The Storm Whisperer
What do you do when extreme weather–which used to define the outer edges of possibility and of calamity–has become the new norm? Our safety might lie in the hands of amateurs like maverick meteorologist Mike Padua. Meet the weather geeks who are at the forefront of typhoon warnings.
HE CALLS THEM BY NAME: MARILYN, BASHANG, SENDONG, LANDO, AND YOLANDA. In 2004, the name of his frenemy was Unding. Back then, the people of Camarines Sur were just falling back into rest and routine, relieved that the worst tropical cyclone they’d experienced in almost a decade has left and continued on its course. The official weather forecast declared that it was heading up north. But in Naga City, this man thought otherwise.
Mike Padua has been obsessed with typhoons since he was five years old. Captivated by the science of weather, he spent his childhood propped up against windows, climbing roofs and plotting storms. Upon being asked when his fascination really began, he gives anecdotes instead of answers. And from his stories it can only seem like the truth—he talks about an uncle with a similar love and a map and tracking guide that he lent Mike, following the newspapers for reports in elementary school, plastering his wall with the collected clippings and studying them devoutly.
It followed him into adulthood. Mike is a weatherman. He’s a quiet and reserved fellow, difficult to pin down, except when he’s talking about the thing he loves most. When he talks about the weather, enthusiasm emanates from his voice, his passion lit with the urgency that escapes the rest of the country but that has taken him since he was a boy.
At any other time, a man like Mike would’ve just been… well, a nerd with an unusual obsession. But today, in a Philippines that has been caught flat-footed by Typhoon Yolanda—the storm known as Haiyan internationally, and which remains the strongest typhoon ever recorded at landfall, and the deadliest storm of the modern age—and in a world battered regularly by extreme weather events that are not supposed to happen in the first place, Mike is more than a curiosity: He is a necessity.
On that particular morning in 2004, he woke up to unsettling satellite images. Armed with experience dated back to 1982, his own rooftop weather station and an office at the Naga College Foundation, he gave his own unofficial forecast. “It was already late in the afternoon when I said the typhoon would return at 9PM,” Mike recalls the details of the prediction that would later earn him the nickname Mr. Typhoon. He made several phone calls to PAGASA, which fell on deaf ears. After, he made a call to then-mayor Jesse Robredo, who with the help of Mike’s forecast, pulled together a meeting with the disaster coordinating council, preparing for the worst.
Later that night, as predicted, Unding returned. The winds averaged as high as 80KPH, and the thunderclaps were as loud as bombs. An official warning was released hours later, when the typhoon was already raging at a nationally accepted Signal 3.
Typhoon Unding, internationally acknowledged as Koppu, is informally called a “looper,” meteorologist slang that refers to the rare occurrence when a typhoon decides to double back on its course like on a rollercoaster’s track. When it comes to probability, which is the crux of weather forecasting, it is a testament to how nature can play tricks, making it a lot harder to calculate without experience.
Mike has been giving his forecasts since 1997—earlier if you take into account the occasional heads-up he’d give his elementary school teachers. As a young student, he gladly attended seminars on typhoon tracking given by the center of PAGASA in Naga City, and made friends with their staff members. “I bought this summary on typhoons from 1948 to 1978 from PAGASA, then I photocopied their reports from 1979 to 1983. Those were my comics.” In college, he took up geography in the University of the Philippines and put up typhoon tracking charts on the bulletin boards of the residence halls. I was a weird guy, he acknowledges; not everyone feels the attraction that pulls him to bring out a ladder and get on the roof.
But it was in the year 1997 that the Internet took off and Mike put up his own online weather-forecasting platform, now known as Typhoon 2000, which was the first privately owned station that featured all the information on local typhoons. Today, it is still one of the most popular ports for information during times of crisis, reaching hundreds of thousands hits a day, and up to million when there’s a typhoon on its way. In fact, Typhoon 2000 preceded PAGASA’s official website, which was set up a few years after. “Tumulong nga ako doon eh,” Mike laughs. Prior to the launch of the PAGASA website, he had been collecting the data from PAGASA himself and then typing it up on his own time.
A good weather forecast is like a good suit of armor. Like anything that has to do with probability, it might never be perfect. We can come close to good enough. But on some days, when it isn’t, the costs are high.
