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And now for the weather…

Meet the UN meteorologist helping countries to adapt to climate change
, Barbara Celis
Jesse has always held a strong passion for outdoor pursuits. Photo provided by Jesse Mason

Jesse Mason is not your everyday weatherman. He doesn't pop up every night on television with a big map in the background and tomorrow's forecast. Most likely, you will in fact find him in remote areas with no TVs in sight.

In his role as WFP Team Lead for Forecast-based Financing, Jesse pays close attention to the skies — helping communities brace for cyclones, droughts, and floods whose frequency has escalated due to climate change.

It was his passion for the outdoors that led him to start forecasting the weather for friends in high school. "There was not much sunshine in Canada," he explains. "A bright day used to be a big event, and I didn't want to miss out."

Jesse laments how conditions are changing on the mountains he used to climb. Photo provided by Jesse Mason

As he grew older, Jesse could be found hiking to the highest mountain in Morocco, hanging from a rope on a glacier in Nepal or just climbing a steep wall in the Alps. Such activities became the unintentional window from which he first peeked at the effects of climate change.

Lessons from nature

"That mountain I hiked ten years ago in my native Canada, now it has no snow left," he says on a breezy, late-summer's day in Rome. "The river in which I went swimming as a child is gone. My interaction with places that I loved, and witnessing how climate change made an impact on them, was a huge factor in me joining WFP's Climate and Disaster Risk Reduction unit [in 2017]. In fact, if outdoors people are aware of climate change by enjoying nature only, imagine if those changes in climate were directly affecting your livelihood, as happens in many countries where WFP works."

Despite such grim realities, Jesse keeps a positive attitude. "To work in the climate change field, you need to be an optimist," he says.

The difference between climate and weather

Smiling under the Italian sun, he talks about climate, but as the agency's ‘de facto' weatherman, it's the weather he helps countries plan for. So, to set the record straight, I ask him to clarify the difference between climate and weather. He smiles again and nods. "People still get confused," he says. "The easiest way to understand the difference is this — we know the summer in Italy is supposed to be dry, and that is ‘climate'. Then you make holiday plans, and suddenly it's a week of rain and it ruins your vacation, and that's ‘weather'. Weather is the variation day to day or even hour to hour, and climate is supposed to be these regimes over longer periods."

Now that we understand the basics, we can go a bit deeper. The earth's climate is incredibly complex and extremely difficult to define, let alone measure. Fortunately, we have people like Jesse, whose MA Atmospheric Scientist degree gave him the technical knowledge to analyse climate. By convention, scientists have established that climate is taken to mean the average weather conditions over 30-year periods. However, as a result of global heating, everything we knew about climate is no longer reliable, which means our livelihoods, ecosystems and food systems are at risk.

"It's cheaper to act early than to bring help later. However, money shouldn't be the only trigger."

"Most of our food production is linked to climate," says Jesse. "The way we grow it, dry it, store it. Every piece along the food chain is related to it. If you cannot dry your food any longer because it was raining…suddenly your harvest is lost. Same for droughts. If rain arrives later than expected, your crops will die."

Forecast-based Finance to the rescue

This is where Forecast-based Financing comes in, with WFP leading an approach which sees Jesse's team working to offset some of the worst impacts of extreme weather events ahead of time. Where previous weather warnings would arrive just a few hours in advance, and people would lose everything, longer-range forecasting and pre-emptive action helps vulnerable countries better prepare for floods, droughts or cyclones.

"We inform farmers to delay planting or harvest crops depending on the calendar. We ask them to protect their livestock, identify strategic locations — the highest place in a village, for instance — to stockpile food, water, and medicines."

Jesse's role involves advising on measures to counter some of climate change's worst effects. Photo: WFP

Jesse's role also involves advising governments on a range of measures, from stockpiling markets with dry food and giving cash transfers to beneficiaries, to updating databases of vulnerable people and distributing medical and hygiene kits.

Climate change means we can't wait

The approach has been so well received that UN agencies and government partners plan to work together on early-action financing and early-warning systems, under the Risk-informed Early Action Partnership to be launched at the UN Climate Action Summit in New York in September.

The ultimate goal is to build strong systems that will help populations adapt to climate change — increasing resilience and reducing the need for humanitarian assistance in the aftermath of the event. "It's cheaper to act early than to bring help later. However, money shouldn't be the only trigger," says Jesse.

In all cases, weather forecasting is the first step. In fact, it's a skill that cuts across so many fields, both within and well beyond the humanitarian sector, as Jesse's varied career path highlights.

In 2010 he was a lead meteorologist at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver and producer for Canada's Olympic Broadcast Media Consortium. "Olympic athletes' decisions depend on the weather forecast," he explains. "Skiers change their equipment according to the weather. Ski-racing doesn't go ahead if the clouds are too close. Those decisions have financial consequences: if you suspend a race, you have to refund the tickets.

"I worked for the energy private sector forecasting how much snow would fall. It was needed to know how much water we would have available to power a hydroelectric plant. I also worked in a meteorology agency doing weather forecasting for movie productions or construction companies."

If forecasting is important in these fields, then it is clearly essential for humanitarian agencies. Jesse is in no doubt: "If the chances of a crane to fall are 5 percent because the forecasted wind is too strong, would you allow your employees to use it? Would you risk the consequences? For WFP, it is the same: why wait to save lives if we can help to change lives?"

Read more here about WFP's work in climate action