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Homegrown African Climate Model Predicts Future Rains — and Risks

FILE - Normally submerged tree stumps are seen at Theewaterskloof dam near Cape Town, South Africa, June 2, 2017. The dam supplies most of the city's potable water.

One big problem confronts Africa as it tries to predict how its weather patterns will shift in the face of climate change: Almost all the climate models for the continent were created in the United States or Europe.

Now South African climate researcher Francois Engelbrecht has changed that by developing a climate model for Africa, in Africa.

The model aims to "generate reliable projections of future climate change over Africa," said Engelbrecht, the chief researcher for climate studies, modeling and environmental health at South Africa’s Council for Scientific and Industrial Research.

Those projections include figuring out which areas will get more or less rainfall — "a key to adapting agriculture successfully" — or looking at where African grasslands might give way to thickets as more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere drives the growth of trees.

"We know that climate is changing, risks are changing, including changes in the risk of heat waves, flooding, drought, tropical cyclones, changes in growing seasons [and] rising temperatures," said Rachel James, a visiting climate researcher at the University of Cape Town.

"People everywhere will need to adapt to these changing conditions in the years and decades to come," she told Reuters.

"The problem is that we don’t know exactly what will happen in any one location. It’s challenging to predict which areas might get more rainfall and which might get less."

A general view of the dried up Theewaterskloof dam near Cape Town, South Africa June 2, 2017.
A general view of the dried up Theewaterskloof dam near Cape Town, South Africa June 2, 2017.

More detail

The new African-built climate model aims to generate much more detailed and place-specific projections, to give decision makers the information they need to prepare for coming changes.

It responds, in part, to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change noting in 2014 that Africa was the only region of the world in which climate forecasts had not improved in recent years.

Developed in collaboration with Australia, the model will look at things such as how El Nino patterns are likely to affect Africa in the future and how African monsoons may shift, Engelbrecht said.

Africa has a lot of expertise on its ecosystems, regional oceans, and climate, but this knowledge has not been built into models up to now, he said.

Models developed by northern hemisphere countries have tended to focus more on areas of northern interest, such as the Arctic, where sea ice is fast disappearing, he said.

And global models that include Africa generally are not specific enough to be helpful on the ground in a particular country or region, said Neville Sweijd, head of the South Africa-based Alliance for Collaboration on Climate and Earth Systems Science.

"All models are not complete representations of reality and have to be tested for sensitivity to various features and phenomena," he said, including the direction of winds.

James noted that "climates in Africa are particularly challenging to model" because of the influence of local events such as key thunderstorms, "which occur on finer scales than the models can resolve," she said.

A general view of the dried up Theewaterskloof dam near Cape Town, South Africa June 2, 2017.
A general view of the dried up Theewaterskloof dam near Cape Town, South Africa June 2, 2017.

A ‘game changer’

Jean-Pierre Roux, who manages the Future Climate for Africa project, an effort, backed by UK aid, to improve climate information and resilience on the continent, said he worries that weak climate information and weather information services that do not meet the needs of vulnerable communities could hurt millions in Africa.

Having African scientists involved in climate information efforts is important as African researchers naturally have more expertise on local and regional weather and climate in many cases, he said.

Also, "it gives a better chance for African priorities to shape the research agenda and leaves behind a legacy in terms of improved African capacity to conduct research," he said.

African climate scientists say they are also worried that the continent does not yet have enough climate scientists to collaborate with other experts globally on models and other work.

"A lot of model application work is being done in Africa, but not by Africans or at African institutions. That disempowers African intellectual development in this field," Sweijd told Reuters.

Engelbrecht sees the development of his model as a chance to build skills in everything from climate science to high-performance computing.

"It is a game changer in enhancing our human capacity in the climate and earth sciences," he said.