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Celebrating science in the service of society, 150 years of the Manila Observatory

15 October 2015

2015_10_15_P&P_Photo1Wendy Clavano and Joshua Ruizo

The Manila Observatory (MO), a Jesuit research institution in the Philippines, celebrates 150 years of existence that started with simple instruments to study the weather and continues now to contribute to advancing the awareness and understanding of the natural environment.

A conference on Scientific Frontiers: Serving the Peripheries in Times of Change was held last 25 September 2015, gathering colleagues and friends to share past successes, present challenges, and hopes for the future in using science in the service of the greater good amidst the threat of climate change and disaster risk. Science is challenged anew as the poorest of the poor who are placed at the peripheries of society continue to struggle and suffer during these changing times. Most countries in Southeast Asia are at risk to the impacts of climate change but sustainable development requires also that scientific understanding be coupled with socio-economic efforts, adaptation and mitigation, as well as better governance.

Looking back as the institution celebrates this milestone, Agustin Udias, a Jesuit historian at the Universidad Complutense in Madrid, Spain recounts how the far-reaching study of mathematics and astronomy by the early Jesuits contributed to science in Asia Pacific, among them the 1879 typhoon prediction of Federico Faura, SJ.

Prof Fredolin Tangang, a climatologist at the National University of Malaysia, stressed that while there is sufficient knowledge about climate change and global and regional models help, there is usually not enough information at the local scale to support planning decisions. There are efforts by a group of regional scientists including those in MO to perform climate downscaling so forecasts can be useful at the local level.

Dr George Mount of the Laboratory for Atmospheric Research at Washington State University discussed the public health issue of pollution in Mega Manila’s airshed. He presented the possibility of using data from state-of-the-art instruments on satellite platforms and building a network of ground-based stations using inexpensive off-the-shelf systems to monitor air quality in the megalopolis. Collaboration through Dr Mount has also helped produce the next generation of MO scientists.

Mr Masanobu Tsuji, Director of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, presented high-resolution satellite imagery for use in assessing damages from disasters. Space-based technology significantly enhances information for the production of geohazard maps to better understand the potential impacts of various natural hazards. Mr Tsuji showed how response and recovery efforts could be made in Manila by using near-real-time footages similar to those used during the Great East Japan earthquake in 2012.

Dr Akimasa Yoshikawa of the International Center for Space Weather Science and Education at Kyushu University in Japan discussed the objectives of the Magnetic Data Acquisition System that was started in 2005 to support research on and monitoring of the geospace environment. Dr Yoshikawa’s predecessor and the late Fr Victor Badillo, SJ  of MO initiated a long-running relationship to study geomagnetism. There are currently 73 sites around the world that are operated by various partners who also exchange information to warn about geomagnetic storms that are likely to affect critical communications infrastructure.

For communications to work, especially during emergency situations, satellites must continue to function well. Dr Keith Groves, a physicist at the Institute for Scientific Research in Boston College, another Jesuit institution, described how scintillation by low-density electrons in the atmosphere might affect communications and navigation systems that support modern society.

A legacy program of the MO is the study of solid earth dynamics run by Fr Sergio Su. Ishmael Narag of the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (PHIVOLCS) credits the existence of PHIVOLCS as an offspring of MO. Mr Narag discussed the observable and measurable characteristics of the West Valley Fault in Metro Manila, Philippines and described the impacts of different earthquakes caused when the fault releases its pent up pressure. He admonished that non-engineered structures, especially of older vintage, are the most susceptible to damage when the ground shakes and pointed to susceptibilities farther away from the fault line where populations are more dense.

Finally, Dr Gemma Narisma, MO’s Associate Director for Research, presented its five research programs that contribute to “serving the peripheries in times of change”: upper atmosphere dynamics, regional climate systems, air quality monitoring, geomatics, and solid earth dynamics.

The invited talks showcased the scientific collaboration and lasting friendships through the years between the people and institutions. The MO, having been the weather bureau of the Philippines, now complements the current one, the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration, by focusing on urban areas and continuing the tradition of remote sensing and ground-based observations of the physical and natural environments, building on studies of climate variability to contribute to an ensemble of perspectives that make healthy science, by informing disaster risk reduction and development strategies, and by promoting public health and reducing human vulnerability.

Wendy Clavano and Joshua Ruizo work at the Environmental Science for Social Change, a Jesuit research institution in the Philippines, and joined the MO conference.

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