Chris Funk, Gideon Galu, Greg Husak, Will Turner, Juliet Way-Henthorne
An analysis of mid-season rainfall, WRSI simulations, and crop statistics indicate a high probability of a very poor Somali Deyr 2018 growing season. Rainfall deficits in Kenya also indicate poor growing conditions.
FEWS NET food security outlooks rely on a series of information products. Before the growing season, an analysis of climate modes and climate forecasts provides an evidence-based foundation for seasonal rainfall outlooks. By mid-season, however, rainfall observations, crop and hydrology models, and other forms of monitoring provide more detailed and accurate sources of information. These information sources can be especially powerful in areas with short growing seasons (such as Somalia), where arid conditions create a short window for successful harvests. FEWS NET science partners have been steadily improving our monitoring resources, and here, we use some of these products to assess likely agroclimatic outcomes for the Somali 2018 Deyr growing season. Crop statistics, provided by the FEWS NET data warehouse, allow us to further leverage these resources to provide quantitative projections of Maize/Sorghum crop production values. While not as accurate as post-harvest assessments, these preliminary rainfall-based projections suggest that a poor cropping season is very likely. Poor pasture conditions also seem probable for some regions.
Poor seasonal rainfall performance
Dry conditions appear extremely likely over southern Somalia and most of Kenya. Note the large discrepancy between the ARC2 (Fig. 1-left) and CHIRPS (Fig 1-right) results over Eastern Ethiopia. CHIRPS incorporates additional station data provided by the Ethiopian Meteorological Agency and is much more representative of the current situation in eastern Somalia. Rainfall estimates from CPC’s ARC2 archive and the USGS/CHC’s CHIRPS2 data sets converge on similar outlooks for a very dry October-December growing season for Somalia (Figure 1). The CPC provides Seasonal Rainfall Performance Probability (SPP) Analyses for October-December. These analyses use observed ARC2 data up to the present and then completes the remainder of the season with all previous historical ARC2 observations. This enables them to estimate the probable seasonal outcome (Figure 1, left). Based on the SPP analysis through mid-November, most of Somalia (including the main crop growing areas) are very likely (>75% chance) to receive below-normal rainfall. The USGS/CHC has also recently started producing an “Early Estimate” product that combines observed CHIRPS data with CHIRPS-compatible 10-day GEFS rainfall forecasts. The right panel of Figure 1 shows Early Estimate rainfall anomalies for October 1 through November 25th. Dry conditions appear extremely likely over southern Somalia and most of Kenya.
Figure 1. Left – CPC Seasonal Precipitation Performance predictions for October-December 2018. Right – CHC Early Estimate seasonal rainfall anomalies.
Somalia Deyr Rainfall and Crop Production Projections
Next, we examine in detail rainfall averaged across crop-growing zones in Bay, lower, and middle Shabelle districts (Figure 2). These rainfall estimates combine October and the 1st two dekads of November, with CHIRPS-GEFS forecasts used to fill in dekad 2 of November. For 2018, these seasonal totals look very low, almost identical with previous signature drought years: 1998, 1999, 2003, 2005, 2010, and 2016.
Figure 2. October 1-November 20 CHIRPS observations for the main Somali crop growing regions.
Using historical sorghum and sorghum+maize crop production data from the FEWS NET data warehouse, we can use logistic regression to relate these seasonal rainfall totals to 1995-2016 Deyr seasonal production estimates (Figure 3). We treat sorghum separately because we found that it had a very strong relationship with rainfall (R2~0.7). We also provide maize+sorghum total production projections to support food security analyses. It should be noted that these projections are not intended to replace careful post-harvest crop assessments, but, rather, as an advanced outlook on the general pattern such assessments are likely to indicate. We have excluded 1997 and 2011 from our estimation procedure, because 1997 was an exceptionally wet year with modest production (presumably due to flooding), while 2011 was a normal rainfall year with low crop production (presumably due to conflict).
One of the most notable features of Figure 3 is the non-linear relationship between rainfall and crop production. Below 100 mm of rainfall, crop production drops very quickly. A 2018 rainfall total of ~60 mm indicates poor crop production. Using take-one-away cross-validation and regression, we have estimated the 2018 Deyr Sorghum and Sorghum+Maize production totals as 45 and 81 thousand metrics tons. These estimates correspond to ~50% and 60% of the 2012-2016 average production (i.e. production about half of the recent average production). Eighty percent confidence intervals, based on the cross-validation results, indicate ranges of 43-46 and 77 to 83 thousand metric tons for Deyr Sorghum and Sorghum+Maize production. Note that the late November rainfall estimates are based on weather model forecasts, and there is still room for the season to improve; however, the overall outlook is very pessimistic.
Figure 3. Scatterplots of Rainfall and Somali Deyr Crop Production
Per Capita Sorghum+Maize Production
According to United Nation estimates, Somalia’s population has doubled since 1995, while Deyr crop production totals have not increased. Figure 4 shows per capita Deyr Maize+Sorghum production estimates (i.e. crop production per person). In the last 10-12 years, approximately half of the Deyr seasons were associated with very low per capita crop production outcomes. 2018 appears likely to be another such season, with per capita maize+sorghum production of around 5.4 kg per person.
