Benjamin F. Zaitchik
Humans have understood the importance of climate to human health since ancient times. In some cases, the connections appear to be obvious: a flood can cause drownings, a drought can lead to crop failure and hunger, and temperature extremes pose a risk of exposure. In other cases, the connections are veiled by complex or unobserved processes, such that the influence of climate on a disease epidemic or a conflict can be difficult to diagnose. In reality, however, all climate impacts on health are mediated by some combination of natural and human dynamics that cause individuals or populations to be vulnerable to the effects of a variable or changing climate.
Understanding and managing negative health impacts of climate is a global challenge. The challenge is greater in regions with high poverty and weak institutions, however, and Africa is a continent where the health burden of climate is particularly acute. Observed climate variability in the modern era has been associated with widespread food insecurity, significant epidemics of infectious disease, and loss of life and livelihoods to climate extremes. Anthropogenic climate change is a further stress that has the potential to increase malnutrition, alter the distribution of diseases, and bring more frequent hydrological and temperature extremes to many regions across the continent.
Skillful early warning systems and informed climate change adaptation strategies have the potential to enhance resilience to short-term climate variability and to buffer against negative impacts of climate change. But effective warnings and projections require both scientific and institutional capacity to address complex processes that are mediated by physical, ecological, and societal systems. Here the state of understanding climate impacts on health in Africa is summarized through a selective review that focuses on food security, infectious disease, and extreme events. The potential to apply scientific understanding to early warning and climate change projection is also considered.
Eastern Africa, classically presented as a major dry climate anomaly region in the otherwise wet equatorial belt, is a transition zone between the monsoon domains of West Africa and the Indian Ocean. Its complex terrain, unequaled in the rest of Africa, results in a huge diversity of climatic conditions that steer a wide range of vegetation landscapes, biodiversity and human occupations. Meridional rainfall gradients dominate in the west along the Nile valley and its surroundings, where a single boreal summer peak is mostly observed. Bimodal regimes (generally peaking in April and November) prevail in the east, gradually shifting to a single austral summer peak to the south. The swift seasonal shift of the Intertropical Convergence Zone and its replacement in January–February and June–September by strong meridional, generally diverging low-level winds (e.g., the Somali Jet), account for the low rainfall. These large-scale flows interact with topography and lakes, which have their own local circulation in the form of mountain and lake breezes. This results in complex rainfall patterns, with a strong diurnal component, and a frequent asymmetry in the rainfall distribution with respect to the major relief features. Whereas highly organized rain-producing systems are uncommon, convection is partly modulated at intra-seasonal (about 30–60-day) timescales. Interannual variability shows a fair level of spatial coherence in the region, at least in July–September in the west (Ethiopia and Nile Valley) and October–December in the east along the Indian Ocean. This is associated with a strong forcing from sea-surface temperatures in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, and to a lesser extent the Atlantic Ocean. As a result, Eastern Africa shows some of the largest interannual rainfall variations in the world. Some decadal-scale variations are also found, including a drying trend of the March–May rainy season since the 1980s in the eastern part of the region. Eastern Africa overall mean temperature increased by 0.7 to 1 °C from 1973 to 2013, depending on the season. The strong, sometimes non-linear altitudinal gradients of temperature and moisture regimes, also contribute to the climate diversity of Eastern Africa.
Sharon E. Nicholson
This article provides an in-depth look at all aspects of the climate of the Sahel, including the pervasive dust in the Sahelian atmosphere. Emphasis is on two aspects: West African monsoon and the region’s rainfall regime. This includes an overview of the prevailing atmospheric circulation at the surface and aloft and the relationship between this and the rainfall regime. Aspects of the rainfall regime that are considered include its unique characteristics, its changes over time, the storm systems that produce rainfall, and factors governing its variability on interannual and decadal time scales. Variability is examined on three time scales: millennial (as seen is the paleo records of the last 20,000 years), multi-decadal (as seen over the last few centuries as seen from proxy data and, more recently, in observations), and interannual to decadal (quantified by observations from the late 19th century and onward). A unique feature of Sahel climate is that is rainfall regime is perhaps the most sensitive in the world and this sensitivity is apparent on all of these time scales.
