Earth’s heart attack’ moment

The natural world is fading, the evidence is all around… But if we act now, we can yet put it right.

Sir David Attenborough

Growing up we are constantly reminded by our parents to eat our fruits and vegetables, drink water, and go to bed early. These habits are soon forgotten. Many individuals throughout the world lead extremely unhealthy lifestyles, consuming excessive amounts of sugary foods, alcoholic and fizzy drinks, and developing bad habits including a lack of exercise and smoking. Many of these people end up having serious health problems, including diseases, heart attacks, and other complications. For lucky individuals this is just a scare, and one which shocks them into changing their habits. My great grandfather did exactly that.

My great grandfather, Joao Infante, who I never got the chance to meet, was an ice-cream salesman. He was an incredibly kind and positive person, and his title of ‘salesman’ was used loosely. If a child were short of money or had no money at all, he would make sure that they still got an ice-cream. Because of this, he was loved throughout his community. Joao enjoyed 1920 Aguardente which is a strong alcoholic drink. The name Aguadente translates to “firewater” in English. At the age of 59, he was told by his doctor that he had cirrhosis of the liver. The doctor said he had only a few months to live, and so there would be no point for him to stop drinking.  

Devastated by the news, Joao went to see a specialist. My great aunt Delores Infante tells me of that interaction. She sat with Joao and the specialist told him that every drink he had was equivalent to him putting another nail in his coffin. Stunned by the statement, Joao decided that from that day he would never drink alcohol again and that he would lead a healthy lifestyle. To pass his craving he would put a few drops of 1920 on his hands and just smell it. He went on to live another 11 years. In the end, Joao did not pass away from liver problems as his liver had recovered. 

Humans are not only responsible for their own personal wellbeing and health. We are also increasingly influencing the earth’s climate and biosphere by burning fossil fuels, cutting down rainforests, draining wetlands and polluting oceans and rivers. Scientists have continually warned against these poor habits that promote climate change and biodiversity loss, which may hinder a sustainable future for life on the planet. We can relate that to a doctor telling their patient: ‘You ARE going to have a heart attack’. We would assume that, naturally, the individual would make some serious changes to their lifestyle to avoid this.

So, why is it that scientists are warning us constantly about the imminent demise of ecosystems, yet we see little collective change? Perhaps we do not believe our scientists as much as we do our doctors. Are we the patient that has been warned and continues to live with bad habits? Or do we need the global equivalent of a heart attack to change our behaviour?

The COVID-19 pandemic has been referred to the earth’s heart attack moment/scare. Ironically, a study suggests that global warming may have indirectly contributed to the coronavirus itself. More people working from home due to the pandemic may mean less air pollution, but this is projected not to make a significant long-term improvement. Climate scientists state that the global pandemic has actually placed less importance on climate change mitigation and more importance on the public health crisis and economic losses. 

The climate crisis is not just about global warming, in recent weeks large areas across Europe and North America have had record-setting snowstorms. The US state of Texas experienced record low temperatures, the states water and power supply were not ready for the freezing conditions leaving communities without power and water for days. Reports of at least 58 people had died in storm areas due to hypothermia, house fires, car accidents on snow-covered roads or poisoned by carbon monoxide emitted by vehicles or generators in closed spaces.

Texas in February 2021. Click here to see images of the record snowstorms in major cities across the world.

Such devastating disasters call for global change. It is up to each and every individual to come together to live a more sustainable and less impactful life. As Michael Jackson’s famous song says: ‘I’m starting with the man/woman in the mirror’. It is too easy to look to others, look to government or big organisations for positive change, it starts with you. You might be saying: ‘climate change will not affect me, why should I care?’ Maybe not right now, maybe not in five years, but your children will definitely experience climate change in its full force, and they will not be happy about it.

Climate research is critical in Africa: how to make it more visible

Written by Prof Jennifer Fitchett (SAYAS member)

Weather and climate have far-reaching effects on every part of life. The timing of seasons, range of daily and seasonal temperatures, the amount of rainfall – these all influence things as diverse as food production, disease prevalence and tourism.

You don’t need to be a scientist to know what good weather feels like. But there’s a scientific discipline which studies the effect of weather and climate on natural systems. Biometeorology is the study of the role of climate on plants, animals and humans. This includes the impact of day to day weather and long term climate.

Specific fields of study include the role of weather and climate on phenology in plants and animalsplant productivity and domestic animal health and performance. Phenology is the timing of biological events that occur every year, like blossoming, fruit development and leaf colouration.

In human populations, the field of study includes analyses of thermal comfort and stress, the spread of climate-sensitive disease and the impact of climate on tourism.

The discipline was formalised in the 1950s with the establishment of the International Society of Biometeorology and its flagship journal the International Journal of Biometeorology.

Biometeorological research is particularly important in Africa. The continent is projected to experience temperature increases bigger than the global mean throughout the 21st century. Changes in rainfall distribution are projected to heighten the occurrence and severity of droughts, floods and extreme climate events.

The Cape Town “Day Zero” drought, driven by a displacement of moisture corridors, was one such extreme drought. Cyclone Idai, which hit southern Africa in 2019, is one of the best examples of extreme flood events. These are projectedto become more common as tropical cyclones intensify.

The continent already experiences climate-sensitive diseases which present challenges to health systems. They include malaria, cholera, ebola, dengue and yellow fever.

Agriculture – both subsistence and commercial – is of great importance across the continent. And in many countries, climate-sensitive tourism sectors are becoming an important part of the economy.

The threats of climate change to plants, animals and people in Africa mean that the continent is an excellent place for biometeorological research. It also means that the findings of research are of critical importance in informing some of the most important policies.

But the continent is still not well represented in academic output in this field. I conducted a review and found that research in or about African countries makes up only 3.4% of the 4,014 papers in the International Journal of Biometeorology.

Topics of African biometeorology have been included in the journal since the first issue in 1957. The number of these papers has increased since 2011. But the overall number of papers increased at the same time, so the proportion of African papers hasn’t changed very much.

The majority of papers that have been published from the African continent are on topics of animal biometeorology. These include, for example, analyses of heat stress in hensbody temperatures of donkeys and the effects of melatonin on broiler chickens.

The African country with the biggest share of the papers is Nigeria. Again, the topics are mostly about animals. Some papers are on topics such as phenologyand conditions for malaria transmission.

Other countries where 15 or more biometeorological studies have been conducted are Algeria, Morocco, Ghana and South Africa.

Making up less than half the number of studies are topics like human thermal comfort and stress, human health, phenology, and plant productivity and stress.

In terms of authorship, 66% of these papers are by at least one researcher based in an African country. But only 15 African countries are included in this authorship.

How to increase African authorship

It’s possible that one reason African research is not well represented in the journal is that academics and their students aren’t aware of the subdiscipline, society or journal. The International Society of Biometeorology has been working to address this through including regional councillors in their executive. This could also be addressed in a number of ways. These include inviting more African researchers to serve as reviewers for the journal, organising African themes for the society symposiums and putting together special African issues in the journal. Each of these require engagement from and involvement of African researchers in this field.

Another key in promoting biometeorology is education at university level. The Students and New Professionals Group of the International Society of Biometeorology has been involved in developing educational content. Only one country in Africa (Uganda) currently has a biometeorology course. A handful of countries include biometeorology topics in broader courses on climate or the environment, and a small group of researchers are supervising students in these topics.

Over time a combination of these efforts will hopefully give the African continent greater representation in biometeorology research. This will improve the capacity to detect, measure and assess the impacts of climate change on natural systems and to develop effective adaptation strategies.

This article was first published in The Conversation.