Seasonal Climate Prediction in Africa can Help People Avoid Impacts of Extreme Weather

in College and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, News Releases, Science & Technology
October 5th, 2007

Contact: Kira Jastive, 617-358-1240 |

(Boston) – As ongoing floods in Ethiopia and Kenya illustrate, African development is continually set back by extreme weather events. Often, however, meteorologists can predict months in advance whether the conditions are ripe for either flooding or prolonged drought. So why are people not more prepared when disaster strikes?

According to a study by a team of researchers from the United States, Kenya, and Austria, the answer is insufficient cooperation between meteorologists and the government ministries responsible for emergency management, agriculture, food security, and public health. As a result, these ministries remain uninformed, or confused about how to interpret and use long-term weather forecasts. The study appears in today’s issue of the journal Science.

“The climate across most of Africa is heavily influenced by El Niño, a condition of unusually warm water at the surface of the Pacific Ocean, and to a lesser extent by sea surface temperatures in the Indian and Atlantic Oceans,” said Anthony Patt, a researcher at Boston University and the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Austria, and lead author of the study. “These events in the oceans influence storm tracks across Africa, and can lead to heavy regional flooding, or a season of drought.”

According to the researchers, climatologists using computer models at the European Center for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts in England, at Météo France, and at the International Research Institute for Climate and Society in the United States can predict up to a year in advance how El Niño and other sea surface temperatures will evolve. Working with national meteorologists in Africa, and three regional forecasting centers based in Niger, Kenya, and Botswana, they issue seasonal forecasts each year covering the entire continent. This process has been ongoing since 1997, supported by the African governments, and with technical and financial support from the United States and Europe.

The research team describes when people have actually used the forecasts, and whether they have helped Africans better cope with climate variability.

“In the last ten years, there have been isolated cases where the forecasts have been enormously beneficial,” said Patt. “Most of the time, however, the forecasts have been ignored. This is because the critical link to the potential users of the information has been underdeveloped, and these people either do not receive the forecasts early enough, or do not understand how to interpret them.”

Along with co-authors Laban Ogallo of the Climate Prediction and Applications Centre in Nairobi, and Molly Hellmuth of Columbia University in New York, Patt points to a pattern of poor forecast communication and interpretation across the continent.

The authors analyzed the results of over fifty separate development projects in Africa where forecasts have helped, or could have helped, people to manage the effects of insufficient or excessive rainfall. Where forecasts have been used, they have led to demonstrable benefits for people on the ground.

The study highlights a development project in Mali, originally funded by the Swiss government, where forecasts helped farmers increase their yields by up to 80 percent. A pilot project in Zimbabwe, funded by the United States, led to similar improvements in yields. Other success stories identified by the research team include improved dam management in West Africa, the successful warning of a drought in Ethiopia, and the use of forecasts in Southern Africa to prepare for a malaria epidemic.

“The cases where forecasts have been used show that there is a great potential for climate and weather forecasts to assist in African development,” explains Dr. Patt. “This is especially important as scientists begin to understand the effects that climate change will have on the African climate.”

The researchers suggest that current and planned development projects in Africa work to develop more effective cooperation with the national meteorological services.

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