Kerry Cook says Africa vulnerable to abrupt climate change

Kerry Cook: In Africa we have a special concern about abrupt climate change, because we know from the records of past climate that it’s possible for climate to change abruptly in this region.

Atmospheric scientist Kerry Cook specializes in the study of abrupt climate change – the kind of change that might rapidly transform a landscape over decades, as opposed to centuries. Cook said it’s extremely difficult to know exactly what type of climate change will affect the continent of Africa, in the coming years.

Kerry Cook: None of the climate models are indicating yet abrupt climate change for Africa, for the near future. But we don’t have huge confidence in our ability of the climate models for prediction over Africa.

Cook said that’s due to a combination of Africa’s complicated climate system, and a lack of observational records. Scientists rely on records of climate going back for at least 30 years in order to understand how climate works over a particular area.

Kerry Cook: You need to have observing systems in place for longer periods of time, say 50, 60, 70 years. And we simply have not had that for Africa. It seems like a luxury. If you don’t have enough to eat, it’s a luxury to put in a weather observing station.

Cook’s climate models predict that by the end of the 21st century, Africans will experience more hardship due to increased temperatures, droughts, and flooding. If these climate changes come abruptly, she worries that the continent will be left with little time to mitigate the impact.

Kerry Cook: That’s why the goal today is to create resiliency – in economic systems, and agricultural systems, that support peoples lives. So that when climate change comes, they’ll be able to cope with it.

Cook said paleoclimate records show that Africa has the potential for abrupt climate change – changes that take place over a few decades or less, and then persist over a long period of time.

Kerry Cook: Given our concerns about the populations being very vulnerable to climate change, we have a special concern about abrupt climate change in Africa. It’s a very complicated climate system, especially for West Africa. It’s very dependent on sea surface temperatures, on the exact patterns of sea surface temperature increases that we might see in the future.

EarthSky asked why it’s so difficult to predict climate change in Africa.

Kerry Cook: There are fewer studies over that area, and fewer studies over a longer period of time. For climate change induced by greenhouse gases, time scales are decadal – 10 years, 20 years, 30 years. So in order to study climate change on that time scale, we need to understand climate variability on that time scale and the processes that cause climate to change on those time scales. And in order to get at that, you need observing systems in place for longer periods of time – say 50, 60, 70 years. And we do not have that for Africa.

January 18, 2010

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