News / Africa

Experts: La Niña, Climate Change Impact East African Drought

Scientists concerned about future effects

Somalis fleeing hunger in their drought-stricken nation walk along the main road leading from the Somalian border to the refugee camps around Dadaab, Kenya, July 13, 2011. More than 11 million people in the Horn of Africa are confronting the worst drought
Somalis fleeing hunger in their drought-stricken nation walk along the main road leading from the Somalian border to the refugee camps around Dadaab, Kenya, July 13, 2011. More than 11 million people in the Horn of Africa are confronting the worst drought

Multimedia

Audio

Experts say the Pacific ocean phenomenon known as La Niña is partly to blame for the drought ravaging the Horn of Africa.

But while the latest La Niña episode has ended, climate scientists are concerned about what the next few months will bring and the intensifying effects of a changing global climate.  

La Niña begins when eastern Pacific waters near the equator turn cooler than normal. A cascade of changes in ocean temperatures and wind currents follows, and the consequences are global.

Droughts and floods

The latest episode began in July of last year.

In the United States, altered winds pushed moisture away from the south, causing severe droughts that persist today, and toward the north, causing floods.

Half the world away, flooding in Australia this winter was also linked to La Niña, experts say.

And in Africa, "The easterly winds that are supposed to bring moisture into East Africa [were] reduced," says meteorologist Wassila Thiaw, head of the Africa desk at the U.S. National Weather Service's Climate Prediction Center. "There was less moisture coming into East Africa and therefore rainfall is reduced."

Rains that were supposed to fall over Somalia, southern Ethiopia and northern Kenya late last year failed.

Lost rainy season

The second rainy season in that part of the Horn of Africa, from March through May, failed, too, but for different reasons, he says.  

"What played out here during the March-April-May season, we don't think that is really La Niña, but it probably mostly due to the atmospheric conditions that prevailed at that time."

He says La Niña's influence on the March-through-May rainy season typically is not as strong as on the October-through-December season. Natural variations in atmospheric conditions were enough to prolong the drought, he says.

Rainy season threatened

This La Niña episode ended in May. But Thiaw says there is a chance another one may begin by the end of this year.

"If that happens before the October-through-December rainfall season, then there's a high chance for us to be in another dryer-than- normal season," he says

That could be catastrophic for drought-stricken parts of East Africa, he says. But he cautions it is too soon to say whether it will happen, or how severe it would be.

Climate change?

La Niña and the related phenomenon called El Niño are natural cycles that happen every 3 to 5 years or so. Man-made contributions to global warming - auto and industrial greenhouse-gas emissions, for example -- are a concern, too. But climate scientist Simon Mason at Columbia University's International Research Institute for Climate and Society says the human factor in the Horn’s climate woes is less clear.

"East Africa is one of our big perplexing areas for the moment," Mason says.

Several groups around the world have developed computer models to predict how increasing greenhouse gases will change the climate.

"Most of the models are actually suggesting that East Africa will become wetter," Mason says. "However, if we look at what's been happening in East Africa at least for the last decade or so, it's actually been getting quite a lot drier."

Mason says that drying trend is at least partly due to global warming, which is contributing to rising temperatures in the Indian Ocean. That creates conditions that draw moisture away from East Africa.

'Need to do a bit of work'

However, current computer models do not capture this effect very well, Mason says. "So we need to do a bit of work there to work out what our models are possibly doing wrong."

Others question whether climate change is responsible for the trend. The National Weather Service's Wassila Thiaw says temperatures are rising in the region, but attributing this drought to climate change is difficult because there is so much natural variability in the weather patterns.

But experts say in terms of food production, it does not make that much difference whether it gets wetter or drier because it is sure to get hotter. They may not be sure about rainfall, but they are confident temperatures in East Africa will continue to go up.

Thirstier crops

Hotter weather means thirstier crops, according to agriculture economist Claudia Ringler at the International Food Policy Research Institute.

"So you actually need more water to get the same out of the crop at a higher temperature," she says.

Ringler notes that much of the land in drought-stricken East Africa is not very productive in the best of times. And, she adds, "it will not get any better. Even if we have a bit more rainfall, the general potential for food production in the region is not expected to improve dramatically in the region."

Furthermore, when the rain falls is in some ways as important as how much. Climate change tends to promote more heavy downpours with longer dry stretches in between. That is not good for raising crops, either, she says.

So Ringer adds that farmers and herders in East Africa need help becoming more resilient in the face of looming climate changes, whatever they turn out to be.

