Drought & Food Insecurity Predictions

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Drought & Food Insecurity Predictions
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Source: UC Santa Barbara

Last year, 81 million people worldwide experienced severe food insecurity. About 80 percent of them live in Africa.

While much of that food insecurity relates to civil war and violence in places like South Sudan and Nigeria, a good portion also stems from a sequence of five severe droughts that began in Ethiopia in 2015 and spread across parts of the continent in the ensuing three years.

Climatologists at UC Santa Barbara’s Climate Hazards Group (CHG) have been studying the relationships between these droughts and exceptionally warm sea surface temperatures in the eastern and western Pacific Ocean. Working with the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET) as well as scientists from the Center for Earth Resources Observation and Science and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the multidisciplinary team has been able to deliver skillful predictions of both drought and famine that have helped reduce the effects of food insecurity. Their latest findings appear in the Quarterly Journal of the Royal Meteorologic Society.  

“This work has been very personal because I was doing the same job in 2011, when more than 258,000 Somalis died during a very similar set of consecutive droughts,” explained CHG research director Chris Funk, who also is a scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey’s Early Warning and Environmental Monitoring Program. “Since 2011, we’ve been working hard to better understand the factors leading up to those droughts so that we could provide more effective early warning next time.”

And that they did.

In June 2015, the team predicted that southern Africa would experience a drier-than-usual rainy season that would impact both crops and livestock in the area. Monitoring of the early season rainfall performance indicated that rainfall was late in arriving and insufficient when it finally came. Compounding this, limited governmental support and poor seed distribution diminished the opportunity to make the most of limited rainfall. 

As predicted, by January 2016 the area was experiencing severe drought and the driest rainy season in 35 years. However, successful preparations helped prevent a far worse crisis. Even as southern Africa struggled to cope with a terrible growing season and devastated water supplies, another series of droughts loomed on the horizon.

“Our analysis suggests that strong El Niños may be followed by warm western Pacific sea surface temperature conditions, which can lead to conditions conducive for successive and potentially predictable east African droughts,” Funk said. “Our research identifies regions of exceptionally warm sea surface temperatures that have been used to predict many recent droughts.”

Then, in fall 2016, CHG climatologists again predicted a potentially devastating drought in the eastern horn of Africa, which would continue into the spring of 2017, resulting in yet another terrible sequence of back-to-back failed growing seasons across eastern Ethiopia and southern Somalia. In fact, that unprecedented lack of rainfall spread across a much larger region than in 2011.

Thanks to the team’s early warning and the successful partnerships of many organizations, an extensive and effective multi-agency response began in early 2017. And despite the 2016-17 drought’s severity, few deaths were attributed to it.

“Sea surface temperatures create opportunities for prediction because a really warm ocean often triggers changes in atmospheric circulation that produce droughts in some places and more rainfall in others,” Funk explained. “If we pay attention and watch where those exceptionally warm sea surface temperatures are, we then can produce better drought forecasts that help prevent food insecurity in Africa.” 

FEWS NET’s early warning system demonstrates the immense potential of bringing researchers from disparate fields together to solve a common problem. The close partnership among scientists, food security analysts and decision-makers produces new science with the power to save lives.

By developing new satellite information products and climate prediction strategies and techniques, CHG scientists in Africa and Central America build capacity in their regions that empower poor nations to better cope with climate extremes. The team is working to make the world more food secure by mapping, understanding and anticipating climate extremes.   

“The bad news is that it seems like climate change is hurting people by increasing the severity of climate extremes,” Funk noted. “The good news is that this type of climate change — if we understood it correctly — can help us predict these extremes and associated droughts, so we can be ready to adapt and mitigate their impacts.”

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Channelfog Mar 16, 2018 08:32 AM
Drought & Food Insecurity Predictions

I absolutely agree about the draw down of the Ogallala and other aquifers. It is the legacy of glacial melt and is not being replenished at anything like the rate at which it is being pumped. Abuse of ground water and contamination of surface and ground water is rampant worldwide. As I stated before, agriculture methods that are sustainable must replace the till, pivot irrigation model that we are using. The link below is a very interesting and hopeful story about Permaculture farming in Jordan. If it can be done in the desert in Jordan without pumping ground water, it can be done anywhere. Convincing farmers to ditch their old mono-culture ways will be a challenge. It would be nice if they could see the light before the Ogallala is pumped completely dry. I am not holding my breath. https://permaculturenews.org/2014/02/01/desert-oasis-4-years-jordan/

Mesarats Mar 16, 2018 02:14 AM
Drought & Food Insecurity Predictions

If one doesn’t think that water scarcity is not human caused, we can look at our own back yard and start with the Ogallala aquifer, the largest in the country and go on from there. The depletion of our ground water is catastrophic, but since it is not visible it is easy to ignore. It’s like accounting, taking and not paying back just increases the deficit until nothing is left. Got to love technology, we are now drilling into 1000 year old water and yes intrusion of salinity and toxins is a issue . If one denies that human impact on the volume and quality doesn’t impact the climate that is part of the problem https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2016/08/vanishing-midwest-ogallala-aquifer-drought/

Channelfog Mar 15, 2018 11:51 AM
Drought & Food Insecurity Predictions

A rise of 0.8ºC over the last century+ is suspect as the readings have been taken at different points by different equipment during that time. There are also very few data points in the Southern Hemisphere. There is no solid proof that humans have been the cause. Al Gore et all have made billions of dollars, many of those being tax dollars, from this scheme. Toxic pollution IS a real and growing problem, but CO2 and global warming are not. Much of the global water problem is due to the contamination of existing water supplies. Solutions to feeding people lie in ancient methods of agriculture such as Permaculture Food Forests, examples of which have been thriving (feeding people) in desert areas for centuries. It not as much how much water one has, but how one uses it.

Factotum Mar 15, 2018 09:34 AM
Drought & Food Insecurity Predictions

El Nino's have affected South American civilizations for eons; well before the Contact or the Industrial Revolution. Why the gratitious use of the loaded term "climate change"? Certainly the value of sounder methods and responses to normal weather/climate cycles is welcome, but please don't make everything you do gratuitously political.

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