MANILA, JUNE 29, 2012 (PHILSTARweek) By Helen M. Flores - Not too long ago, the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (PAGASA) was the butt of jokes – walang pagasa or hopeless, a pun on its acronym which means “hope,” and quips like if PAGASA says it will rain for sure it will be sunny.

All that has changed, thanks to the agency’s ambitious modernization program. And with a little help from social networking sites, the agency has been giving out timely and accurate forecasts, consequently saving lives and property.

The agency installed last month a P530-million Doppler radar – the first of its kind in Southeast Asia – in Virac, Catanduanes. The equipment, developed by the Japan Radio Co. (JRC), is the first facility in the world to use the Solid-State Meteorological Radar System technology, which has 95 percent accuracy.

PAGASA has also been increasing its team of weather forecasters. From 16 two years ago, the bureau now has 22 weather forecasters manning the equipment and preparing the weather bulletins at the PAGASA central office in Quezon City – and they plan to recruit more meteorologists.

“ I can say that our forecasts now are more accurate because we have the required equipment. While the rain-producing system is still developing, the equipment can already detect thunderstorms and the estimated amount of rainfall. Using these radars, the accuracy of forecasts is much higher,” PAGASA Administrator Nathaniel Servando tells STARweek.

[PHOTO- The radar facility in Baler, Aurora is partly solar powered.]

While Congress has yet to approve the proposed PAGASA Modernization Act, Servando said the agency was able to acquire new facilities from its regular budget the past few years, supplemented by foreign grants.

The Virac Doppler radar was acquired under the P174-billion project for the improvement of the meteorological radar system in the Philippines funded by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), with two more to be set up in Aparri, Cagayan in October and in Guiuan, Eastern Samar next year.

Servando says the new facility is the most vital and strategic radar facility as it faces the Pacific Ocean, where most of the typhoons develop. This covers the whole Bicol region, plus Masbate and parts of Samar.

The weather agency has six other radars located in Tagaytay; Subic, Zambales; Mactan, Cebu; Hinatuan, Surigao del Sur; Baguio City and Baler, Aurora.

“Metro Manila is well-covered, with two Doppler radars – Subic and Tagaytay – providing real-time forecasts every 15 minutes,” the 46-year-old PAGASA chief says.

A total of 150 automatic whether stations installed nationwide are capable of providing real-time weather information such as wind, temperature, rainfall, according to Servando.

“We have synoptic and agromet (agrometeorology) stations which provide data during severe weather events. They are operating 24 hours a day, providing hourly information, and of course we have five upper air stations which are operational and strategically located in Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao. We have one wind profiler at the PAGASA Science Garden (Quezon City) which is useful in monitoring weather conditions in Metro Manila, especial during the southwest monsoon,” he says.

PAGASA also receives real-time satellite data from Japan, the United States and China.

“If you have to compare the Philippines with our neighboring countries, we are more advanced when it comes to weather forecasting equipment,” he says.

The dwindling number of forecasters is now being addressed by PAGASA through regular meteorologist training courses.

“Currently, we have 40 trainees including PAGASA personnel and non-PAGASA personnel, and five foreign trainees from Brunei Darussalam, Papua New Guinea, Samoa and Vanuatu. Eventually they will be hired by PAGASA as meteorologists, hydrologists or weather observers,” Servando says.

With additional personnel, the forecasters now work on three shifts, instead of having to work 24 hours straight, especially during severe weather episodes.

“Now we don’t experience straight duty because of the increase in the manpower,” says PAGASA spokesman Chris Perez.

During normal days, there are six to seven forecasters per shift. PAGASA augments the number of personnel during severe weather.

PAGASA also has weather observers assigned in its five regional offices, providing local forecasts for the residents.

As part of its efforts to develop competent weathermen, PAGASA forecasters participate in fellowship programs abroad as part of the agency’s human resource development program. Perez recently completed his Master of Science in Climate Change degree in Australia, while senior weather forecaster Rene Paciente is currently in South Korea for a two-month training on tropical cyclone forecasting. Another PAGASA forecaster, Bernie de Leon, has just finished a one-year program in Taiwan. Some of them have finished their master’s and doctorate degrees at the Ateneo de Manila University and University of the Philippines-Diliman.

