Africa must rid itself from the label of ‘continent without climate data’

Weather station 61223 had been faithfully recording data on the temperature, wind and rainfall in the legendary city of Timbuktu for 115 years before March 30, 2012.

On that day, the station, a discreet concrete building by the airport, reported a maximum temperature of 105º Fahrenheit. Then, it went silent. On April 1, rebel Tuareg fighters under the multi-colored banners of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad surrounded and captured the area. Later, the jihadists of Ansar Dine followed, waving their black flag with the shahada—the Muslim declaration of faith—emblazoned in white. Soon, Sharia law was implemented across the city.

Moussa Touré watched the events unfold from Mali’s capital of Bamako with horror, and a sense of relief. As director of the African country’s weather observations network, he was responsible for the meteorologists stationed across the country and, luckily, he’d managed to evacuate all the National Meteorological Agency’s employees from Northern Mali in time.

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That included the three people in charge of Station 61223, one of only three facilities in Mali that had collected weather data without interruption for more than 100 years. Their safety had come at a cost.

“It was the only station in the region, the one that allowed us to understand extreme weather events in northern Mali,” Touré says, a shade of sadness in his voice. “We knew leaving our personnel there without any protection would mean putting them at risk.”

One weather station going dark was nothing compared to the chaos that ensued. The fall of Muammar al Qaddafi’s regime in Libya in 2011 had brought hundreds of fighters back to Mali and Niger. By 2012, myriad insurgent groups were causing destruction in the Sahel, a predominantly desert region stretching across Africa from Mauritania and Mali to the west, all the way to Sudan and Eritrea to the east.Islamist groups linked to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State took hold of several territories. A United Nations peacekeeping mission and a separate French-led counter-terrorism operation were deployed. Almost a decade later, the region is still unstable. Mali has suffered two coups d’état in less than a year. In July, Assimi Goita, who took power after leading the latest uprising, survived an assassination attempt.

But the loss of Station 61223 was keenly felt by the community of scientists trying to better understand the impact of global warming on the Earth’s climate—especially in Africa, where weather phenomena are chronically understudied. The complex mathematical models climate scientists depend on are fed with millions of data points from thousands of stations scattered across the planet—from the dunes of the Sahara desert to the busy streets of Beijing. Measurements of temperature, rainfall, humidity, solar radiation, as well as wind intensity and direction, allow scientists to test the accuracy of their models. The closer their forecasts hew to changes on the ground, the more confidence researchers have in their ability to make predictions.

“Weather and climate have a huge variability, so you need observations over decades and even over centuries,” says Peer Hechler, a scientific officer at the World Meteorological Organization, the United Nations agency that oversees weather and climate issues. “If you have data-sparse areas, you have a problem understanding the weather and the climate globally.”

That’s one of Africa’s biggest problems when it comes to tackling climate change, according to the WMO’s inaugural State of the Climate report released last year. The continent has the world’s least developed land-based weather observation network, amounting to only one eighth of the minimum density recommended by the WMO. The issue will be under the spotlight next week as the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change releases the first part of its Sixth Assessment Report, which summarizes scientific discoveries about climate change from the past seven years and will form the basis for further policy discussions, including the UN-sponsored COP26 conference planned for November.

Weather Data Gap

For the people of Mali, the consequences of losing Station 61223 were much more immediate—and tragic. The data it gathered was essential for predicting the sudden and violent gusts of wind that sweep over the region, causing sandstorms and dangerous water currents. Residents were well-trained to listen for alerts from Station 61223 warning them of impending gales. The pinasses, long flat canoes that carry people, cattle and goods along the Niger river, would stop their journeys and take refuge.

In 2011, about 10 people died in wind-related incidents around the Niger river and Lake Débo, Mali’s largest lake. That number soared to 70 the year after Station 61223 went offline.

Youba Sokona has been frustrated by the lack of African weather data for almost half a century.

He first encountered the problem when he was working on his PhD at age 28, researching ways to optimize dam construction in the Senegal River basin.