You May Like

Tired of Waiting, South Africans Demand Change ‘Now’

With chronic poverty and lack of basic services largely fueling recent xenophobic attacks, many in Rainbow Nation say it’s time for government to act More

Challenges Ahead for China's Development Plans in Pakistan

Planned $46 billion in energy and infrastructure investments in Pakistan are aimed at transforming the country into a regional hub for trade and investment More

Audio 'Forbidden City' Revisits Little Known Era of Asian-American Entertainment

Little-known chapter of entertainment history captured in 80s documentary is revisited in new digitally remastered format and book More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Study: Insecticide Damaging Wild Bee Populationsi
X
April 24, 2015 10:13 PM
A popular but controversial type of insecticide is damaging important wild bee populations, according to a new study. VOA’s Steve Baragona has more.
Video

Video Study: Insecticide Damaging Wild Bee Populations

A popular but controversial type of insecticide is damaging important wild bee populations, according to a new study. VOA’s Steve Baragona has more.
Video

Video Data Servers Could Heat Private Homes

As every computer owner knows, when their machines run a complex program they get pretty hot. In fact, cooling the processors can be expensive, especially when you're dealing with huge banks of computer servers. But what if that energy could heat private homes? VOA’s George Putic reports that a Dutch energy firm aims to do just that.
Video

Video Cinema That Crosses Borders Showcased at Tribeca Film Festival

Among the nearly 100 feature length films being shown at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival in New York City are more than 20 documentaries and features with international appeal, from a film about a Congolese businessman in China, to documentaries shot in Pakistan and diaspora communities in the U.S., to a poetic look at disaffected South African youth. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more.
Video

Video UN Confronts Threat of Young Radicals

The radicalization and recruitment of young people into Islamist extremist groups has become a growing challenge for governments worldwide. On Thursday, the U.N. Security Council heard from experts on the issue, which has become a potent threat to international peace and security. VOA’s Margaret Besheer reports.
Video

Video Growing Numbers of Turks Discover Armenian Ancestry

In a climate of improved tolerance, growing numbers of people in Turkey are discovering their grandmothers were Armenian. Hundreds of thousands of Armenians escaped the mass deportations and slaughter of the early 1900's by forced conversion to Islam. Or, Armenian children were taken in by Turkish families and assimilated. Now their stories are increasingly being heard. Dorian Jones reports from Istanbul that the revelations are viewed as an important step.
Video

Video Migrants Trek Through Western Balkans to Reach EU

Migrants from Africa and other places are finding different routes into the European Union in search of a better life. The Associated Press followed one clandestine group to document their trek through the western Balkans to Hungary. Zlatica Hoke reports that the migrants started using that route about four years ago. Since then, it has become the second-most popular path into Western Europe, after the option of sailing from North Africa to Italy.
Video

Video TIME Magazine Honors Activists, Pioneers Seen as Influential

TIME Magazine has released its list of celebrities, leaders and activists, whom it deems the world’s “most influential” in 2015. VOA's Ramon Taylor reports from New York.
Video

Video US Businesses See Cuba as New Frontier

The Obama administration's opening toward Cuba is giving U.S. companies hope they'll be able to do business in Cuba despite the continuation of the U.S. economic embargo against the communist nation. Some American companies have been able to export some products to Cuba, but the recent lifting of Cuba's terrorism designation could relax other restrictions. As VOA's Daniela Schrier reports, corporate heavy hitters are lining up to head across the Florida Straits - though experts urge caution.
Video

Video Kenya Launches Police Recruitment Drive After Terror Attacks

Kenya launched a major police recruitment drive this week as part of a large-scale effort to boost security following a recent spate of terror attacks. VOA’s Gabe Joselow reports that allegations of corruption in the process are raising old concerns about the integrity of Kenya’s security forces.
Video

Video Japan, China in Race for Asia High-Speed Rail Projects

A lucrative competition is underway in Asia for billions of dollars in high-speed rail projects. Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Malaysia Thailand and Vietnam are among the countries planning to move onto the fast track. They are negotiating with Japan and the upstart Chinese who are locked in a duel to revolutionize transportation across Asia. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman in Bangkok has details.
Video

Video Scientists: Mosquitoes Attracted By Our Genes

Some people always seem to get bitten by mosquitoes more than others. Now, scientists have proved that is really the case - and they say it’s all because of genes. It’s hoped the research might lead to new preventative treatments for diseases like malaria, as Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Bible Museum Coming to Washington DC

Washington is the center of American political power and also home to some of the nation’s most visited museums. A new one that will showcase the Bible has skeptics questioning the motives of its conservative Christian funders. VOA religion correspondent Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Armenia and Politics of Word 'Genocide'

A century ago this April, hundreds of thousands of Armenians of the Turkish Ottoman empire were deported and massacred, and their culture erased from their traditional lands. While broadly accepted by the U.N. and at least 20 countries as “genocide”, the United States and Turkey have resisted using that word to describe the atrocities that stretched from 1915 to 1923. But Armenians have never forgotten.
Video

Video Afghan First Lady Pledges No Roll Back on Women's Rights

Afghan First Lady Rula Ghani, named one of Time's 100 Most Influential, says women should take part in talks with Taliban. VOA's Rokhsar Azamee has more from Kabul.
Video

Video New Brain Mapping Techniques Could Ease Chronic Pain

From Boulder, Colorado, Shelley Schlender reports that new methods for mapping pain in the brain are providing validation for chronic pain and might someday guide better treatment.

VOA Blogs