Six men standing around a weather station that was 3D printed
Members of the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET) and Kenya Meteorological Department fabricate and assemble 3D-printed weather stations during a workshop in June 2023. | Credit: FEWS NET

African Scientists Harness the Power of 3D Printing to Monitor and Forecast Extreme Weather

By Hannah Button

Satellites provide scientists with an out-of-this-world vantage point for tracking weather conditions in every corner of the globe, but satellite imagery alone only paints part of the picture. Scientists also rely on Earth-bound weather stations to calibrate satellite information and accurately track and monitor rainfall.

By combining satellite imagery with data from ground-based weather stations, Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET) scientists, their counterparts at national meteorological centers, and climate scientists worldwide can more effectively monitor and predict weather patterns to forecast agricultural production outcomes and prepare for potential food emergencies.

“We’ve gotten really good at monitoring extremes and making predictions,” Chris Funk, Director of the University of California, Santa Barbara Climate Hazards Center, said. “We are very good at rapidly ‘stacking’ the information from disparate sources, like satellites and rain gauges, and this allows us to identify extreme droughts almost in real-time, with a high degree of confidence.”

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Four men looking at inside of 3D printer
UCAR scientist Martin Steinson works with members of the Kenya Meteorological Department during a 3D-PAWS training in June 2023.

In recent years, the number of functioning ground-based weather stations in Africa has declined from about 3,300 in 1981 to less than 800 in 2023. The resulting reporting crisis has made it difficult for scientists to produce the rainfall estimates fundamental to monitoring climate change and predicting extreme weather-induced crises. 

“For many years, I have been collecting all the available station data, and watching the number of observations go down and down,” explained Pete Peterson, Lead Rainfall Producer at the Climate Hazards Center. “As the observation networks decay, and less data is shared internationally, our ability to track weather variations in many countries has really decreased.”

Weather stations "drop off," or cease to record and transmit data as expected, for a variety of reasons, including dead batteries, transmission systems glitches, inadequate network connectivity, and other structural issues that keep stations from collecting rainfall measurements.

In Kenya, one of the biggest challenges to keeping weather stations operational is finding replacement parts for the stations purchased in commercial markets. 

According to Absae Sedah, Assistant Director of Meteorological Services at the Kenya Meteorological Department, the Government of Kenya has spent nearly $25,000 on each weather station it has procured from international vendors. Because of the high costs of repairs and the logistical constraints associated with calibrating stations that come from different manufacturers, only 170 of the Kenya Meteorological Department’s 400 weather stations are currently functioning.

Paul Kucera and Martin Steinson from the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR) said international meteorological organizations have been aware of the structural and financial challenges with commercial weather stations for decades. In 2013, UCAR scientist Kelly Sponberg came to Kucera and Steinson with a sustainable solution: 3D printing. Together, the group developed a prototype for the first 3D-Printed Automatic Weather Station (3D-PAWS), giving local meteorological organizations the potential to fabricate and maintain weather stations independently and at low costs. 3D-PAWS surface weather stations can be manufactured in just one week for between $400–$600 using locally sourced materials, microsensor technology, low-cost microcontrollers, and a 3D printer.

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Labeled diagram of a 3D Paws Weather Station
Scientists with the Kenya Meteorological Department can now sustainably fabricate, assemble, and repair weather stations using the 3D-Printed Automatic Weather Station (3D-PAWS) model.

“It started to catch on as a technology that could be used for filling the gaps that existed with the traditional high-cost weather stations,” noted Kucera. 

After years of fine-tuning the 3D-PAWS model and performing validation exercises to ensure accurate rainfall measurements, in March 2023 the White House announced USAID/FEWS NET’s $10 million commitment to help 10 African governments learn how to install, use, and maintain 3D-printed weather stations to bolster climate, weather, and acute food insecurity forecasts. 

Following a training workshop in June 2023, Kenya became the first FEWS NET country to adopt 3D-PAWS. By the end of September, the Kenya Meteorological Department had used 3D-PAWS to successfully fabricate and install 24 weather stations across the country.

Kenya’s new 3D-printed weather stations transmit data every 15 minutes with observations covering rainfall, temperature, pressure, and relative humidity. According to FEWS NET Regional Scientist for East Africa, Gideon Galu, these observations allow scientists to assess real-time weather conditions and issue weather advisories in areas where extreme climate events frequently occur.

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While there are major benefits to increasing the use of 3D-printed weather stations, scientists will still need to address maintenance challenges, as well as continue to accurately communicate and interpret the information they collect.

“All weather stations can experience problems, which can be hard to detect, and reaching the stations for maintenance can be expensive,” Funk said. “It can also be challenging to effectively communicate appropriate advice at local scales, so it will be important to provide ongoing support for maintenance, analysis, and last-mile communication.”

As FEWS NET scientists continue to validate data collected by Kenya’s new 3D-printed weather stations during the ongoing rainy season, a second training workshop is set for Zimbabwe.

“Having this data validated and available, especially as we’re in the middle of a very strong El Niño event and positive Indian Ocean Dipole, is going to really help in tracking extreme rains so we can anticipate impacts on agricultural production and food security,” Funk shared. “The efforts of Gideon Galu and Tamuka Magadzire, our regional scientists in Kenya and Botswana, combined with the deep expertise of UCAR’s International Capacity Development Program, and the sterling efforts of the Kenya Meteorological Department, have made a lot of progress over a few short months.”

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Country
Kenya, Zimbabwe
Sectors
Climate
Strategic Objective
Adaptation, Mitigation
Topics
Climate Science, Digital technology, Disaster Risk Management, Food Security, Weather
Region
Africa
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Hannah Button

Hannah Button serves as the Communications Lead for the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET) Learning and Data Hub. She received a B.A. in Broadcast and Digital Journalism from the University of Southern California and a Master's in International Cooperation and Development from Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore in Milan, Italy. Button has experience working as a journalist, educator, and international development specialist in the fields of family planning and food security.

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