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Plane crash renews need for improved meteorological tech in Nigeria

In Nigeria, turbulent weather conditions have contributed to fatal air crashes. And statistics indicate that weather contributes up to 30% of civil aviation accidents worldwide,…

In Nigeria, turbulent weather conditions have contributed to fatal air crashes. And statistics indicate that weather contributes up to 30% of civil aviation accidents worldwide, either as a sole factor or among the causative factors.

Since 1903 when the Wright brothers wanted to test the first powered flight and sought information about the weather from the weather bureau in North Carolina, the intimate relationship between aviation and meteorology has continued to grow.

Weather information is therefore critical to aviation safety. Indeed, aviation is perhaps the earliest industry to use weather information for operational decision-making. Presently, the meteorological service is one of the areas in aeronautical practice that is strictly regulated by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), working closely with the World Meteorological Organization (WMO).

Each contracting state to ICAO Conventions is required to designate a national weather service provider, charged with the responsibility of providing aeronautical meteorological information for safety of flight operations in her airspace, in conformity with prescribed standards. This function is the responsibility of the Nigerian Meteorological Agency (NIMET) here in Nigeria.

Up until 2003, meteorological services were provided by the Department of Meteorological Services in the Federal Ministry of Aviation. That department was however, bedevilled by grossly inadequate operational infrastructure. Between 2003 and 2007, some progress were made to redress the infrastructural decadence and establish the foundation for a virile NIMET.

Aviation is among the sectors mapped out for total transformation by President Umaru Yar’adua. This was the mandate handed down to Mr. Babatunde Omotoba when he was sworn in as the minister of aviation in December 2008. In addition to ensuring that airport infrastructure such as terminal buildings, runways, etc. are provided and maintained, government has also been providing necessary infrastructure to enhance safety in the skies over Nigeria. One strategy is the strengthening of the operational capacity of NIMET which embarked on some safety-critical projects to launch the Agency into the league of world class weather service providers in the next few years. Some of the safety-critical major projects that have been implemented by NIMET since May 2007, or are on-going are: (i) procurement and installation of 6 (six) Doppler Weather Radars (DWR); (ii) installation of low-level wind shear alert system (LLWAS) at three airports; (iii) procurement and installation of Upper Air Sounding Equipment; (iv) establishment of five (5) marine weather stations along Nigeria’s coasts; (v) installation of MeteoSat Second Generation (MSG) ground receiver at the four international airports; (vi) installation of thunderstorm detectors at six airports across the country etc.

Meteorological services for aviation have gone through a lot of innovations in the last couple of years because of the changes in technologies. One of such innovations is the introduction of Doppler Weather Radar (DWR) systems. The Doppler Weather Radar (DWR) is a highly sophisticated weather monitoring equipment used to detect, track and monitor convective systems such as severe storms, microburst, line squalls, wind shear, thunderstorms etc. It detects the location, severity, speed and direction of convective systems.

This equipment detects raindrops in the atmosphere and provides information on their characteristics including their sizes, growth rate, speed of propagation and intensity of the precipitations resulting from them. On special request by NIMET, the DWR being produced for Nigeria will also have the capacity to monitor the development and propagation of dust plumes which also affects flight operations in the country.

The Doppler Weather Radar operates by converting reflected radio waves into interpretable pictures detecting the location, intensity, speed and direction of the severe weather events. Typically, a DWR has the capacity to detect and track a weather system as far as 400 to 800 kilometers away. The DWR scans the atmosphere continuously and provides weather information every two minutes thereby giving the Weather Forecaster the ability to update the public on the changing characteristics of the system.

The first attempt by Nigeria to acquire Doppler Weather Radar was in early 1980s, when three of the equipment were procured and installed in Lagos and Kano. The installation in Port Harcourt was inconclusive. That project was not sustained and by the early 1990s, the entire system had broken down.

In 2003, a new move to procure Doppler Weather Radar was initiated in the ministry. Again, this suffered a series of setbacks until August 2008, when Yar’adua’s government got the Nigerian Doppler Weather Radar back on track and gave it a renewed impetus. The production of the six (6) new Doppler Weather Radars is currently in progress in the USA. The project is being handled by Messrs Enterprise Electronics, Inc. The Minister of Aviation led an inspection visit to the Enterprise Electronics Corporation factory in Alabama in April this year. During the visit, the minister pressed for and secured an accelerated implementation programme to ensure early completion of the project. Shipment from the factory is expected to commence in July this year and installation completed in January 2010. The six (6) Doppler Weather Radars are to be located in Abuja, Kano, Lagos, Maiduguri, Port Harcourt and Yola.

Government has also granted approval for NIMET to procure and install Low Level Windshear Alert System (LLWAS) at some airports.  Wind shear is a hazardous meteorological phenomenon caused by sudden changes in the wind speed and/or direction over a short distance and/or short period of time. These changes could either be in the horizontal or vertical direction in the atmosphere. Wind variability is a perennial and unavoidable phenomenon in the atmosphere. Windshear is particularly hazardous when it occurs at lower altitudes. Low Level Wind Shear has therefore been recognized as a potential hazard to the aircraft, especially during landing and take-off phases of aircraft. Wind shear phenomenon originates from a number of meteorological conditions. Chief among these conditions are areas of convective clouds such as the cumulus and cumulonimbus clouds which are usually associated with severe wind variability and turbulence. Also, thunderstorm systems which are very common in our tropical areas are veritable environments for the occurrence of Low Level Wind Shear and Micro Burst. In most cases, Low Level Wind Shear is common around areas with uneven topography. Consequently, airports situated around hills and mountains are likely to experience more wind shear conditions than those situated on plain terrains. Atmospheric scientists use LLWAS to detect the occurrence of wind shear in the lower atmosphere. When installed around airports, it becomes a powerful tool for weather forecasters to detect the occurrence of Windshear and pass early warning information to pilots through the air traffic controllers.

At the moment, the only airport in Nigeria with LLWAS installed is Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja. The installation of this System was completed in September last year. This is the first LLWAS ever to be installed in Nigeria. iLow level Windshear Alert Systems will be installed at three additional airports by end of October.

The installation of Upper Air Sounding equipment at Lagos and Maiduguri was done this year and that of Enugu airport is expected to be installed by the end of the year. 

Upper Air Sounding is a technique used to measure meteorological parameters (wind speed and direction, temperature, dew point, humidity, pressure) at different flight levels. Weather forecasters use these parameters to estimate the degree of instability at different standard flight levels. These forecasts guide pilots to choose the safest flight paths.  

Thunderstorms are characteristic features in all parts of Nigeria, especially during the rainy season. They also constitute hazards for aircraft. Within this year, thunderstorm detectors were installed at Enugu, Ibadan, Kaduna, Kano, Owerri and Yola airports. Each of these systems can detect intensity and location of thunderstorm within a radius of 50 kilometers from the airport. Before now, only Abuja and Lagos airports had thunderstorm detectors.
Other initiatives that are being implemented to achieve safer skies over Nigeria include the establishment of a National Weather Forecasting and Research Centre in Abuja; installation of new conventional meteorological instruments in the NIMET’s weather observatories nationwide to replace the obsolete ones, establishment of marine meteorological stations along the countries coastal belt; human capacity development, particularly for the professional cadre of NIMET.

As of today, NIMET issues an average of 350 flight folders to pilots every week from Ikeja airport alone. 

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