizing a roadmap for renewed global action by both Indigenous knowledge and modern science, which would be financially and ecologically beneficial. 

"Some indigenous communities in Chittagong Hill Tracts believe that ants climb up high during a hailstorm and cross roads prior to a cyclone, while they do both in case of heavy rainfall"

Indigenous knowledge and practices contribute to the sustainable use of natural resources. Currently in Bangladesh, more than 45 indigenous communities exist who live by and with nature for centuries. These communities depend on nature and developed practices to predict the weather for their survival, which are yet to be recognized. For instance, some indigenous communities in Chittagong Hill Tracts believe that ants climb up high during a hailstorm and cross roads prior to a cyclone, while they do both in case of heavy rainfall (Irfanullah & Motaleb, 2011). 

Recognition, preservation, and dissemination of these traditional knowledge can enhance harmony between nature and humans, and ensure sustainability across the world. Many local and national governments, NGOs, academics and experts are working to preserve indigenous knowledge of weather forecasting. For example: In Australia, the government runs the Indigenous Weather Knowledge Website Project; the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (PAGASA), a government agency in the Philippines, has also recognized the traditional weather forecasting knowledge.  

Many countries ignore indigenous practices and knowledge and these systems and traditions are now on the verge of extinction. Thus, it is crucial to advocate for these practices as well as capacitating the indigenous communities to ensure the sustainable preservation of their knowledge. 

Finally, actors such as government and non-government entities, academia and think tanks can contribute in discovering these forecasting practices, evaluate their efficacy and integrate them for nature based disaster management practices.

Savio Rousseau Rozario is currently working at the International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD) as a Junior Research Officer. He holds a great interest in disaster risk reduction and management practices in terms of climate change impact. He can be reached at  [email protected]

Mahmuda Akter is currently working as a Research Officer at the International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD). 

Dr Ali Mohammad Rezaie is currently working as the Research Coordinator of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD).

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