Figure 4. Deyr Per Capita Sorghum+Maize Production
Concerns About Pasture Conditions
Next, we turn to an assessment of pastoral conditions, focusing on the same three regions (Bay, Lower Shabelle and Middle Shabelle). This analysis is not meant to be an exhaustive assessment of rangeland conditions for the entire country. Furthermore, rangeland conditions may be more variable than crop outcomes, since grasses can respond quickly to late-season rains. However, through the first dekad of November (Figure 5) vegetation conditions (as represented by the USGS eMODIS NDVI) appear quite low. Vegetation greenness in these regions typically peaks in the last dekad of November.
Vegetation conditions exhibit persistence, and robust lagged relationships with prior rainfall totals. Hence, the end-of-November values can be predicted very accurately based on 1st dekad of November values and October 1-November 20 rainfall estimates (R2 values of ~0.8). Times series of the observed and predicted regional NDVI are shown in Figure 6. According to these estimates, peak NDVI in these regions appears substantially below normal and similar to previous severe drought years. Note also the sequence of repeated low Deyr NDVI values. The 2016, 2017, and 2018 values are all quite low – indicating repetitive shocks. The 2017 season March-May Gu season was poor, while the 2018 Gu season was normal-to-above normal. So, four out of the last five seasons seem to have been associated with poor growing conditions: Deyr 2016, Gu 2017, Deyr 2017, and Deyr 2018.
Figure 5. Regional eMODIS NDVI time series. The red lines depict the median values for the 2003-2017 period. The blue line shows 2018 conditions.
Figure 6. Time series of November dekad 3 eMODIS NDVI, along with predictions based on dekad 1 NDVI and October-November rainfall
Conclusions and Context
The most effective drought early warnings systems rely on multiple indicators, transitioning from climate forecasts and analogs before the onset of a rainy season, to mid-season projections of likely food system disruptions. Here, we have used FEWS NET monitoring tools to focus on mid-season projections for Somalia. While these projections should not be mistaken for assessments, our analysis has shown that for Somalia, a high level of predictability can be obtained in mid-November. This skill rests on the short duration of the Deyr growing season, the general aridity of the region, and the persistent nature of vegetation, soil moisture, and crop conditions. Unfortunately, the results presented also suggest another poor crop-growing season for Somalia. For the Bay and Shabelle regions analyzed, poor vegetation conditions also appear likely – conditions which could quite likely persist until the March-May Gu rains of 2019. While not examined in great detail here, precipitation totals and WRSI (Figure 1 and 2) also appear quite poor over Kenya, and poor Kenyan short rainy season harvest could be problematic, ultimately contributing to regional food and price stresses. Please note that it is probable that the marginal agricultural areas of the southeastern lowlands are likely to be more adversely affected by the current delayed onset, the quality of the seasonal rains, and the substantially reduced growing period.
The results concerning the Deyr harvest expressed here should be placed in the context of a good 2018 Gu harvest. Figure 7 below, taken from the 2018 post-Gu FSNAU-FEWS NET joint assessment (here), shows that the 2018 Sorghum+Millet Gu harvest was estimated to be about 147 thousand metric tons, the best harvest since 2010. On average, the Gu and Deyr harvests similar in magnitude, about 90 thousand metric tons, so the good Gu harvest will certainly help partially offset the poor 2018 cropping season. Current maize and sorghum prices are much lower than their peak in 2017, but historically prices also typically increase between December and April-May. It should also be noted, however, that the 2016 and 2017 Gu harvests were below normal, as were the 2016 and 2017 Deyr season harvests.
Rainfall-based early assessments of the 2018 Deyr harvest indicate substantial (40-50%) deficits with little chance of recovery.
Vegetation conditions in some areas are also quite poor, and predicted to remain so unless unseasonal rains arrive.
While the 2018 Gu season was very good, Somalia also faces the stress of repetitive shocks in four of the past five rainy seasons, compounded by increasing population stress.
Figure 7. Gu Season Cereal Production – figure taken from the 2018 post-Gu FSNAU-FEWS NET joint assessment
Contributors: Laura Harrison, Chris Funk, Martin Landsfeld, Will Turner, Greg Husak, Juliet Way-Henthorne
As East Africa’s October to December “short” rainy season approaches its midpoint in many areas, parts of Kenya, southeastern Ethiopia, and much of southern Somalia have seen substantial rainfall deficits. Factors include a late start to the onset of seasonal rains, fewer than normal rain days, and long dry spells. Based on the Climate Hazards Center Early Estimate, a monitoring data resource that provides early indications of sub-seasonal to seasonal rainfall performance, central Kenya and Somalia’s cropping zones may end up with 50-100mm deficits for the October 1st to November 10th, 2018 period (Figure 1).
Figure 1: Climate Hazards Center Early Estimate for the 2018 short rains status made on November 5th, 2018. The CHC Early Estimate approach combines CHIRPS final and preliminary rainfall estimates (30-day or 60-day) with a compatible, unbiased version of the 10-day GEFS ensemble mean forecast (see Figure 3). Figure 1 is a rainfall anomaly composite of preliminary CHIRPS October 2018 rainfall and CHIRPS-GEFS, released November 1st for Nov. 1st-10th. Note that October data is preliminary and subject to change in the final version of CHIRPS, which will be available mid-November. In CHIRPS final, Somalia data includes FAO SWALIM reports and Ethiopia data includes Ethiopia National Meteorological Agency reports.