Weather forecasting is all about data. Where and how the data is collected is also part of this calculation. A forecaster is only as good as what he knows, which puts five-year-old newspaper-gathering Mike in perspective. The first step in weather forecasting is to understand what is happening all over the world, and not just in localized areas. “Local observation has almost nothing to do with the track of a typhoon,” says Dr. Gerry Bagtasa from the UP Institute of Environmental Science and Meteorology (IESM), the academic arm of PAGASA. He is also the forecaster behind Weather Manila. “In forecasting, there are two things you need to know: first is what the current state of the atmosphere is, and the next is what will happen.”
Early this year, NASA reported that 2014 was the Earth’s warmest since 1880; 2015 already has, overtaken it. Before the ink was dry on the COP21 Climate Change Conference in Paris, climatologists were already predicting that this year, 2016, will be hotter still. Globally, the number of weather-related disasters has only increased in the past decades, and the number of those affected is greater in developing countries. “Climate change” has become a household phrase, just as it has become the new normal for everyone around the world.
Living in this new normal, we have heard over again in different ways that we are also living under the threat of a new atmosphere, vastly different from what it used to be. Before disaster hits, a forecast is just a prediction, a warning. But after the rains have gone and the dust has settled, people come out of their houses, and they always have questions. Where did that come from? Why didn’t we know sooner? A good weather forecast is a like a good suit of armor. Like anything that has to do with probability, it might never be perfect. We can come close to good enough. But on some days, when it isn’t, the costs are high. It becomes crucial to know when we should open up the umbrella or shut our doors. We need men on the inside, men who know when the skies are our enemy or our friend.
Every country has an official weather bureau like PAGASA, which reports to the greater powers, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). But to date, no local university offers meteorology as an undergraduate course. The only meteorology courses offered are the MA and PhD program of the UP Institute of Meteorology, and this has been the case since 1968. Years ago, a partylist successfully pushed for the undergraduate program, but their victory was short-lived. After the partylist was disbanded, the program lost its footing and closed with only one batch of meteorologists.
Ideally, with more data and more forecasters, the accuracy in weather monitoring improves, but beyond our batch of rogue meteorologists, resources are scarce. Fortunately, all national weather bureaus send reports to the WMO and the information is made available to the public on official government websites. This is how ordinary citizens like Mike Padua, have been able to participate early on in the field of forecasting, and have learned to take weather monitoring into their own hands.
Weather forecasting is all about data. Where and how data is collected is also part of this calculation. A forecaster is only as good as what he knows.
Information is currency, and weather is a playing field where information is highly valuable. In more developed countries, climatology is a relevant and booming business. After his successful forecast of Typhoon Unding, Mike was met with many cynics who accused him of doing it for the money. But in reality, there isn’t an abundance of weather companies in the Philippines—ironic for a country with particularly turbulent weather. Locally, the business of weather is a fairly vacant arena. It was only three years ago that Mike, who was working independently at the time and funding Typhoon 2000 out of his own pocket, was recruited to work for the newly founded Weather Philippines (WPF), the first privately owned weather company in the country.
The concept of Weather Philippines is simple: they provide localized weather forecasts on their website and app, and they do so with their own independent network. Currently, Weather Philippines has over 700 automated stations used to measure relevant factors like humidity, precipitation, and wind speed. There are pros and cons to having weather stations automated, but WPF currently holds the largest network of automated stations, which gives them an edge in certain aspects of data collection. The information gathered exclusively by Weather Philippines is thrown to their international partner, one of the largest weather services providers in the world, MeteoGroup. MeteoGroup has equivalents of Weather Philippines in countries worldwide, which allows them to crunch more data and make their own forecasts.
Prior to the advent of this kind of technology, stations were always manned, and information was communicated through phone or Teletype. It used to take a team of meteorologists to put together a five-day forecast. Nowadays, with just the right software, forecasts can be done up to two weeks in advance.
“When Ondoy and Pepeng happened several years back, there was a realization,” says Weather Philippines’ general manager Dave Valeriano. “We pour a lot of resources giving to those who are hit by the storms, when it might be more beneficial and effective if we already try to help the communities be more resilient and prepared. The question became ‘where do we start?’ and we decided that we would start with information.”
