Yes, we are bringing Maori methods into meteorology – but why ignore old English thinking?

"Mother Nature didn't tell us it would be this bad."

“Mother Nature didn’t tell us it would be this bad.”

It’s great to see NIWA’s bosses understand the shortcomings of all their modern meteorological gadgetry and recognise the need to bring the skills of our indigenous people into the forecasting caper.

They banged out a press statement this week to explain why they are investing in Maori knowledge.

The statement kicks off by stating the obvious: forecasting whether we’re in for a hot, dry holiday or wet, humid conditions this summer can be a complex and tricky business.

Then it admits we need something more than all those fancy modern instruments to tell us what to expect, weather-wise.

While modern state-of-the-art high-resolution forecasting models, like those run by NIWA’s supercomputer, have demonstrated significant accuracy and continue to improve each year, Mother Nature can tell us even more about the weather ahead – just by observing patterns and sequences.

Alf accordingly recommends that NIWA employ Mother Nature.

The statement goes on:

Using environmental indicators to anticipate local weather and climate outcomes is common practice among many indigenous people around the world, including Māori.

By observing patterns and sequences in natural events – such as the behaviour of birds, the blooming of certain trees and flowers, and the movements of the stars, Maori have long used environmental indicators to forecast local weather and climate – helping to manage daily and seasonal activities.

Mind you, there is no one Maori method of forecasting. Each tribe does it own thing in its own way.

Traditional indicators to forecast weather and climate vary from place to place because of geography, different landscapes and seascapes, and between iwi or hapū.

For example – central North Island iwi Ngāi Tuhoe use the sun to predict approaching storms. When a vivid halo encircles the sun, the expected outcome is a storm approaching. A pale and dim halo encircling the sun suggests a storm is far away. When pukeko are observed heading for higher ground, Northland iwi Ngāti Wai will expect a storm and possible flooding. South Island iwi Kai Tahu predict that a long, hot summer will follow when the ti kōuka (cabbage tree) flowers early and profusely.

We all know about Maori being strong on consensus decision-making (although it is unlikely a Maori captive who was being lined up to provide the protein on the dinner menu had much say in the matter).

This consensus thing is big deal in the forecasting caper, too.

Often more than one indicator is used to forecast weather or climate in the days, months and seasons ahead. Where there are discrepancies among the indicators, a consensus-based approach is usually taken. If the majority of indicators point in a given direction then a forecast is most often made in that direction – in a similar way to probabilistic seasonal forecasting methods that rely on consensus amongst different computer models to forecast changes in climate.

So let’s have some more indicators, eh? The more the merrier and (hopefully) the more efficacious, too.

NIWA has hired a bloke called Darren King, an environmental scientist, who has been studying traditional Maori methods for predicting weather and seasonal conditions with elders from around the country.

He earns his keep by managing the Climate Applications Group based in Auckland and is a member of the National Climate Centre and the National Centre of Māori Environmental Research, Te Kūwaha.

His research interests include climate-induced natural hazards, mātauranga Māori (Maori knowledge) and its relationship with contemporary science, coastal evolution and tsunami risk.

He says modern and traditional forecasting systems can complement each other.

“Using Maori knowledge to forecast local weather and climate reflects the Māori worldview that all things are connected by whakapapa (genealogy) and that subtle natural linkages in the environment can reveal much about atmospheric conditions,” says Mr King.

“Climate has always been important to Maori. It influences which plants, trees and birds are found in various parts of the country and it affects winds, waves and ocean currents. This knowledge has not only been vital to survival – by helping whanau to prepare and plan for weather hazards and climate variability, but also influences decisions about when to plant, harvest or fish.

“Learning more about the Maori knowledge system can contribute to better understanding of local weather and climate changes as well as promote awareness of the inherent linkages between people and the natural world. Lessons such as these are critical for informing adaptation strategies for the future.”

Alf intends chatting with the good people at NIWA about the way things were done in England in the good old days of the Middle Ages.

They didn’t use fancy instruments in those days.

In fact, forecasting was dead easy and remarkably inexpensive.

Alf’s authority on the matter can be found here.

A University of Exeter historian has shed light on how the future was predicted centuries ago, where the day of the week on which feast days fell foretold the story of the year.

According to one set of predictions, if Christmas Day fell on a Sunday, then Lent would be windy, summer would be dry – vines would flourish and honey would be abundant.

But if December 25 fell on a Monday, the summer would be windy and the vines would wither.

Dunno what it means when December 25 falls on a Wednesday.

But it shouldn’t take too long to find out.

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