While some areas may receive relief in November, poor crop outcomes should be a concern in short growing season areas, such as Somalia. Concern for the performance of the short rains in the eastern Horn and Deyr crop production, in particular, is based on convergent evidence from independent data sets and a pessimistic outlook from the current rainfall forecast.
Convergent evidenceUSGS’s expedited MODIS NDVI anomalies show vegetation productivity in a degraded state at the end of October. Like CHIRPS, NOAA CPC’s ARC2 data shows expansive rainfall deficits across the eastern Horn and similar patterns with respect to rainfall anomalies (Figure 2). These came during the typically wettest month of the short cropping season in Somalia’s main cropping zones.
Based on GEFS forecasts, relief is not expected during the first two weeks of November for most of Kenya and for at least two of Somalia’s main cropping zones (Figure 3). National Multi-Model Ensemble (NMME) forecasts for November rainfall vary widely. Outlooks from NOAA CPC, based on historical November and December rainfall, indicate a higher than 60% chance of below normal OND totals in southern Somalia and southeastern Ethiopia.
Figure 3. CHIRPS-GEFS rainfall anomaly forecast for the 10-day period beginning November 4th, 2018. More can be found about this data product and how to access it a blog on the UCSB Climate Hazards Center website http://blog.chg.ucsb.edu/?p=443
Contributors: Martin Landsfeld, Laura Harrison, Chris Funk, Juliet Way-Henthorne
Background – CHIRPS
The Climate Hazards Group Infrared Precipitation with Stations data set (CHIRPS) is a land-based, quasi-global (latitude 50°N-50°S), 0.05 degree resolution precipitation data set. It has a relatively long-term period of record (1981 – near present). CHIRPS is based on a well-developed climatology and perturbed with infrared satellite measurements and in-situ observations to estimate gridded precipitation in near-real time. A final monthly precipitation product is created about 2 weeks after the end of the month when all the station data (from over 10 different sources) has been collected and blended with the satellite estimates. A preliminary product, CHIRPS Prelim, is available on the dekadal time scale and available 2-3 days after each dekad and month. It is blended with only 2 sources of station data— WMO GTS and CONAGUA.
NCEP’s Global Ensemble Forecast System (GEFS) is a weather forecast system that provides daily forecasts out to 16 days at 1 X 1 degree resolution at 6-hour intervals.
Figure 2. GEFS rainfall estimates product.
This forecast product can be very useful to early warning famine and hydrological monitoring efforts, so the Climate Hazards Group (CHG) creates forecast precipitation fields at the dekadal (10 day) time scale and makes those available to researchers and decision makers in the EWX data viewer at:
Precipitation is accumulated to 10-day intervals, every day. The precip_mean, anom_mean, and zscore_mean directories contain the means of the ensemble runs, and the file names are comprised of the dates of the first day of the forecast, followed by the last day of the forecast.
Blending GEFS Forecasts with CHIRPS
To make GEFS forecasts interoperable with CHIRPS, we bias-correct and downscale GEFS with respect to CHIRPS. The method that is followed is similar to the standard cumulative density function matching process of bias-correction. For a given target 10 day period’s GEFS forecast, its rank with respect to its climatology (1985 – present) is identified, and then a value of the same rank from the CHIRPS climatology is used to replace GEFS forecasts for each ~5km pixel. A comparison is shown below.
Figure 3. Comparison of GEFS 1 degree resolution forecast (left) with the blended CHIRPS-GEFS 0.05 degree forecast (right).
GEFS and CHIRPS-GEFS 10-day accumulations were compared to historical Ethiopian station measurements. Ethiopia maintains many stations through the time period since 1985 and has a varied topographic relief. Significant improvements were made, as seen below (Figure 4).
The correlation, mean bias, and root mean squared error are shown in Table 1. Significant improvements in the correlation to station values were improved, and the mean bias and RMSE were reduced, demonstrating the increased accuracy when the GEFS forecasts are blended with the CHIRPS climatology and long-term time series.
Corr. Bias RMSE
GEFS: 0.51 1.45 63.54
CHIRPS-GEFS: 0.68 1.05 37.26
Table 1. Comparison coefficients of GEFS and CHIRPS-GEFS estimates with rain gauge stations.
Spatial correlations where calculated between CHIRPS-GEFS forecasts and CHIRPS Final estimates for dekadal time periods over the entire time series. High correlations exist over significant portions of Africa for the first dekad of April (Figure 5). Other correlations, biases, and mean-biased errors for other time periods can be found at:
Figure 5. Correlation between CHIRPS-GEFS and CHIRPS Final for the 1st dekad of April (1985-2016).
Real-time precipitation forecasts are critical for predicting flooding events and protecting property and lives. When torrential rains hit Kenya in mid to late April 2018, major flooding occurred, overwhelming drainage systems and collapsing dams. The Kenya Meteorological Department wrote:
Heavy rain has been affecting the central, the south-west and south-east areas of the country, including the capital Nairobi, since the beginning of the month, causing floods, flash floods, and casualties. According to media, as of 20 March, the death toll has reached at least 15 people in the provinces of Central, Nyanza, and Eastern. They also reported that around 1000 people were evacuated in the counties of Makueni (Eastern province), Kilifi and Tana (Coast province). Over the next 24 hours, more heavy rain with local thunderstorms is forecast for the affected areas.
The impacts of this flooding can be seen below (Figures 6 and 7).
Figure 6. A passenger is rescued from his submerging vehicle following heavy downpour in Nairobi on April 15, 2018.