“In order to design a dam, you need a long-term series of hydro-meteorological data of a minimum of 100 years,” says Sokona, now 71. “I had only seven years of observation for the entire river system.”

That sort of information is usually readily available for projects in Europe and North America. The discrepancy became more obvious to Sokona as he rose through the ranks of the global climate community. An expert on sustainable development in Africa, he was appointed lead author of the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report in 2014. The massive document is published by the UN agency every six to seven years, summarizing the latest scientific discoveries about climate change in order to guide world leaders on how to tackle the crisis.

Speaking from his home in Bamako, where he’s returned after a decades-long career leading climate institutions all over the world, Sokona recalls the fraught politics around the document, which has to be approved by all UN member countries.

“Suddenly African members realized that there was lots of information on climate change in the Northern Hemisphere, but nothing on the South,” he says. “It wasn’t because climate change didn’t happen in the South, it was because there was no data, no previous research the IPCC could rely on.”

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African representatives threatened to reject the 2014 report, and harsh words were exchanged during meetings in Stockholm and Yokohama, Sokona says. Still, the document was eventually published, laying the groundwork for global leaders to set the target of keeping global warming below 1.5ºC compared to pre-industrial levels that underpins a swathe of climate policies today.

The experience, however, had underscored an uncomfortable inequity. IPCC authors launched a program to get more academics from Africa involved; more than 700 have since attended talks and conferences that highlighted gaps in the IPCC’s African data, Sokona says. They’re encouraged to gather information in their own countries, publish papers, and give feedback on existing publications to bring African issues to the attention of authors in developed nations.

The upcoming IPCC report includes an unprecedented number of African authors and is expected to highlight the lack of data from the continent, according to sources familiar with the document who asked not to be named because its contents are confidential.

But the gap in research between developed and developing countries is still large.

“Limited information is one of the main problems,” Sokona says. “We have made a huge progress and impact in Africa since the Fifth Assessment, but a lot more is still needed.”

Still, no one in the Sahel needs a scientist to tell them that the climate is changing in dangerous ways.

Those who live there have watched over the past few decades as rivers dried up, rain became less predictable, and deadly droughts and extreme heat became more common. The harsh weather has made it more difficult to grow crops such as rice and cotton, both major economic drivers. That’s forced hundreds of thousands of people to move to the capital Bamako to find work, or to take their chances embarking on dangerous migration routes along the Sahara to try and reach Europe.

There was a time, prior to the events in 2012, when Mali’s then-president Amadou Toumani Touré kept a close eye on the weather.

“He followed all weather forecasts on TV and he would call the minister for the weather to ask about specific information,” says Touré, the meteorological agency director. (The two aren’t related.) Touré the former president was overthrown by a coup in 2012.

Since then, climate change has risen to the top of the political agenda in many Western countries as citizens demand stronger action. But in Africa, there are often more pressing matters. With national meteorological agencies running on stretched budgets and political leaders uninterested in funding climate research, African researchers rely on support from international institutions or nonprofit organizations. The World Bank, International Monetary Fund and dozens of nonprofits have initiatives to expand the continent’s network of weather stations. But as soon as a program ends, so does its budget. The facilities fall into disrepair, and the data stops coming in.

“It turns out there’s quite a long road between a good idea and having something in the field that actually works,” says Nick van de Giesen, a professor at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands.

He’s spent the last seven years running the Trans-African Hydro-Meteorological Observatory, or TAHMO, a network of weather stations scattered across Africa that provides data to about 300 scientific organizations, including the WMO.

The most common type of facility is known as a synoptic weather station—that’s what Timbuktu’s Station 61223 was. They’re usually manually operated and include delicate equipment used to measure everything from soil moisture to barometric pressure. A team of operators is needed to digitize data and maintain the instruments. In the African countryside, that means a constant fight against insects and animals.

“Insects love to get into weather stations because they’re usually cooler than the outside,” Van de Giesen says. “We’ve found nests of wasps, ants, birds, anything you can think of.”

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Source: FurtherAfrica

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