Deputy Director of CEMADEN talks about advances and challenges in monitoring natural disasters on World Meteorology Day

World Meteorological Day 23 March 2022 has the theme “Early Warning and Early Action”. We invite you to read the interview given by Dr. Regina Alvalá

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“We need to invest more in meteorology to strengthen our observational network and monitoring activities and improve weather prediction models to produce more reliable high-resolution rainfall forecasts. This investment is crucial to improving monitoring and early warning and safeguarding lives across Brazil.”

This assertion is from Dr. Regina Célia dos Santos Alvalá, Coordinator of Institutional Relations and Deputy Director of the National Center for Monitoring and Early Warning of Natural Disasters (CEMADEN), a body attached to the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation (MCTI) based in São José dos Campos (SP).

Regina, who holds a degree in Cartographic Engineering and master’s and doctorate degrees in Meteorology, is our interviewee in this second article of the series celebrating Meteorology Week at IACIT. She talks about technological advances and the challenges facing CEMADEN in fulfilling its mission: to monitor natural hazards in risk areas in Brazilian municipalities that are susceptible to flooding and landslides and update population data in disaster prone areas.

This is why CEMADEN is the focus of our series of articles on World Meteorology Day (23 March), with the theme “Early Warning and Early Action”.

The first article in the series presented data from the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and outlined the main landmarks in the evolution of meteorology.

Dr. Regina Alvalá, Deputy Director of CEMADEN

IACIT: Tell us a little about your career.

Dr. Regina: I am a cartographic engineer and have master’s and doctorate degrees in Meteorology. I’ve been a civil servant since 1994, and worked at the National Institute for Space Research for 16 years as a researcher and professor on the graduate program in Meteorology. I have been at CEMADEN since it was created, where I have worked as a researcher and manager. I am currently Deputy Director and Coordinator of Institutional Relations. 

IACIT: Briefly, what are your main duties at CEMADEN?

Dr. Regina: I coordinate and participate in several of CEMADEN’s partnerships with organizations such as the IBGE (Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics), ANA (National Water and Sanitation Agency) and APAC (Pernambuco Water and Climate Agency). With the IBGE, for example, we developed a new methodology for mapping and characterizing populations living in areas prone to flooding and landslides. CEMADEN is also on several committees. I’m on the steering committee of the Programa Garantia-Safra, a program that provides support to farmers affected by drought in Brazil’s semi-arid region, for example. I’m also vice-coordinator of the postgraduate program in Disasters and I work closely with the MCTI, other government bodies and civil society organizations.

IACIT: What has been the impact of advances in meteorological technology during your career?

Dr. Regina: When I did my master’s degree at the beginning of the 1980s, climate monitoring and weather prediction had a number of technological limitations and equipment and instruments weren’t capable of analyzing large volumes of data. There was even a lack of desktop computers. There has been a giant leap in technology over the last 30 years, leading to advances in research and quick access to data to inform activities, actions and decision-making.

IACIT: How many risk areas and people vulnerable to natural disasters does CEMADEN currently monitor?

Dr. Regina:  CEMADEN monitors 1,038 municipalities that are vulnerable to disasters caused by extreme rainfall events (landslides and flooding), where we have mapped disaster prone areas. Based on data from the latest census (2010), there are an estimated 8.3 million people living in around 28,000 risk areas across 825 municipalities in Brazil.

IACIT: What are the monitoring challenges in these areas and what is your assessment of the current situation in Brazil?

Dr. Regina: Meteorological information is crucial to predicting major disasters in Brazil. It is therefore vital to deliver timely monitoring and early warning information. We cannot say that the country’s observational network for monitoring disasters is ideal; we are still a long way off from that. There is certainly a demand for more monitoring equipment in more risk areas. Progress is always necessary, albeit a challenge, especially in a country of continental proportions like Brazil, with an area of 8.5 million sq km and large spatial and temporal variations in rainfall. We would like to know what these variations are across regions and even at municipal level. Unfortunately, there is still no way of maintaining an observational network with ground-based equipment in thousands of different risk areas. This is where weather radars and satellite data come into play; however, equipment is essential to calibrate data and a lot of equipment needs preventive and corrective maintenance. This demands financial resources to create a solid monitoring network and recruit specialist staff for the centers that receive this data.

IACIT: Can the meteorological data used in natural disaster monitoring and prevention benefit other sectors of society?

Dr. Regina: Meteorology is a crosscutting science. Weather and climate affect various sectors, meaning that meteorological information is an important input to activities stretching across a range of areas, such as aviation, agriculture, forestry, the environment and far beyond, including public health as well. For example, showing how people across different regions of the planet are affected by heat waves or cold spells.

IACIT: How does Brazil compare to countries like the United States and Japan when it comes to natural disaster monitoring?

Dr. Regina: We cannot compare different realities, whether we are talking about regions or the context of disasters. The US and Brazil have different characteristics. The US is affected by hurricanes, for example, and has monitoring centers with substantial annual budgets. It’s also affected by forest fires, cold spells and heat waves, which affect the country in different ways, making comparisons difficult. Japan is 23 times smaller than Brazil, yet its observational network has much more weather radars than ours. On the other hand, the country is prone to other types of disasters such as typhoons, tsunamis and earthquakes, as well as floods and landslides, which we experience here.

IACIT: Can you explain the importance of weather radars in observation and monitoring networks?

Dr. Regina: The meteorological information produced by radars provide valuable inputs for an operational center such as CEMADEN, mainly because they allow us to monitor systems that cause rain across a wider area than ground-based instruments. Combined with other sources of data, the information generated by radars allows us to issue early warnings in as timely a manner as possible, enhancing disaster prevention capacity. We strive to issue warnings as far in advance as possible so that front line decision makers and organizations such as local civil defense offices are able to save as many people as possible in the event of a disaster.

IACIT: CEMADEN is a research center attached to the MCTI. Can you explain the center’s activities?

Dr. Regina: CEMADEN’s core mission is to monitor data and issue natural disaster warnings to civil defense offices in priority municipalities across the country, using modern monitoring technologies, hydrometeorological forecasting and geodynamic techniques and anticipating the impacts that natural disasters have on society, infrastructure and the environment. CEMADEN also promotes scientific and technological development and innovation to enhance the quality of warnings and support disaster prevention and mitigation. Our graduate program in Natural Disasters, run jointly by CEMADEN and the São Paulo State University’s Institute of Science and Technology, provides specialist training in natural disasters to researchers, professionals and managers.

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