IASCLiP Trip Report: Central America

IASCLIP travel to Central America

 Travel dates:  September 5-14, 2010

Participants:  Michael Douglas, Art Douglas, Rosario Douglas

Countries visited:  Costa Rica, Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador

Art Douglas arrived in Costa Rica on September 4th and Michael Douglas on September 5th.

Every country was contacted 4-5 weeks prior to arrange the meeting dates and times.   Except for Nicaragua, where confirmation was received at the last moment, the other countries responded relatively quickly.

Costa Rica     Sept 5-7

Contacts:  Hugo Hidalgo (researcher at the University of Costa Rica) email: HUGO.HIDALGO@ucr.ac.cr

and Werner Stolz (forecast office director at the National Meteorological Institute (IMN)  email:  wstolz@imn.ac.cr

We asked Hugo Hidalgo to organize a meeting where we could have participation from the University research community and other institutions, including the IMN.  As the date of our trip approached a separate visit to the weather service appeared to be desirable.  We contacted Werner Stolz at the IMN and arranged a morning visit on September 6th.   The meeting at the University was arranged for the same day in the afternoon at 1:30 pm.

Weather service meeting:

8:30 AM:  Met with Werner Stolz, in charge of the IMN (www.imn.ac.cr) forecast office.  He mentioned that Catalac and Mexico are running MM5, but otherwise not much is being done in Central America. 

At the IMN office they use GFS output and they also run the WRF, which takes 3-4 hours.  They will soon be installing a cluster at the IMN office - he mentioned that the University already has one.   They do not verify their forecasts although he agreed that this should be done.  They also use the CAFFG, the Central America Flash Flood Guidance  for all of Central America but with micro watersheds.  This is a product developed by the Hydrological Research Center.  This has been working for 3 years and they use 10 telemetric stations.   To transmit the results they use the GEONETcast for America, a NOAA-sponsored satellite data transmission network.

The most important forecasting issues for the IMN were short term forecasts and seasonal forecasts.

Other important items for the IMN:  Capacity building - they have 5 forecasters, all educated at the University of Costa Rica. 

Costa Rica has about 150 surface stations but only 8 report via satellite.  They have 80 automatic stations, but these require manual data download.

Modeling is important to the IMN, as are radiosonde observations.  However, they need help with the purchase of helium for their radiosonde station.  They cannot use hydrogen at the airport anymore (safety issues) and helium is expensive.  That is why the radiosonde station has not been operating for over a year.  They use their own money to buy the radiosondes.

Art mentioned the possibility of establishing GPS-Met stations to measure precipitable water.  Werner mentioned that Liberia, Alajuela, Limon, and San Jose are stations that have Internet.

Werner mentioned that they do not have radars but that there is a radar project for all of Central America.  When asked about it he said we would need to discuss this with the Director.

Art quickly showed Werner a version of his talk on his laptop.

10 AM:   We met with Martha Pereira,  in charge of the IMN Meteorological networks and data processing department.

They have 200 stations, 60 automatic and 140 mechanical.  She did not know how many stations had long records but she thought that there were not many.  In 2008 they stopped paying the observers and there are problems now.   They visit the stations every 2 months.

The quality control group has 8 people.  They publish a monthly bulletin.

The IMN sells their data, although she though that the prices were low since they had not been revised in many years.   Their budget is low and there are new regulations that make it difficult to obtain vehicles, gas money, etc. 

They have agreements with other institutions who help with station maintenance and thus have access to the data.  She did not mention what institutions.   If we want station data it is best to talk to the Director.

The IMN has just finished reinstalling an automatic weather station on Isla del Coco. 

She mentioned that the director has to be a meteorologist by law.   She studied in Russia and her roommate was Nancy Villegas from the University Nacional in Bogota.

1:20 PM:  At CIGEFI (research institute near the University of Costa Rica)


We met in a conference room with Hugo Hidalgo and a Brazilian visitor working with Hugo.

Hugo said that Werner told him about their problem with the Helium.   Hugo had also talked to Werner about a possible adaptive radiosonde network but Werner though it would be complicated to pay observers.  Werner suggested to Hugo to train people at CIGEFI for a possible adaptive network activity.  According to Werner going to the field outside the city would be complicated.

