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How Rainfall Data can Revolutionize Climate Adaptation

The global rich have stable governments, savings accounts, insurance and more to fall back on when disaster strikes. People in poorer countries don’t, so they’re often faced with tough decisions in times of drought: Sell the only ox for food and plow by hand next year? Take the kids out of school and put them to work chopping firewood for extra cash? Abandon the farm and family to look for work in the city?

But now, a new rainfall data set is aiming to change all that.

The data set, CHIRPS (Climate Hazards Group InfraRed Precipitation With Station data), blends data from weather stations and weather satellites with extraordinary accuracy, providing a detailed record of global rainfall stretching back more than 30 years.

By making it possible to compare current rainfall patterns with historical averages at the neighborhood scale for virtually the entire world, CHIRPS provides an early warning system for drought, making it possible for development agencies, insurance companies and others to more effectively activate adaptive strategies such as food aid and insurance.

For instance, during El Niño, a periodic warming of the tropical Pacific Ocean that skews weather patterns worldwide and may be getting more intense due to climate warming, conditions can take a turn for the horrible, especially for far-flung rural agricultural communities that depend on steady rainfall to earn a living.

"Now, we can accurately identify how horrible things are" and target assistance accordingly, said Pete Peterson, who led the development of the new data set, released in February 2015 by the Climate Hazards Group at the University of California-Santa Barbara.

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