Madagascar drought study highlights complexity of climate

Consecutive years of poor rainfall in the Indian Ocean nation of Madagascar have ruined crops and left hundreds of thousands of people i...


Consecutive years of poor rainfall in the Indian Ocean nation of Madagascar have ruined crops and left hundreds of thousands of people in doubt about their next meals. Aid groups say the situation there is close to a humanitarian disaster.

But human-induced climate change does not appear to be the main cause, a team of climatologists said on Wednesday.

Rainfall in hard-hit southern Madagascar naturally fluctuates a lot, the researchers said, and they haven’t found that global warming makes prolonged droughts much more likely.

Even so, they stressed that the island should always aim to strengthen its capacity to cope with periods of drought. Scientists summoned by the United Nations determined that droughts in Madagascar as a whole are likely to increase if global average temperatures rise by more than 2 degrees Celsius – a level of warming higher than the 1.2 degrees that was factored into the new analysis.

Average global temperatures have already risen 1.1 degrees Celsius from pre-industrial levels. Scientists said nations must try to prevent temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius, or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit, which is the threshold beyond which they say the likelihood of fires. catastrophic events, floods, droughts, heat waves and other disasters is increasing dramatically. Running policies put the planet on a rate of about 3 degrees Celsius of warming by 2100.

“What this shows is that the current climate variability is already causing serious humanitarian suffering,” said Maarten van Aalst, director of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Climate Center and one of the 20 scientists involved. in the study on Madagascar. “In those kinds of places, anything that climate change would make worse would very quickly become a very big additional problem. “

Madagascar, a large island off the eastern coast of Africa, is known for its sandy beaches, emerald waters, and ring-tailed lemurs. But the low rainfall since 2019 in the southwestern end of the country – known as The Great South, or the Deep South – has left this part of the island in a dire state.

Over 1.3 million people, nearly half of the population of the Great South, experience high levels of food insecurity, according to the United Nations. Half a million children under 5 are at risk of severe malnutrition.

Climatologists have estimated that such a long drought has a one in 135 chance of occurring in any given year in this part of Madagascar.

Environmental degradation has exacerbated the effects of drought. Sandstorms fueled by deforestation have ruined croplands and pastures. a locust invasion threatens further destruction.

The inhabitants of the Great South were forced to eat grass, leaves and even clay to survive, the United Nations World Food Program found. Children left school to help their families fodder for food. Amnesty International has testimonials collected suggesting that some people have starved to death.

The drought analysis was conducted by an international scientific collaboration called the Global weather attribution initiative, which specializes in identifying links between climate change and individual weather events. The group performs such analyzes with an unusual speed in the world of scientific publishing: they aim to present solid science to the public while events are still fresh in people’s minds.

The team’s study on Madagascar has not been peer reviewed, although it is based on peer reviewed methods. Essentially, the approach is to use computer simulations to compare the existing world, in which humans have pumped greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, to a hypothetical world without this activity.

It may seem counterintuitive that global warming is not contributing to a marked increase in the likelihood of drought. Scientists have found, however, that the relationship is not that simple. Climate change typically causes more intense rainfall events, but it also changes rainfall patterns.

“Drought has so many dimensions,” said Dr van Aalst. “It’s not as simple as knowing how much average annual precipitation do you get? The question is also: are you distributing it well or are you just getting it in massive amounts at once? Are you getting it in the right seasons? “

“We have to be a little careful,” he added, “drawing too straight a line from our rainfall observations or projections only to what people end up suffering from.”

The global weather attribution has linked other extreme weather events to man-made climate change in recent years. The group found that this summer extraordinary heatwave in the Pacific Northwest almost certainly wouldn’t have happened without it.

For climatologists, “droughts are a combination of factors that are much more difficult to manage” than, say, heat waves, said Piotr Wolski of the Climate System Analysis Group at the University of Cape Town in South Africa.

“We have this predominant narrative these days that droughts are largely due to anthropogenic climate change,” said Dr Wolski, who also worked on the Madagascar study. “It’s not a bad story, because they are – it’s just not everywhere and not always.”

In Madagascar, livelihoods are easily destabilized by wild fluctuations in rainfall, said Daniel Osgood, a researcher at the International Institute for Climate and Society Research at Columbia University, who was not involved in the survey. the study.

Dr Osgood is working on a project to provide affordable drought insurance to producers in Madagascar. The goal is to help them become more resilient to economic shocks that weather conditions can cause. “It’s not the amount you eat on average,” he said. “It’s how much you eat each night that really makes the difference. “

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