Hugo said for them (those at the University) they would want to not just participate in a data gathering activity, but mainly to be associated with publications coming out of such an activity.

The University started an Atmospheric Science masters degree program and they also have one in Hydrology, which he directs.   (We later learned from Luis Garcia in El Salvador that Costa Rica also has the Masters degree in Hydrology that can be done via Internet.)

Hugo has a number of projects that do not increase his salary but help pay for students.    Proposals to the NSF-equivalent requires at least 2 researchers from different institutions.  One project is with the banana growers who have approached them for help.  Also there is a project studying climate change at Cocos Island.

Hugo has a hydrological model for drought and has contacted people that have helped develop the Palmer drought Index.  They appear interested but cannot do much at the moment.

Hugo also asked what the financing possibilities would be for IASCLIP.   He said that financing possibilities for their students via scholarships could be attractive.

He mentioned CEMAR (Centro del Mar e Hidrologia) can get ships to make visits to Cocos Island, for example.

Honduras      Sept 7-9

Contact:  Francisco Argeñal, advisor to the Honduran National Meteorologiucal Service (SMN)  email:   fargenal@yahoo.es

Francisco Argenal picked us up at the airport.  The next day we were also picked up by a SMN driver.

8:30 AM:  Arrived at the SMN offices at the airport.  Visited miscellaneous offices including the forecasting office.  They are open 24/7 and have 5 shifts.  There are 14 synoptic stations.  Talked to a forecaster, Hector Zavala. 

Found out that the WMO helped them put together a plan (CLIBER) of what they need in terms of new equipment and training ($2 M USD) and now they are looking for funding.

Before the talks, Mike and Art gave a number of TV and newspaper interviews.  Then, we heard a few words from General de Brigada Manuel F. Caceres, General Director of the Civil Aviation Direction (DGAC).  We also met with Mr. Ernesto Salgado (Director of SMN) and a climatologist.  He mentioned they have 14 real-time reporting rainfall stations.  There are about 100 rainfall stations in the country, some of which belong to  Hydrological resources.   About 60-70 have records of 30 or so years.  He mentioned that SMN and Hydrological resources will be merging as part of a new law and then more rainfall data will be available. 

There were participants from several institutions at the meeting, including Fisheries and Agriculture.  The SMN participants included forecasters and members from the climatology department.  Mr. Ernesto Salgado (director of SMN) was also present.

Their data extends from the 1950's to the present. 

A common question was: what could be expected for the coming winter season?

In general they have been having lots of problems in the south of Honduras with the heavy rains.  It has affected the planting of crops.  A serious economic issue for them is the lack of the mid-summer dry season (canicula) this year.   Argenal said that there is no real coordinated effort with Civil Defense and no real plans to help people when disaster strikes.  Not enough shelters etc. 

Another important issue for them is the forecasting of cold fronts, which affect, in the winter season, the eastern part of the country.

Mr Argeñal did not tell us if they are validating their forecasts.  He said they would like to have 1-2 radars, a radiosonde station (we saw from a distance the dilapidated one just off the runway) and a lightning detection capability.  More training is also needed. 

The Director complained that there is never enough funding and that the government only wants to take care of short-term problems.

For them seasonal forecasts, cold front forecasts and the canicula forecast are the most important forecasting concerns. 

They told us that the climatic forum (Costa Rica, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Honduras) meets every 3 months for 4-5 days.  Funding is currently from the EU but it varies.  They meet in different countries.

At the end the General gave Art and Mike diplomas and mentioned that of the 14 stations perhaps only 50% are working.  Mr. Argeñal denied that.  He said they would have no problem with installing a GPS-met station.  He offered all their help. 

Nicaragua      Sept 9-12

Contact: Marcio Baca  email: marcio.baca@met.ineter.gob.ni

Note: INETER is the parent organization for the Meteorological Service, and includes hydrology, seismology and other earth science-related subjects. 

Had a meeting of about 2 hours prior to giving our talks.   Participants were Mr. Marcio Baca (Meteorological Service Director) who has replaced Mauricio Rosales, Mariano Gutierrez (Technical director of Met area) and Isaias Montoya (Director of Hydrological Resources).