For several decades, the Sahelian countries have been facing continuing rainfall shortages, which, coupled with anthropogenic factors, have severely disrupted the great ecological balance, leading the area in an inexorable process of desertification and land degradation. The Sahel faces a persistent problem of climate change with high rainfall variability and frequent droughts, and this is one of the major drivers of population’s vulnerability in the region. Communities struggle against severe land degradation processes and live in an unprecedented loss of productivity that hampers their livelihoods and puts them among the populations in the world that are the most vulnerable to climatic change. In response to severe land degradation, 11 countries of the Sahel agreed to work together to address the policy, investment, and institutional barriers to establishing a land-restoration program that addresses climate change and land degradation. The program is called the Pan-Africa Initiative for the Great Green Wall (GGW). The initiative aims at helping to halt desertification and land degradation in the Sahelian zone, improving the lives and livelihoods of smallholder farmers and pastoralists in the area and helping its populations to develop effective adaptation strategies and responses through the use of tree-based development programs. To make the GGW initiative successful, member countries have established a coordinated and integrated effort from the government level to local scales and engaged with many stakeholders. Planning, decision-making, and actions on the ground is guided by participation and engagement, informed by policy-relevant knowledge to address the set of scalable land-restoration practices, and address drivers of land use change in various human-environmental contexts. In many countries, activities specific to achieving the GGW objectives have been initiated in the last five years.
Martin Claussen, Anne Dallmeyer, and Jürgen Bader
There is ample evidence from palaeobotanic and palaeoclimatic reconstructions that during early and mid-Holocene between some 11,700 years (in some regions, a few thousand years earlier) and some 4200 years ago, subtropical North Africa was much more humid and greener than today. This African Humid Period (AHP) was triggered by changes in the orbital forcing, with the climatic precession as the dominant pacemaker. Climate system modeling in the 1990s revealed that orbital forcing alone cannot explain the large changes in the North African summer monsoon and subsequent ecosystem changes in the Sahara. Feedbacks between atmosphere, land surface, and ocean were shown to strongly amplify monsoon and vegetation changes. Forcing and feedbacks have caused changes far larger in amplitude and extent than experienced today in the Sahara and Sahel. Most, if not all, climate system models, however, tend to underestimate the amplitude of past African monsoon changes and the extent of the land-surface changes in the Sahara. Hence, it seems plausible that some feedback processes are not properly described, or are even missing, in the climate system models.
Perhaps even more challenging than explaining the existence of the AHP and the Green Sahara is the interpretation of data that reveal an abrupt termination of the last AHP. Based on climate system modeling and theoretical considerations in the late 1990s, it was proposed that the AHP could have ended, and the Sahara could have expanded, within just a few centuries—that is, much faster than orbital forcing. In 2000, paleo records of terrestrial dust deposition off Mauritania seemingly corroborated the prediction of an abrupt termination. However, with the uncovering of more paleo data, considerable controversy has arisen over the geological evidence of abrupt climate and ecosystem changes. Some records clearly show abrupt changes in some climate and terrestrial parameters, while others do not. Also, climate system modeling provides an ambiguous picture.
The prediction of abrupt climate and ecosystem changes at the end of the AHP is hampered by limitations implicit in the climate system. Because of the ubiquitous climate variability, it is extremely unlikely that individual paleo records and model simulations completely match. They could do so in a statistical sense, that is, if the statistics of a large ensemble of paleo data and of model simulations converge. Likewise, the interpretation regarding the strength of terrestrial feedback from individual records is elusive. Plant diversity, rarely captured in climate system models, can obliterate any abrupt shift between green and desert state. Hence, the strength of climate—vegetation feedback is probably not a universal property of a certain region but depends on the vegetation composition, which can change with time. Because of spatial heterogeneity of the African landscape and the African monsoon circulation, abrupt changes can occur in several, but not all, regions at different times during the transition from the humid mid-Holocene climate to the present-day more arid climate. Abrupt changes in one region can be induced by abrupt changes in other regions, a process sometimes referred to as “induced tipping.” The African monsoon system seems to be prone to fast and potentially abrupt changes, which to understand and to predict remains one of the grand challenges in African climate science.