Figure 7. Submerged vehicle in Nairobi, April 24th, 2018.
The CHIRPS-GEFS 10-day forecast, made on April 10th, 2018, could have been used to help predict these events and warn residents of impending flooding. As an example, consider the left image in Figure 8 below. This map, obtained from the CHG experimental Early Warning Explorer (http://chg-ewxtest.chg.ucsb.edu/) using the CHIRPS GEFS latest under Global Datasets, shows a downscaled GEFS forecast for the 10th – 20th of April. Below is a comparison of the anomalies of the CHIRPS-GEFS forecast with the subsequent CHIRPS Final for the same time period. The right image shows the observed CHIRPS data for that same time period. While the agreement is not perfect, the CHIRPS GEF forecasts did a very good job of capturing the potential high rainfall amounts. Figure 9 shows forecasts and observations for the next 10 days April 21-30.
The Climate Hazards Group is both pleased and honored to announce that we are transitioning to an official center, The Climate Hazards Center, which will continue to operate within the UC Santa Barbara Geography department. Since 2003, the Climate Hazards researchers – a cooperative of multidisciplinary scientists and food security analysts from UC Santa Barbara, Africa, and Central America have worked closely with the US Geological Survey and the USAID Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET) to utilize climate and crop models, satellite-based earth observations, and socio-economic data sets to predict and monitor droughts and food shortages among the world’s most vulnerable populations. The Climate Hazards team continues to support critical planning and timely humanitarian assistance that ultimately saves lives and livelihoods.
Now, as the Climate Hazards Center (led by Dr. Chris Funk as initial director), we are an officially recognized entity within the University of California. While this is only the beginning of this journey, we are already benefiting from a new capability to pursue Memorandums of Understanding with influential entities like the World Meteorological Organization. Further, with the added visibility that the officially recognized Center affords, we seek to increase the circulation of critical knowledge. While the accumulation of potentially life-saving information has always been a primary focus of the Climate Hazards Group, we hope to better organize and communicate this knowledge by expanding the reach of our research. As this exciting adventure unfolds, the CHC will, in close partnership with USGS and USAID, strive to constantly evolve as a center based upon the principles of scientific integrity and excellence in early warning and climate risk management and adaptation. It is in this spirit of ethical responsibility that we aim to create an institution and lasting legacy that inspires people to continue pursuing humanitarian-focused science with the shared vision of helping thousands of people for many years to come.
The Climate Hazards Center wishes to extend our appreciation to our Geography Chair Stuart Sweeney, our Executive Officer Mo Lovegreen, and our long-time faculty advisor Joel Michaelsen. We are also deeply grateful to Jim Verdin and Jim Rowland, our long-standing partners from USAID and USGS, who have helped guide our efforts from the very beginning. Thank you for making this dream a reality.
Senior Research Geographer, Researcher, Director CHC (Chris Funk, Ph.D.)
Principal Investigator, Researcher, Co-Director CHC (Greg Husak, Ph.D.)
Update to the guest blog by the Ad hoc Blue Nile Forecast Group (listed alphabetically): Sarah Alexander (1), Paul Block (1), Annalise Blum (2), Shraddhanand Shukla (3), Shu Wu (1), Temesgen Yimane (2), Ben Zaitchik (2)*, and Ying Zhang (2).
University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, WI, USA
2. Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD USA
3. University of California Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara, CA, USA
At the time of our first post, there were already reports that rains had come early to portions of the Blue Nile basin, and we found near unanimity across statistical and dynamically-based seasonal forecasts that the June-September Kiremt rainfall would be average to above average. Forecasts of Blue Nile flow showed the same tendency. Consistent with these forecasts, rainfall in the basin through the first dekad of July was well above average (Figure 2). Positive rainfall anomalies for early season rainfall exceeded 50 mm over the majority of the basin, with significant areas showing anomalies greater than 100 mm. For context: according to CHIRPS estimates, average June rainfall for the basin is 195 mm, and average June-September total rainfall is 942 mm. So anomalies on the order of 50-100 mm through only the first third of the rainy season are quite meaningful.
Interestingly, however, the North American Multi-Model Ensemble (NMME) forecasts launched in July show a more mixed outlook than the same ensemble had offered in May. At the time of the May forecast, every NMME model had a mean prediction of average to above average rainfall for June-September (Figure 10 in our original post). Looking at forecast July-September rainfall in the July initialized NMME simulations, we see that there are now several models that predict below average rainfall, albeit with only a modest negative anomaly (Figure 3). This breaks the consensus that existed in May. This shift to drier forecasts might reflect the influence of a shifting El Niño outlook, as the predicted probability of an El Niño forming by the end of the season is higher now than it was in May (Figure 4; compare to Figure 9 in the original post).
Notwithstanding this somewhat drier outlook from NMME, the strong rains observed in June and early July got the basin off to a wet start. This, combined with an NMME forecast that still, across all models, points to average rainfall conditions for the remainder of the season, suggests that the Kiremt rains will be average to above average overall. The probability of a dry year is low, though some NMME models now suggest that late season rains might be lower than average.