They have 300 met stations including 17 main synoptic conventional stations

And 20 Campbell Automatic stations that are not working now (came with post-Mitch aid). 

They are trying to reinstall automatic stations in more isolated areas.  More are needed in the Atlantic area.  Vandalism is a problem. They pay the observers $10 per month.  Raingauges are in people's fields.

When we asked what were the most important items to them they said: 

1.  Climate change

2.  Food security

3.  Reduction of disasters

4.  Flooding is also important (tied to 3.)

They would like to improve forecasts a mediano plazo seasonal.  They mentioned that Nicaragua is the country most impacted by Hurricanes in Central America.  From 1896-2009 48 hurricanes have hit the country.  Of these, 56% occur in September-October. 

Due to a new law INETER will now provide technical support to the National Water Commission.  They would like to place instruments in 3 watersheds.

About wind energy they already have a plan. 

About the Meteorological Service (SMN):

1.   Mr. Baca mentioned that the capacity to do long range forecasts is low.  They participate in the foro climatico of Central America, they get a map with probability of higher or lower rain.  Farmers want precise information.  INETER prepares a more detailed report for the farmers.

2.   They do not run any models.  Forecasts are done at the airport. 

3.   The SMN has some people with University degrees.  They have 8 people with Meteorology backgrounds and 16 total (plus 3 administrators) in the forecasting area.  They complained about the difficulty in sending more people to learn Meteorology.  Many people have left (e.g. Mauricio Rosales, Milagros Castro, Javier Lopez, Sandra Toval) and the rest are getting old.  He said they need to train more people.

4.   They have an flood early warning system. 

5.   They have 16 conventional stations.  The raingauge network reports daily.


Mr. Gutierrez said that Climate change was gradual and that he though that many NGO's are getting lots of money using climate change as an excuse.

Mike asked about the temperature of Lake Nicaragua; they did not know the temperature variations in the two main Nicaraguan lakes. 

Art mentioned some cheaper lightning detection systems.  Mr. Gutierrez appeared interested and suggested keeping in touch about this.

During the main talks (to about 15 people) there were some comments: 

Mr. Gutierrez:  Art had mentioned that this year hurricane formation had been closer to their coast.  Why?  This is important since there is short reaction time.   Forecasting storm formation near the coast is very important.

A person from the Agricultural section complained that the amount of rain was not well forecast this year, which led to large losses  (bean crop).  1-2 month accurate forecasts would be useful. 

Mr. Gutierrez said that people want impossible things and that knowing the climatology of the area and a forecast are important.   He also said they have recently started a program where they mix GOES images with automatic station data to verify if satellite info is reasonable.  He feels it is key to improve the seasonal (3-month) forecasts.

A person from SINIA (environmental area) asked if training could be offered locally so that what Catalac does could be done locally.  Information must be more local. 

Another question from the audience was if Nicaragua joined IASCLIP by what percentage would the forecasts improve?

Mr. Gutierrez thought that it is important to put together a more concrete proposal that would cover what they need and how they can participate.   They offered to contact Art and Mike later. 

We also found out that in order to save money government employees are now only working until lunchtime - 12:30!

El Salvador   Sept 12-14  (Mike Douglas only on this segment)

Our contact was Luis Garcia  (SMN Director) email :  LGarcia@marn.gob.sv  

Other contacts we made during our visit:  Francisco Gavidia (MARN Oceanography Section head and he also teaches at the National University).  His email is: FGavidia@marn.gob.sv

10 AM:   Started the IASCLIP talk.  There were about 15 people, some of whom were from other institutions as well.   Also forecasters and climatologists.  Mr. Zimmerman (participated in the PACS-SONET course in Panama in 2001) was also there.   Mr. Eder Perez was from Geology (and monitoring of landslides), Rosa Maria Arango (Agro climatic information center), Raquel Murillo (from Civil Defense), and also someone from the electric company who came later. 

* Note:  Terminology (in El Salvador at least):  Warm water pool is: Piscina de agua calida.

Luis Garcia asked if the information by Art (relating pressure variations at Isla de Pascua and Liberia  to rainfall in Central America) had been published somewhere.   He also noted that more African dust can cool down the ocean, two years ago strong storms resulted in a strong canicula.  This has not been studied. 

