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.

The race to Mars

Will the red planet be our saving grace?

Scientists have been on the hunt for exoplanets and extraterrestrial life since the 1890s when Nikola Tesla suggested that electrical signals could be used to communicate with beings on Mars. Historically, the search for habitable planets has been curiosity-oriented research, with scientists mainly focusing on the understanding of the universe. However, in recent decades, the search has shifted to searching for habitable planets that could be an alternative home for humans given the rapidly increased threat of climate change

The top contender planet for life away from Earth is Mars (Venus might soon be contending for this spot). The main reasons why Mars is a favourable planet for hosting humans include: the evidence of water extracts from the soil, the available mineral resources, it has a gravitational pull sufficient for humans to adapt,  and it’s positioning from the sun results in bearable temperatures. There have been many missions designed to explore the red planet. These missions can be categorised into four groups: flybys, orbiters, landers and rovers.

Flyby missions main aims were to capture photographs of Mars in close proximity, the flyby spacecrafts were not designed to enter Mars’ orbit but just to pass in the vicinity of the planet. The first successful launch was of the NASA’s Mariner 4 spacecraft which collected the first planet images from space; it also mapped 1% of Mars. The first successful orbiter mission was launched in 1971 by the Soviet Union. The Mars 2 spacecraft was only in orbit for a few months but successfully measured the surface temperature and the atmospheric composition of the planet. Vikings 1 and 2 were the first spacecrafts to land on Mars successfully; the lander missions perform all experiments at a single location. Besides taking photographs and collecting other science data on the Martian surface, the two landers conducted three biology experiments designed to look for possible signs of life; from these experiments, scientists concluded that the dryness and oxidising nature of the soil did not permit the formation of living organisms on the Martian soil. 

The most famous of the missions, of course, are the rovers. Rovers are robots that are designed to travel across the planet upon arrival. Sojourner, the first rover to land on Mars, took 550 images and performed more than 15 chemical analyses of rocks and soil and extensive data on winds and other weather factors. Findings from the investigations carried out by scientific instruments on both the lander and the rover suggest that Mars was at one time in its past warm and wet, with water existing in its liquid state and a thicker atmosphere. Many other rovers have landed on Mars, including the infamous Curiosity; these missions have enabled scientist to have a broad understanding of the climate and geological structures of the planet. These findings have resulted in missions that seek to send humans to Mars with the hope of having humans settlements. The most famous of these missions’ are the Mars One (which dismally failed) and Space X. However, my personal favourite is the Proudly Human project, founded by UKZN alumni Adriana Marais. Although embarking on an ambitious mission of off-world settlements,  Proudly Human also seeks to uplift youth that is already living in extreme conditions.

As a scientist, I’m pro any explorative research that advances our understanding of the universe, however, when it comes to the colonisation of Mars, I tend to have a different view. I believe that the plan of escaping Earth will not work in the long run, not because of the dull and monotonic scenery of planet Mars, but because the problem was never the planet but humans. It is humans that have, on numerous occasions, chosen greed over humanity. Hence, whatever planet we are headed to would eventually be doomed for destructions unless our actions change.

I am excited whenever I see young climate activists boldly speak out on how government and industries should adopt environmentally friendly policies. Individual behaviour is what will collectively change the state of this planet; then there will no longer be a need to seek refuge on other planets. In the famous words of the late king of pop, ‘I’m looking at the man in the mirror, I’m asking him to change his ways’. Our individual deeds, no matter how insignificant they may seem, will save our beautiful mother Earth.