As noted by a recent report by the World Meteorological Society (and many other news articles), July of 2018 has brought exceptionally warm air temperatures to many parts of the globe. Fires rage in Sweden and Greece, Japan experienced deadly torrential rains (1,800 mm at Shikoku) followed by temperatures reaching 106°F. In Algeria, Ouargla reported a maximum temperature of 124.3°F and Morocco set a new record at Bourfa at 110°F. In Canada, as many as 70 people may have died due to an extreme heat wave in Quebec. Closer to home, the WMO report identifies an extreme of 125.6°F in Death Valley, while Chino, Burbank and Van Nuys set records at 120°F, 114°F and 117°F.
This blog posting is not intended to provide a formal climate attribution analysis, such as those provided by the Bulletin of American Meteorological Society. The goal here is just to look at the data, which is quite compelling on its own. We begin by looking at annual (July to June) air temperatures for Coastal Southern California (Figure 1). This data was obtained from the Earth Systems Research Laboratory. What is very concerning about this time series is how every year since 2014 has been very warm. I’ve circled these values. This type of persistent warmth can dry out vegetation and provide great background conditions for fires.
We can present the same data as five-year averages to highlight the recent transition to warmer conditions (Figure 2). Now the past five-year average clearly stands out as way warmer than any value on record before 2013. The current five-year average temperature (~52.8°F) is about two degrees Fahrenheit warmer than the average from just a few years ago. This is a large change in a short period of time. Beginning with the last El Niño in 2014/16, we may have transitioned to a much warmer climate regime, and climate model projections indicate that this warming will continue. I have also plotted similar results for Central California where the Ferguson fire rages (Figure 3). We have seen an historically unprecedented and very rapid increase in air temperatures. Currently, about 20 fires are burning in California, and 2017 was clearly the most destructive fire year on record. While warm temperatures are just part of the recipe for fire disasters, this part of the puzzle has clearly been expanding rapidly.
If we produce a similar plot of GLOBAL five-year average air temperature anomalies, based on NASA estimates of land surface temperatures (Figure 4), we see that global temperatures have also jumped upwards over the past five years, reaching unprecedented heights. The magnitude of the jump in coastal (Figure 2) and central (Figure 3) California has been substantially greater in magnitude, however. Also shown in Figure 4 are completely independent predictions of global land air temperature anomalies based on the current state of the science collection of climate change simulations. The fit to the observations is extremely good (R2=0.97). Climate change has caused the recent increase in global temperatures.
The rise after 2018 is based on a pessimistic but realistic ‘business as usual’ climate change scenario in which the climate modelers have assumed a continued rapid increase in greenhouse gasses. I have annotated this time series with 10 year steps to emphasize what we may likely experience between 2019 and 2048. Between 2009 and 2018, we have already seen a problematic increase in global and California air temperatures related to numerous climatic hazards. Without dramatic efforts to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, the models (which have been extremely accurate so far) tell us that we are likely to experience three more similar increases between now and mid-century. For poor people living in very warm regions (like India), such warming may lead to severe health impacts as described by Somini Sengupta. For California, a further intensification of droughts and fire risk seems likely as temperatures continue to increase rapidly.
To visualize US temperature changes, we can use the cool ‘Climate Explorer’ website provided as part of the U.S. Climate Resilience toolkit. If you click HERE you should get a map of the continental U.S. that shows the number of days in a year with maximum air temperatures of greater than 95°F. The map is divided with a vertical bar identified with left-right arrows (<>). On the left hand side of the bar is a map of recent counts based on 1961-1990 observations. On the right is a map of estimates for 2090 based on a continued higher emissions trajectory. Grab the central bar and slide it back and forth, and you can see the predicted change – big increases in the frequency of very warm days.
We can also use the Climate Explorer to examine likely changes in a given location – like Santa Barbara county (HERE). This time series contrasts likely outcomes given a continuation of our current high emission pathway (shown in pink and red) and likely outcomes if we act to curb emissions (blue). As you can see, there is substantial uncertainty, but we see a substantial difference between the scenario averages (red and blue lines) by mid-century. If we do not curb emissions soon, by 2100 the models suggest that we could very well see annual average maximum temperatures increase by ~+7.3°F, according to the ensemble average.
I needed to come in to the office today (Martin Luther King Day) to work on another blog because I am worried about the strong probability of yet another East African drought in March-May of 2018. I wanted to come in to work today because it is Martin Luther King Junior’s birthday, and this is one way of honoring his life. Dr. King has always been a personal hero, teaching us to care deeply for each other, fighting for our shared humanity in a non-violent way.
It is not our genes that make us human, but rather our highest aspirations expressed in coherent action.
I would like to dedicate this post to all the first responders in Africa and California, who have helped so many face the ravages of drought, fire, and flood.
The main objective of this post is to summarize some of our climate change research, and link it to a pessimistic outlook for the March-May East African rains. But I can’t not mention that since the Whittier Fire broke out near my house in the woods on July 8th of 2017, it seems like disasters in Santa Barbara have been rampant. The Whittier fire burned through July, August, and September. Then October, November, and December were exceptionally dry (Figure 1) and hot (Figure 2). Many regions of the southwest have received less than half the amount of rain typically received by this point in winter. Even more striking, however, is the exceptional warmth, shown in Figure 2 averaged over the South Coast Drainage near Santa Barbara. Recent average air temperatures have been about 57° Fahrenheit. The 2017 air temperatures were about 61.5°F. This very warm weather and an almost total lack of rainfall resulted in very dry vegetation conditions. Everywhere I hiked this winter branches were brittle-dry, like matchsticks.
