Beyond the surface


Pagasa, Phivolcs: Moving toward modernization in performance, facilities
THE Philippines encounters about 20 tropical cyclones a year and 4 to 10 earthquakes daily. But how exactly are natural disasters detected at a time that calls for a huge technological innovation and accuracy?

Pagasa or the Philippine Atmospheric Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration conducts rigorous processes of observation and comparison with models in detecting and forecasting the weather.

“Of course, before we make a forecast, it is important to know its factors,” Nikos Peñaranda, a Pagasa weather specialist, said in Filipino.

“Aside from parameters in temperature, pressure, humidity and wind speed, we look at cloudiness and rainfall. Under observation [process], we look at satellite images and see if they match with our station data,” he added.

Current conditions, according to Penaranda, are being monitored through charts, maps and parameters recorded by synoptic weather stations. Weather disturbances are often considered from spiraling wind motions, which either come as low pressure areas (LPAs) or inter-tropical convergence zones (ITCZs). These essentially turn into typhoons but need enough factors to affect the country.

He said it takes local and regional observations–ground and upper levels–to detect the behavior of LPAs and ITCZs accurately.

Peñaranda added that not all LPAs become typhoons, owing to limited environmental factors in some cases.

An LPA does not instantly indicate a threat, he noted, if this is not supported by upper air observations, conditions and other levels of assessment.

On a day-to-day basis, the state-run weather bureau arrives at consensus after assessing data that usually take about two hours at the most to finish. “It’s a long assessment because we need to have a consensus,” Peñaranda said of the rigorous process before Pagasa issues actual advisories to the public.

“The monitoring process, on the other hand, takes about three hours to analyze the trends in the current weather condition within a period.” Then all the weather division’s units lay out the assessment from the data gathered.

Over the past five years, Pagasa has been using radars and issuing rainfall and thunderstorm advisories, consistently improving its models to promote accuracy and refinements. Most of the bureau’s weather models are proprietary, along with few in-house facilities that aid weather forecasting.

Earthquake monitoring
Behind the declaration of earthquakes and seismic records are seemingly simple wave forms that actually take technology and human intervention in order to be read and analyzed, according to the country’s seismology institute. Being one of the service agencies of DoST or the Department of Science and Technology, Phivolcs has long been known for providing information on earthquakes and tsunamis.

“We install seismic stations for better monitoring of earthquake behavior,” Karl Soriano, a science-research analyst at Phivolcs, said. He added that the country is surrounded by active faults, with the Philippine Fault Zone being the longest at 1,200 kilometers running from the Mindanao region to Luzon. “Our seismic stations help in locating earthquakes from these areas quickly.”

Sharing that his office has an auto-locate systems computing the locations, Soriano said the data come in in real-time, prompting a computer to generate a solution upon analysis. “The Philippines is not lagging behind when it comes to technological innovations in earthquake monitoring,” he added.

Whereas the institute used to have pen-and-paper seismographs, it is now churning out computer-generated ones, coupled with the agency’s exclusive filtering methods that reduce noise in wave reading for clearer analysis. So the information the agency gives out is of “acceptable accuracy,” guided by thresholds that serve as quality control and a system that limits error.

Also, Phivolcs is operating warning stations with activated sirens nationwide for threatening earthquakes. Apart from that, the state-run earthquake bureau also conducts seminars for localities to educate them on how to respond properly to actual disasters.

“It’s very important that we give them the ability to create their own responses,” according to Soriano.

When asked how the public assumes its role in handling earthquake scares, Soriano said, “[W]hatever was announced by Phivolcs is the actual and accurate information. We usually request people to stop sending scams through texts and other misleading information.”

He admitted, however, that Phivolcs “is still not yet able to predict earthquakes” just like any other weather organizations worldwide. “People should stop believing in predictions because that causes panic,” Soriano warned.

Currently, the agency has 30 staff-controlled seismic stations, 55 satellite seismic stations and six volcano observatories for 23 active volcanoes. The institute is still working toward increasing these numbers throughout the country.

Persistence meets progress
This year, Pagasa and Phivolcs are moving toward modernization in terms of performance and facilities. The former’s weather division recently passed the International Standard Organization (ISO), a standard setting body for about 130 countries, allowing it to be on a par, or even better, with the other agencies when it comes to weather analysis–“a feat” for Pagasa, according to Peñaranda.

Phivolcs now can process earthquake data within 10 to 13 minutes before giving out an advisory, and is still “aiming to do better.”

Soriano said, “We are slowly trying to be as efficient and as reliable, to assure the public that the information that we are giving out is accurate.” He takes pride in his team’s international accreditation after undergoing training in Japan and other countries with advanced knowledge in earthquake analysis.

“The public has to trust the government in the information that we are giving out,” Soriano said. “We should not be underestimated. What we have is not top-of the-line, but we’re using technology that is reliable, similar to what the other developed countries have.”


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