Other members in the audience mentioned that the monetary effects of the recent bad (wet) weather were significant.   At the same time the country's infrastructure has been deteriorating.

Lorena Soriano from the forecast office said that there was a need to improve forecasts but we also needed to correlate them to geologic, hydrological, and oceanographic forecasts.  She also mentioned that the satellite composites shown by Mike agrees with what happens here during the rainy season. 

Luis mentioned that all year they, and the Central American climate forum, have been paying attention to the La Niña effects.  Many government institutions have already begun planning for possible problems and SMN personnel have been letting these institutions know about possible problems ahead.

Luis also mentioned that the low level jet across Nicaragua produces an anticyclonic circulation in an area that is the driest.  Metapan on the border with Guatemala for example.  He thinks this would be a good area for a field campaign. 

The person from Civil Defense mentioned that the validation of the forecasts is important.

The Navy has ships that could perhaps be used to go to buoys in the Pacific.  El Salvador has one GCOS surface site at Ilopango airport.  They have 40 automatic stations.   More than 100 raingauges -  39 conventional and 19 telemetric.   58 send data daily, data is received by 7 am.  Every three months data from all stations is collected.  The data is on the web. 

Mr. Paulo Estrada, who is working on air pollution, asked about the cost of the radiosonde stations Mike was talking about.  He thinks they could be useful for air pollution studies.  He said air pollution causes health problems that cost upwards of $58 M dollars per year.   The studies taking place now are focusing on the impact of vehicle emissions and the possible benefits if the gasoline is improved.

His email is:  payala@marn.gob.sv     also interested is:  afabian@marn.gob.sv

Mr. Rodolfo Caceres, from the electric company, said they have 4 dams that provide more than 50% of the electricity for El Salvador and they want better forecasts of the seasonal changes during May-October.  A better rainfall forecast would be useful as electricity cost goes up and down depending on the forecast. 

Luis mentioned that people from NOAA rarely visit and they feel abandoned as most of the US interest is in the Atlantic.  He will try to compile a list of their priorities and send those to Mike.

Mr. Gavidia said that Oceanography is here for marine climatology and started with the wave (shoreline) emphasis.  Now they are doing research at the University and he has brought two students to work here at the SMN using project funds.  He thinks that justifying any project like IASCLIP to the authorities is no problem.    He mentioned Ernesto Patiño at NOAA <enrique.patino@noaa.gov > (he is from El Salvador) who works in fisheries.  He has been working with him.   He also mentioned that they had already been told by the Colombians that they could use their ships. 

During lunch, we also talked a bit more with Luis and Mr. Gavidia.  They told us that the weather service has 58 members, they work 24/7 and they have 12 forecasters.

Two months ago they acquired a marine radar, (Furuno brand) to estimate rainfall.  The Danish adapted it.  They can use it for early warning.  They convinced the minister to buy it.  However they need help to learn how to maintain it and also in the interpretation of the imagery.  The images are on their web site.

Dan Bradley from NOAA international office came recently to sign an agreement for the NOAA-funded project CAPRA ($300,000). 

Both Garcia and Gavidia are very interested in collaborative research and writing papers.  Garcia also mentioned that Mike Davison (NOAA NWS ) will visit for a week to provide some training next year.  Garcia also complained that it is very hard to go out and study.  The government won't pay your salary while you are gone.   He would like to have a course here in El Salvador.  He felt that at least 8 people that came to the talk today would understand a course in English - more if it were in Spanish.  Up to 12 people could participate.   They asked if NOAA could sponsor something like this.

Luis also said they have a mix of 170 stations (rain??) and 120 or so stations have records longer than 30 years.  He said that they would be able to install more raingauges if we were to send them. 

At 2:30 PM we met with Ing. Ana Deisy Lopez, the director of MARN.  She said they are being asked to do better with their forecasts - more pressure these days.  She also mentioned that the minister is very interested in these subjects and it appears that he listens to them somewhat.   She commented that there is money to hire meteorologists but there are not many to be found.   Training is a problem.

Later we visited the forecast office were Mrs. Lorena Soriano gave us a brief tour.

They receive information from 6 surface stations via internet and one by phone.  These they send to DC.  Their annual rainfall is 1800 mm and so far this year they have already exceeded that by 30%.