When fall transitions to winter, the Santa Barbara area starts to get ‘sundowner’ and ‘Santa Ana’ weather conditions, which blow rapidly down from the mountains towards to the sea. Typically, these occur after it rains and pose little risk. This year, however, these winds were extremely rapid, up to 70 miles per hour, and raced across tinder-like branches. When a fire broke out behind the city of Ventura on December 4th, these intense winds combined with abundant super-dry vegetation and a spark, producing the massive Thomas Fire. While aperiodic, the spread of the fire over the remainder of the month was at times insane, advancing an acre a second, leaping up the coast towards Carpentaria and then Montecito and Santa Barbara.
Then on Tuesday January 9th, a rainstorm struck the coastal mountains behind Montecito. Under normal conditions, such a storm would have had little impact. But the fire has been so recent the hills were bare, and the soil crusty; literally baked by the intense flames of the Thomas Fire.
Today the Santa Barbara/Montecito community feels crushed by the weight of the resulting mudflow which tore down through Montecito in the very early morning at speeds of up to 20 miles per hour. The Thomas Fire had been horrible. It caused many of us to evacuate, and all of us to breathe ash-filled air for weeks. More than a thousand structures had burned in what had quickly become the largest wildfire in recorded history. But the fire response had been massive and very successful. More than 8,000 courageous firefighters, 100 fire engines, and dozens of helicopters, sent from all across the western US had come together to defeat the Thomas Fire. On January 9th we lost at least twenty lives in a terrible flood that ripped all the way down to the coast. The Thomas Fire was not even 100% contained until January 12th.
The Walker Circulation links us with East Africa
While I am not an expert on California climate, I do think that there is an important climate feature that links California with East Africa: the Walker Circulation. Understanding this climate pattern helps inform successful predictions of drought, such as our group’s successful predictions of the 2016 October-December, 2017 March-May, and 2017 October-December droughts in East Africa. A recent assessment by the World Food Programme highlights the extent and some of the impacts of these sequential droughts: “This relentless sequence of climatic shocks together with insecurity and high food prices is having a profound negative impact on vulnerable populations”. Assessments by the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET) identify very large food insecure populations, especially in Somalia and Eastern Ethiopia.
To understand how fragile some of these populations are it helps to understand how deep poverty impacts how people eat. World Bank data for Kenya and Ethiopia suggest that the poorest 20% of households live on $330 and $251 dollars per year per person. In very poor households, most of this money (~60%) will typically be spent on food. If you live among a very vulnerable pastoral community, making your living off the itinerant grazing of yours flocks, you have to depend heavily on food purchases. Droughts can inflict a triple threat – food prices go up, purchasing power and savings erode as livestock die, and weak and dying herds also stop producing milk and meat, important sources of calories.
While there are a lot of complexities involved in East African climate, the predictable components on climatic time scales tend to be associated with a large circulation feature called the ‘Walker Circulation’ (named after another personal hero of mine, Sir Gilbert Walker). Figure 3 shows a schematic depiction of the Walker Circulation. The 2D drawing goes from the Earth’s surface to the top of the troposphere. Moving from left to right we start in Uganda and end up in the eastern Pacific. The Walker Circulation is centered on the equator, though across the east Pacific the sub-tropical high pressure cells extend poleward, keeping California sunny and dry. Near Indonesia (~130°E), where the Indian and Western Pacific oceans meet, we find extremely warm ocean waters. Above these warm waters we find lots of rainfall and ascending air. In the lower atmosphere, winds blow into this region from both the equatorial Pacific and Indian Ocean, helping to produce moisture convergence and ascending air motions. In the upper atmosphere (near 15 km) the atmosphere becomes very stable, and the ascending air parcels are shunted to the east or west. Most of the energy carried by these parcels ends up reinforcing the east Pacific sub-tropical highs. These high pressure cells, in turn, drive the Pacific trade winds that blow west towards Indonesia, reinforcing the Walker Circulation. It’s these cells that help make it dry and sunny in California.
Over the Indian Ocean, there is also an Indian Ocean branch of the Walker Circulation. This circulation is associated with dry subsiding air over eastern East Africa, and dry hot surface conditions. To a large extent, eastern East Africa is dry because of the moisture and energy convergence over Indonesia. This convergence drives rising air, some of which sinks over East Africa.
Climate variations like El Niños, La Niñas, and warming trends in the oceans can modulate the strength of the Walker Circulation, increasing or reducing the probability of East African droughts. Research by the Climate Hazards Group and FEWS NET (discussed below) has suggested that climate change is increasing the strength of the Walker Circulation, reducing rainfall during the March-May long rainy season, and increasing the impact of La Niña events.
Why climate change is increasing the frequency of East African droughts
The Climate Hazards Group Perspective
Declines in East African rainfall were first identified as part of our efforts to improve drought early data sets for the FEWS NET. Our early climate analyses correctly isolated the immediate cause of the drying (an intensification of the Indian Ocean branch of the Walker Circulation), but probably over-emphasized the role played by the Indian Ocean. In the early 2010s, we doubled down on our efforts to collect and analyze the best possible rainfall data, and published a series of reports for the US Agency for International Development. Our Kenya report, for example, showed the strong correspondence between a measure of low frequency warming, the Indo-Pacific Area Index and declines in Kenya rainfall. Most of this work has focused on the March-May rainy season. We have refined our ideas over time, going through the classic science progression of ‘description’, ‘explanation’, and ‘prediction’. Here I just recap some of the description, explanation, and prediction efforts, with the caveat that many have contributed to these papers and many other good studies have also been done (this is not an exhaustive literature review). A long list of publications is shown at the end of this post.
