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Are cockroaches a sign of a sunny day? Role of traditional knowledge in meteorological science

Do frigate birds still fly before a big storm? Do homes still fill with cockroaches before a sunny day? And can flowering mangoes predict a cyclone?

These questions and more are occupying the minds of Pacific Island meteorologists, as they work on a database of traditional knowledge to guide future measuring of the weather and climate.

The subject of the usefulness of traditional knowledge to modern meteorology is high on the agenda of the Pacific Meteorological Council meeting. 

Members of the Council - the Solomon Islands, Samoa, Tonga, Vanuatu and Niue - have been working with the Australian Government on recording traditional knowledge in order to use it to guide science.

Outgoing chair of the P.M.C., David Hiba from the Solomon Islands, said the main objective of the Climate and Oceans Support Program in the Pacific (C.O.S.P.Pac) traditional knowledge project is to see which old sayings are still valid.

“The climate is changing; the land is changing, so we want to ensure indicators are still valid,” he said.

“It is a long process, collecting data, doing monitoring and then hopefully integrate that with the science.”

The long process involves going to villages and speaking with elders, gathering the knowledge passed down to them from their own elders, and logging it all.

Mr. Hiba, who is also the Solomon Islands’ Meteorological Service director, said incorporating traditional knowledge into their work is helping communities understand weather forecasting and climate change.

“In the Solomons we are working with the N.G.O’s, they are the experts in going out to the communities. 

“The benefit is with traditional knowledge, you are reaching out to the communities, and not only that, this knowledge was used by our forefathers.

“Kids now-days don’t know those things. 

"So it’s an advantage that when we do this we preserve traditional knowledge on weather and climate.”

Eventually, the work will grow to include astronomical traditional knowledge, such as knowing by the moon when the fish are best, Mr. Hiba said.

Samoa Meteorology Division director Mulipola Ausetalia Titimaea said his forefathers did not having modern forecasting technology, but were able to predict the weather and prepare accordingly.

“For example, on the knowledge of tropical cyclones and the seasons, we would look at fruit,” he said.

“If there is excessive fruiting of a particular fruit, like mango, our forefathers would predict a tropical cyclone.

“All of this knowledge needs to be put in a database, be verified or validated and then it will assist our conventional forecasting.”

These old ways of studying the weather might seem odd to contemporary scientists, he said, but they work, he added.

“When we are sitting in our house, and it’s raining and raining, then all of a sudden there are a lot of cockroaches around the house, my father would say tomorrow is sunny.

“That is particularly strange to a scientific methodology but then you have to look at how our people saw things. That saying is true, the next day there is sun.”

Mulipola said elders in their 80’s and 90’s hold a vast amount of knowledge, and each village will have their ways of forecasting.

“And our leaders too, particularly our former Head of State (His Highness Tui Atua Tupua Tamasese Efi) is very knowledgeable, and we can also talk to our Prime Minister.”

Anecdotal evidence on climate change and trends in the climate are also important. Mulipola’s team is already looking into both the science and the traditional knowledge around last month’s heavy and consistent rains.

“We know it’s raining. The records show it’s raining. And why it’s raining like this is what we are trying to find out,” he said.

July is the middle of the dry season, which begins in May and ends in October. But this year saw frequent and heavy bouts of rain, which many are calling unseasonable. 

“But there is short-term climate variability,” Mulipola cautioned.

“So is it climate variability, or is it something else, to do with climate change? We have to look at the trends and see the changes there are in the environment.”

The Australian program, C.O.S.P.Pac, works with 14 countries in the region alongside Geoscience Australia, Pacific Community and the Secretariat of the Regional Environment Program. 

This is the second phase of the project, and it began in July 2018. The first phase, which ran from 2012-2018.

Australia spent AUD$39 million (T$ 69.7 million) on phase one, and has invested another $23 million (T$41.1) on phase two, which is a four year project. 

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