Mapping the Future of Climate Change in Africa

It is not news that climate change is having a devastating impact on African communities, causing droughts, floods, and any number of other sorts of disasters. These climatic interruptions are also having a trickle down impact on social and other aspects of Africa society.

Now, a group of researchers with the Climate Change and African Political Stability (CCAPS) program have developed an online mapping tool that clearly analyses and shows how climate and other forces are interacting to threaten the security of African communities across the continent.

The program was piloted by the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law at The University of Texas at Austin in 2009 after receiving a $7.6 million five-year grant from the Minerva Initiative with the Department of Defense, according to Francis J. Gavin, professor of international affairs and director of the Strauss Center.

“The first goal was to look at whether we could more effectively identify what were the causes and locations of vulnerability in Africa, not just climate, but other kinds of vulnerability,” Gavin said.

CCAPS is made up of nine research teams that focus on different aspects of climate change, their relationship to different types of conflict on the continent, the government structures that exist to mitigate them, and the effectiveness of international aid in intervening.

“In the beginning these all began as related, but not intimately connected, topics” Gavin said, “and one of the really impressive things about the project is how all these different streams have come together.”

A Brittle Climatic Reliance

Due to its reliance upon rain-fed agriculture and the inability of governments to provide any real beneficial aid in times of need, Africa is particularly vulnerable to climatic shifts.

The CCAPS climate security vulnerability model identifies four main sources of vulnerability, including climate-related hazard exposure, population density, household community resilience, and governance and political violence. The composite picture highlights areas of chronic insecurity where these four sources of vulnerability coalesce.

The growth of the continents population, its economic strength and resource importance, and the impact of non-state actors, weakening governments and humanitarian governments all combine to ensure Africa is a region of increasing concern for countries like America.

Although these issues are too complex to yield a direct causal link between climate change and security concerns, he said, understanding the levels of vulnerability that exist is crucial in comprehending the full effect of this changing paradigm.

Enter CCAPS’ vulnerability mapping program, led by Joshua Busby, assistant professor at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs. The mapping program determines the vulnerability of a particular location based on climate conditions by looking at four separate sources;

1. the degree of physical exposure to climate hazards

This records the different types of climatic hazards a region is likely to encounter

2. population size

This determines the number of people who would be impacted by such a disaster: more people means a greater demand for resources, which in turn creates trouble for the entire population

3. household or community resillience

This looks at how resilient a community or household is to adverse effects by analysing their education and health, as well as whether there is easy access to food, water, and health care.

4. the quality of governance or presence of political violence

This final category focuses on the effectiveness of a specific local government, the amount of accountability that exists, how integrated it is with the international community, how politically stable the government is, and whether there is any political violence.

Busby and his team combined the four sources of vulnerability and gave them each equal weight, adding them together to form a composite map. Their scores were then divided into a ranking of five equal parts, or quintiles, going from the 20 percent of regions with the lowest vulnerability to the 20 percent with the highest.

Regional Climate Model Simulations

The researchers had used information gathered from a variety of sources, including historic models of physical exposure from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), population estimates from LandScan, as well as household surveys and governance assessments from the World Bank’s World Development and Worldwide Governance Indicators.

But to understand what African regions would be most vulnerable to future climate change, Busby and his team relied on the regional climate model simulations designed by Edward Vizy and Kerry Cook, both members of the CCAPS team from the Jackson School of Geosciences.

Vizy and Cook ran three, 20-year nested simulations of the African continent’s climate at the regional scales of 90 and 30 kilometers, using a derivation of the Weather Research and Forecasting Model of the National Center for Atmospheric Research. One was a control simulation representative of the years 1989-2008, and the others represented the climate as it may exist in 2041-2060 and 2081-2100.

“We’re adjusting the control simulation’s CO2 concentration, model boundary conditions, and sea surface temperatures to increased greenhouse gas forcing scenario conditions derived from atmosphere-ocean global climate models. We re-run the simulation to understand how the climate will operate under a different, warmer state at spatial resolutions needed for regional impact analyses,” Vizy said.

Each simulation took two months to complete on the Ranger supercomputer at the Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC).

“We couldn’t run these simulations without the high-performance computing resources at TACC, it would just take too long. If it takes two months running with 200 processors, I can’t fathom doing it with one processor,” Vizy said.

The Mapping Tool

“The mapping tool is a key part of our effort to produce new research that could support policy making and the work of practitioners and governments in Africa,” said Ashley Moran, program manager of CCAPS. “We want to communicate this research in ways that are of maximum use to policymakers and researchers.”

After they had completed the first version of their model, Busby and his team visited Africa to ground truth their maps in country’s like Kenya and South Africa.

“The experience of talking with local experts was tremendously gratifying,” Busby said. “They gave us confidence that the things we’re doing in a computer lab setting in Austin do pick up on some of the ground-level expert opinions.”

They then took what they learned in Africa – local perspectives and insights – back to their labs and implemented what they had learned in revised versions of the online mapping tool.

With such a well researched tool, policy makers can safely use the maps in developing security strategies for the future, including early warning systems against floods, investments in drought-resistant agriculture, and alternative livelihoods that might facilitate resource sharing and help prevent future conflicts.

Source: Texas Advanced Computing Center

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