International research team uses interdisciplinary approach to aid fishermen

Pennsylvania State University

Climate change impacts nearly every part of the agricultural industry. It manifests through increased floods, droughts, and severe storms, affecting communities in developing countries first. Agricultural development can help these communities adapt to these changes through creative, multifaceted solutions. Mare Sarr, associate professor at Penn State School of International Affairs and co-director of the Penn State Alliance for Education, Science, Engineering & Design with Africa (AESEDA), joined a team of U.S. and Cape Verde researchers and students that formulated a way to assist local fishermen in impoverished communities affected by climate change in Praia, Santiago, Cape Verde.

This project (ELEVAR 2030) involves AESEDA and University of Cape Verde (UniCV), and is funded under the U.S.-Cape Verde University Partnerships Initiative (USCVUP) by the U.S. Department of State and U.S. embassy in Cape Verde. Together, students and faculty from Penn State and UniCV collaborated to build weather station devices to enhance the safety of fishermen.

Sarr said, “Fishermen have little information about the weather and how the sea conditions might change while at sea. They simply use the knowledge they have acquired over the years and their instinct to predict what might happen before they decide to go to the sea. This is extremely risky and clearly far from ideal.”

Located in West Africa, Cape Verde is an arid archipelago of 10 volcanic islands, nine of which are inhabited. The Atlantic Ocean provides a vital food source and job opportunities. Fishermen brave the water every day to support their families and contribute to the country’s food security by providing much needed sources of protein. But without accurate and reliable weather data, they cannot make informed and safe decisions. “They are vulnerable to the vagaries of the weather,” said Sarr.

The fishermen in these communities use their senses to assess the sky, temperature, wind, and humidity to predict if they can fish that day. While this may have worked in the past, climate change complicates this system. With increased frequency of severe weather systems like hurricanes due to climate change, fishermen could be caught in dangerous storms. The team designed weather stations to help the fishermen get potentially life-saving information and decrease risky situations on the water.

“The idea here is to provide them with real time information about the weather. We have partnered with the University of Cape Verde to engage with communities that are in the capital and to also engage university students to think about how they can help their own communities, and at the same time develop skills that will be useful for them going forward in their careers,” Sarr said.

For these weather stations to benefit the local communities, they had to incorporate three elements to make the project sustainable: local knowledge, local design, and low costs. UniCV students Fred Centino and Edson Moreno took the responsibility for designing and building the stations, under the mentorship of Gregory Jenkins, professor of meteorology and atmospheric science, geography, African studies, and director of AESEDA, and Professor Mateus Andrade (UniCV). They used 3D printers to build every element of the sensors on the weather stations, which included a rain gauge, a tide gauge, a thermometer, and a tool to measure wind speed and direction.

“All the instruments provide information that is essential for fishermen to be able to make the right decision about their safety,” said Sarr.

Addressing the climate change challenges faced by the fishing communities requires a versatile and interdisciplinary approach, said the researchers. Education and experience across different fields and multiple skill sets allowed students to tackle problems with unique perspectives in mind. In the first stage of the project, the design, building and testing of the low-cost weather stations necessitated engineering and technical skills. This also created an opportunity for UniCV engineering students to assume a proactive and leading role. “Now, the objective is to recruit both more student engineers and social scientists with the goal of working closely with fishing communities as 24 new stations are to be built and deployed throughout Cape Verde islands,” said Sarr.

Sarr encouraged students who are interested in international development to be proactive and speak to professors about ongoing projects. “SIA students interested in community development are welcome to approach AESEDA researchers. They can also talk to the College of Agricultural Sciences, which has researchers with expertise in community development. These are pathways that may help them get involved in ongoing projects,” he said.

Elizabeth Ransom, interim director of the School of International Affairs and associate professor of international affairs said, “Many of our students take a variety of courses focused on development and work with faculty on relevant research projects. These opportunities give students the chance to better understand the wide array of relevant topics and hone their research skills.”

Sarr said, “It’s great for us to showcase the interdisciplinary research Penn State has been promoting can make a real impact and save people’s lives.”

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