With their network and team of five meteorologists, Weather Philippines is capable of making more specific localized forecasts, which they provide to both local government units and private companies. When a typhoon is approaching, their team works around the clock, regularly making updates and posting the information in a way that’s understandable. The meteorologists have learned to be their own graphic artists, studying how to make clear charts and diagrams over satellite images, knowing full well that if their reports don’t translate to common sense that their monitoring has gone to waste. Sending out information is half the battle.
THE LANDSCAPE OF WEATHER monitoring in the Philippines is a peculiar one. The one-voice policy dictates that there be only one official advisory in every country coming from the authorized weather bureau. All other stations are compliant, and you’ll find disclaimers on their platforms saying that the audience should still, always, refer to PAGASA for announcements. This is a policy implemented in countries other than ours, but in the former there are many other unofficial voices littering the backdrop.
But that has a lot of drawbacks, in our case. We have fewer big entities to rely on to watch our skies, but we also have individual citizens who are being pulled by some internal forces to participate. Dr. Gerry Bagtasa calls it “citizen science” or “community observation,” which is a tool used in other countries. In this model, the government helps put up observation sites, and citizens—thousands of them all over the country—are trained to man these sites and send the observation data to PAGASA. They may not do the forecasts themselves, but their observations help the official government forecasts.
Bagtasa stresses hand-in-hand cooperation; when it comes to weather data, all weathermen believe that more is more. In the Philippines, however, there seems to be a quiet frustration at the impression that PAGASA would prefer to fight this war alone. The arrival of Weather Philippines, along with other private local weather stations and projects, could be welcoming the winds of change.
“There is… a lot of subjectivity,” Dr. Gerry Bagtasa chooses his words delicately. “You ask different forecasters on what forecast they’d give… forecasters from PAGASA, Mike, the US Navy, and they will all come up with slightly different predictions. Subjectivity is necessary.”
This subjectivity is a double-edged sword, as tricky as the weather itself. The danger of having many forecasters takes into consideration the citizens, who may not know which way to turn or who to follow. As happened during Typhoon Unding, there will always be times when two warnings come into conflict. But on the flipside, having more forecasts allows fellow forecasters to have more information and better calculations. Mike talks enthusiastically about his team at Weather Philippines, including another fellow senior typhoon specialist, and what he calls “junior mets,” meteorologists who are just beginning to get their hands dirty. One of them came from the batch of rogue meteorology graduates. “Noong wala pa sila, ako lang gumagawa. Ako ang nagpupuyat at hindi tumutulog… then naging dalawa kami.” They’re now five. Mike is hopeful that when they have enough manpower, they will be able to create hourly updates instead of their current six-hour system. He tried it once by himself, but admits that tackling it on his own isn’t sustainable.
Weather can be chaotic. Our weathermen are quiet. But they have never been dulled to the urgency and insistence of nature—they are standing on the shoulders of others all over the world, armed with the knowledge that weather doesn’t have any borders. Mike, for one, isn’t the least bit discouraged. That should be made known. Not about the lack of manpower, the state of weather forecasting, or even the shades of climate change. “It’s hard to take into account climate change in my forecasts. Climate is long-term: it’s knowledge that we accumulate. Typhoons are short-term. Every weather event is an ongoing event. That’s my focus.” He pauses. Mike doesn’t hesitate when he talks about his passion, but he always seems to stumble on the question of why, as though he doesn’t think to question what compels him. It’s easier for him to say what it isn’t. It isn’t about money or compensation. It isn’t about recognition or applause.
After a while, Mike picks the conversation up by talking about the weather, and it seems we are back to the most important thing. “I just want them to remember. It’s to easy to forget the disaster stories,” he says after a while, “I want people to understand what typhoons are. I want them to be fully aware. The weather happens every day.”
EXTREME WEATHER WEBSITES
TYPHOON CHASERS AND HURRICANE HUNTERS
Typhoon 2000 is a one-stop for all the information on all the tropical cyclones covering the South China Sea and Northwest Pacific Basin. It gathers information from different meteorological agencies and then compiles and communicates that information in layman’s terms.
The official website of PAGASA houses weather advisories as well as disaster warnings. In times of thunderstorms and floods, updates will be posted here.
Weather Manila is a forecasting platform that gives information on different, and specific, places around the Philippines. They provide the outlook of the weather in a concise chart that details rain, temperature, wind and other factors.
This is the official website of Weather Philippines, where you can find localized information and regular updates. Along with the forecasts, there are also short clips available that give lectures on weather monitoring and storms.