In Africa, the impacts of climate change are frequently experienced as extreme events such as floods or droughts. With the help of organizations such as the Famine Early Warning Systems Network and the IGAD Climate Prediction and Applications Center, it has been possible to monitor and predict such climatic extremes, and provide early warnings of their agricultural impact in order to support humanitarian and resilience interventions in some of the world’s most insecure countries.
In a commentary published in the journal Earth’s Future, a team of scientists led by the Climate Hazard Center (CHC) from the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) has recently reported that it is now possible to predict droughts leading to severe food insecurity in the Eastern Horn of Africa – a region comprised of Somalia, Ethiopia, and Kenya – months in advance. This allows for measures to be taken to help these countries’ farmers and pastoralists prepare for the food scarcity often caused by droughts.
For instance, the Climate Hazard Center predicted in 2020 that climate change interacting with a naturally occurring La Niña event would lead to sequential droughts in this region. While the Eastern Horn of Africa normally has two wet seasons each year (in the spring and fall), five of these rainy seasons failed to occur. Fortunately, CHC managed to anticipate these droughts eight months in advance, providing an opportunity to the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to assist millions of starving people with substantial funding.
The situation was quite different ten years earlier, when similar predictions went largely unheeded and led to the death of over 250,000 Somalis. However, as CHC director and lead author of the commentary Chris Funk argued, back then the group’s long-range weather prediction capabilities were still in their infancy and the experts were unable to accurately forecast rainfall deficits in this region.
“We made an accurate forecast, but we didn’t understand very well what was going on scientifically,” Funk said. “Now, following our success in 2016/17, and extensive outreach efforts, the humanitarian relief community appreciates the value of our early warning systems.”
Over the past decade, the scientists have significantly increased their understanding of the broad and often distant mechanisms driving droughts in the Eastern Horn of Africa in order to create more accurate forecasts for this region. For instance, they found that increased rainfall around Indonesia, caused by anthropogenic rises in sea surface temperatures, often results in less moisture flowing to the East African coast during the rainy season, driving sequential droughts.
Now, with climate models able to predict extreme ocean conditions up to eight months in advance and weather forecasts that can make projections for 45 days, scientists can provide actionable information to officials to help local farmers anticipate and plan for upcoming droughts.
“To reduce the impacts of climate extremes, we need to look for opportunities. We need to pay attention to not just how climate is changing, but how these changes can support more effective predictions for droughts and for advantageous cropping conditions. As a community, we also need to foster communication about successful resilience strategies,” explained CHC Specialist and Operations Analyst Laura Harrison.
According to Funk, although a better local understanding of the mechanisms leading to droughts and investments in early warning systems and adaptation measures could initially be costly, they are “relatively inexpensive when compared to post-impact, response-based alternatives such as humanitarian assistance and/or funding safety-net programs.”
Currently, the CHC is building on what they learned in East Africa to create predictions and feed partnerships in other parts of the world, such as Southern Africa, where they are collaborating with the Zimbabwe Meteorological Services Department and the Knowledge Impact Network to support the development of actionable climate services.
“Understanding that climate change makes extremes more frequent is really empowering because now we can try to anticipate those bad effects. Flooding still happens, drought still happens, people still get hurt, but we can try to reduce the harm,” Funk concluded.
Climate extremes refer to unusual, severe or unseasonal weather events that are at the extreme end of the historical spectrum for a certain region. They can be related to a range of climatic variables such as temperature, precipitation, wind, and humidity.
These are prolonged periods of excessively hot weather, which may be accompanied by high humidity, especially in oceanic climate countries. They are defined relative to the usual weather in the area and relative to normal temperatures for the season.
Droughts are extended periods of deficient rainfall relative to the statistical multi-year average for a region. This deficiency results in water shortages for some activity, group, or environmental sector.
This refers to unusually cold temperatures that may last for an extended period. They can have detrimental impacts on human health, infrastructure, and ecosystems.
Heavy, intense rainfall can lead to flooding, especially in areas where the ground, rivers, or human-made channels can’t cope with the volume of water.
These are intense storm systems characterized by a large low-pressure center and numerous thunderstorms that produce strong winds and heavy rain.
These are violent, dangerous, rotating columns of air that are in contact with both the surface of the earth and a cumulonimbus cloud or, in rare cases, the base of a cumulus cloud.
These are characterized by the production of significant quantities of hailstones, which can cause damage to buildings, crops, and other infrastructure.
Also known as forest fires, these are unplanned fires that rapidly spread across vegetation and forest areas.
Climate extremes are expected to become more common and severe due to climate change. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), extreme weather events are likely to increase in frequency and severity as global temperatures continue to rise, resulting in more severe and unpredictable impacts on ecosystems and human societies. These impacts include threats to human health, food security, water supply, and economic growth.