With support from the FEWS NET, we have been able to invest heavily in building the best possible international data sets for East Africa (see A and B). While there is essentially no debate about the recent declines of the East African March-May ‘long rains’ these data sets let us say with confidence that there has been a large persistent increase in the frequency of poor East African seasons. Figure 4 shows a long time series of standardized rainfall averaged over eastern/central Kenya, southeastern Ethiopia, and Somalia. This image is from a recent paper, currently in final review.
Since 1998, only 2010 and 2013 exhibited above normal rainfall performance. Paleoclimate analyses by Jessica Tierney and co-authors also indicate a long term decline and a negative relationship to global warming. It should be noted that the October-December ‘short’ rains have not exhibited similar declines, probably due to warming in the eastern Indian Oceans. Nonetheless, the dramatic increase in the frequency of East African March-May droughts threatens the economic stability of poor households. More frequent climate shocks make it very hard to build up reserves and escape from a cycle of poverty.
Our ability to explain the mechanisms behind the recent declines has been advancing quickly. This work has tended to emphasize the impact of the ‘West Pacific Warming Mode’ – a low frequency warming trend mode found in both the observed sea surface temperature record and climate change simulations. The warming mode pattern is associated with a characteristic ‘Western V’ sea surface temperature pattern over the Pacific. This pattern is also quite similar to the ocean temperature anomalies found during recent East African March-May droughts.
We can characterize the sea surface temperature patterns associated with these droughts by averaging conditions during recent severe dry seasons (Figure 5). This figure shows an area where warming is associated with less rainfall over East Africa (primarily the Western North Pacific, outlined with a yellow box), and an area in the eastern equatorial Pacific where warm (El Niño-like) sea surface temperatures are associated with more rainfall over East Africa. The area over the eastern equatorial Pacific is strongly influenced by El Niños and La Niñas – the major form of inter-annual climate variability. El Niños warm the east Pacific and slow the Walker Circulation. La Niñas do the opposite. At decadal time scales, sea surface temperatures in the east Pacific have not warmed substantially, and this is a major difference between the observed climate and predictions made by climate change models.
The western Pacific, on the other hand, has tracked very closely with climate change predictions. This is an area where sea surface temperatures are strongly controlled by downwelling radiation. La Niñas also tend to produce warming as well. The combination of these two influences are shown in Figure 6 (details here). Western North Pacific Ocean temperatures have increased dramatically, in line with climate change predictions. It is important to note, however, that this region warms during La Niña events as well. The combination of long term warming and the responses to La Niña events creates a strong gradient between the western and central Pacific amplifying the impact of La Niña events.
We can now explain fairly well why a ‘Western V’-like pattern amplifies the Walker Circulation, linking increases in sea surface temperatures (Figure 6) with declines in the East African long rains (Figure 4). Near the surface, equatorial sea level pressure values track closely with ocean temperatures. As shown by many recent studies, warm west Pacific Ocean conditions are associated with lower pressures and convergent low level winds that blow from the Indian and Pacific into the area around Indonesia, enhancing the Walker Circulation. Figure 7 quantifies the effects of the warming west Pacific by contrasting new (1981-2016) west Pacific warm events with old (1921-1980) warm events. This figure depicts rainfall and low level circulation changes based on a large set of atmospheric model simulations. The details of the drying signal over East Africa are not reproduced too well, but note the strong modulation of the moisture bearing winds over the Indian Ocean (blowing away from Africa). These simulations identify large (more than one and a half standardized anomaly) increases in precipitation over Indonesia. This indicates a large increase in the strength of the Walker Circulation (Figure 3), which tends to increase subsidence over East Africa, increasing the frequency of droughts.
Looking further up in the atmosphere, things become even more interesting. Examining similar atmospheric change composites (Figure 8) we can see the full implications of a ‘Western V’ warming pattern. This map shows changes in upper level geopotential heights (i.e. the maps of high and low pressure systems we see in weather reports) along with changes in upper level winds. Over the northern and southern mid-latitudes, we see very large (~+50 m) increases in heights. These high pressure cells sit right underneath the sub-tropical westerly jet. Smaller, but equally important, are the increases in upper level heights found near Indonesia. Taken together, this pattern of high pressure sends upper level winds first to the west across the northern and southern Pacific near 30°N/S, and then turns those winds towards the central Pacific near the equator. These anomalous flows from the north and south converge east of 150°E, producing subsidence, and enhancing the Walker Circulation, creating a La Niña-like response. Over the western Indian Ocean we see an enhancement of the Indian Ocean branch of the Walker Circulation. When warm Western V conditions combine with cool La Niña conditions in the East Pacific, we are set to have an elevated chance of East African drought.
Since 2012, we have been active participants in the special climate attribution issue of the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society’s annual issue on extreme event attribution. This special issue examines each year’s extreme events, and formally assesses questions of climate attribution. Articles in these special issues ask: can extreme events from each year be attributed to anthropogenic influences?