[PHOTO -The radar in Mactan, Cebu.]

“It is very important that they (forecasters) have technical know-how because they can simplify the forecasts for the general public,” Servando underscores.

Such opportunities offered to the weather forecasters, plus higher salary for government employees under the Salary Standardization Law and additional benefits and incentives, prevent the PAGASA forecasters from seeking lucrative posts abroad, the PAGASA chief says.

“Only a few forecasters left the country, and some even came back. If there are invitations for employment overseas they will now think twice,” he adds.

To increase the number of meteorologists in the country, the Agham Partylist, in partnership with PAGASA and DOST’s Science Education Institute, offered the B.S. in Meteorology program in different state colleges and universities for the first time this school year. The DOST has a total of 16 scholars this semester.

With an average of 20 tropical cyclones every year, the Philippines is the best training ground for weather forecasting.

“In terms of frequency and intensity of the cyclones, we did not notice an increasing trend in the last 50 years due to climate change,” Servando says.

However, a PAGASA study noted an increase in rainfall volume associated with storms, which is a manifestation of climate change.

The report also found an increase in the number of warm days and warm nights in the country over the last 50 years. The average daytime temperature has increased by 0.6 degrees Celsius, which is consistent with the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Servando adds.

According to the Servando, the state of weather forecasting in the country has improved a lot in the last three years not only because of the agency’s new equipment but also due to the advances in communications technology.

[PHOTO- PAGASA chief Nathaniel Servando leads the twice daily discussion on the daily weather forecast with meteorologists.]

“We can disseminate information more effectively now because we have mobile phones (SMS), aside from fax, telephone, email, website, and now we have Twitter where we can interact with people. So these tools help us minimize errors not only in forecast formulation but in dissemination of forecast... How the information is transmitted and received by the end-users in a timely manner is very important, especially during emergency situation,” he says.

Since PAGASA launched its Twitter account (@dost_pagasa) in 2010, its followers has reached 216, 733 as of June 11, making it one of the most followed government institutions.

“We tweet real-time weather information like rainfall amount in specific locations. Not only in Metro Manila but in all areas within the range of radars,” says Servando.

During a normal day, PAGASA sends an average of seven to 10 tweets; 30 to 60 tweets during occurrence of thunderstorms and 70 to 100 tweets when there is a landfalling storm, the PAGASA official says.

In August 2010, President Aquino sacked the then PAGASA administrator due to inaccurate forecasts of typhoon “Basyang,” which battered Metro Manila and nearby provinces, causing major damage.

Servando, a former PAGASA deputy administrator for research and development, then took over as administrator. He has a B.S. in Electrical Engineering from the Univerisity of Negros Occidental-Recoletos in Bacolod City, and masteral and doctorate degrees in meteorology from the University of the Philippines-Diliman.

“We want to reiterate that forecast is just that – a forecast, and we cannot expect all the time that it will be 100 percent accurate. Plus we are in the tropics and tropical weather system is different from the weather systems in higher latitudes… weather systems are more challenging in the tropics,” Servando explains.

When it comes to rainfall forecast, Servando says PAGASA’s prediction is now 60 to 80 percent accurate.

PAGASA is set to launch this month its rainfall alert system. Aside from the usual storms warning signals 1 to 4, PAGASA will be implementing the rainfall alert system, which will be pilot tested in Metro Manila.

[PHOTO- PAGASA hydrologist Elmer Caringal briefs Servando on the status of major dams in Luzon that should be closely monitored for possible overflowing during heavy rains. Star photos by boy santos]

“We will use color-coded warning – blue, red and green. For example, when we raise code red you can expect 15 to 30 millimeters of rain,” says Servando.

The warning will include the place and duration of rain. It will be updated regularly until the weather system dissipates. Aside from the Internet, PAGASA will be tapping the media, specifically radio stations, so that they can broadcast the warning faster.

“Weather is not an exact science, but with the help of social networking sites like Twitter, we can immediately report changes in our forecasts,” Servando says.

“The science and technology that we use in weather forecasting has improved a lot through the years. We are more confident with our forecasts now. When we say it will rain, believe us, it will rain,” the PAGASA chief ends.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

All rights reserved