Our analysis of the 2014 East African March-May drought found: “Anthropogenic warming contributed to the 2014 East African drought by increasing East African and west Pacific temperatures, and increasing the gradient between standardized western and central Pacific SST causing reduced rainfall, evapotranspiration, and soil moisture”. Our analysis of the 2015 Ethiopian drought found: “Anthropogenic warming contributed to the 2015 Ethiopian and southern African droughts by increasing El Niño SSTs and local air temperatures, causing reduced rainfall and runoff, and contributing to severe food insecurity”. In general, our work suggests that both El Niño and La Niña-like climate disruptions may be made more intense by climate change, leading to opportunities for prediction.
Our ability to predict long rains droughts has moved through three stages. During Stage 1 (~2004-2009) an increased drought frequency had been identified and related to the Walker Circulation. At this point we had little predictive skill. During Stage 2 (2010-13) we were identifying the link between Indo-Pacific warming and an increase in La Niña impacts on the Greater Horn of Africa. This helped support a successful prediction of the severe famine-producing 2010-11 drought. During Stage 3, we then started making the link between the west Pacific gradient and using statistical models to predict East African droughts. These latter efforts are quite similar to the successful Climate Outlook Forum process used by East African scientists. This work is important, because dynamic forecast models still continue to miss major drought events, such as the March-May and October-December droughts from 2017 (Figure 9 and 10). Partnering with many agencies we were able to use ‘Stage 3’ type forecasts to provide an effective early alert before the poor March-May 2017 season. In the early spring of 2017, timely humanitarian response helped prevent a repeat of the catastrophic runaway food prices seen in 2011. Unfortunately, we may be looking at yet another poor rainy season. The rest of this post describes a statistical forecast for the March-May 2018 season.
We begin by looking at the correlation between observed 1998-2017 CHIRPS rainfall over central/Eastern Kenya, all of Somalia, and central/southeastern Ethiopia (see Figure 3 from here for the precise region) and observed December NOAA Extended Reconstruction sea surface temperatures (Figure 11). We find a fairly strong negative correlation with the ‘Western V’ and a fairly strong positive correlation with the equatorial eastern Pacific. This relationship holds up reasonably well back to about 1993, but then seems to disappear, leading some climatologists to claim that the long rains are weakly linked to Indo-Pacific sea surface temperatures and relatively unpredictable. Our view on this subject is quite different.
Following the very large 1997/98 El Niño, sea surface temperatures in the west Pacific warmed substantially (Figure 6). La Niña-like March-May seasons have been associated with much larger Walker Circulation intensifications (Figure 7), that draw near surface winds over the Indian Ocean away from Eastern Africa (Figure 8). Looking at the upper-troposphere (Figure 8), we see large increases in the westward winds over East Africa, characteristic of an enhancement of the Indian Ocean branch of the Walker Circulation (Figure 3). This enhancement can help explain the emergent correlation structure plotted in Figure 11 and the fact that ‘new’ La Niñas appear to have a stronger negative impact on the East African long rains.
Figure 8 also helps understand the correlation pattern shown in Figure 11. ‘Western V’ warming in the blue areas of Figure 11 tends to increase upper level heights with the ‘U’ shaped pattern shown in Figure 8. Cooling in the red/orange areas of Figure 11 tends to reduce upper level heights within the two central Pacific cyclones shown in Figure 8.
So, dynamically, the Western V warming and central Pacific cooling patterns tend to fit ‘hand-in-glove’. The upper-level cyclones produced by cool central Pacific conditions slot neatly within the surrounding height increases associated with warmer Western V sea surface temperatures, produce intense convergent wind patterns and subsidence across the eastern equatorial Pacific. This enhances the Walker Circulation and increases the frequency of droughts over East Africa.
Conditions in December of 2017 (Figure 12) appear conducive to below-normal March-May 2018 rains. We see generally warm conditions across the ‘Western V’ region and La Niña sea surface temperatures across the eastern equatorial Pacific. We use the magenta and cyan regions from Figure 12 to develop predictive relationships.
Figures 13 and 14 show, respectively, scatterplots between 1998-2017 December Western V and eastern Pacific sea surface temperatures and standardized March-May East African rainfall. Both predictive relationships are similar in magnitude (R=-0.70 and +0.68). Red dots in Figure 13 and 14 show estimated outcomes for March-May 2018, based on each individual predictor. The results are quite similar, with forecasts of about a -1 standard deviation rainfall deficit.
Figure 15 shows the 1998-2017 Western V and East Pacific sea surface temperature values. Note that these time series are also inversely correlated (R=-0.70). This year appears typical for a recent moderate La Niña/East Africa drought season. Some Decembers looked worse (1998, 1999, 2010 and 2011), but many (13) Decembers looked better, so we might expect to find ourselves in the below normal rainfall tercile. The 2007, 2000, and 2016 seasons might be close analogs. The 2017 conditions appear much more characteristic of new drought years than 2016. That year was atypical, in that we had very warm Western V sea surface temperatures and fairly neutral East Pacific conditions.
We can use cross-validation to produce 1998-2017 forecasts for March-May 2018 (Figure 15). This forecast indicates a high probability of below normal rains. Note that this scatterplots suggests that we can identify most (eight out of nine) poor rainy seasons with a very low false alarm rate. We also see this in our Western V and East Pacific scatterplots (Figures 13 and 14); when Western V or East Pacific sea surface temperatures a particularly warm or cold (respectively) we do not see above normal Eastern East African March-May rains. Our below normal forecast appears broadly consistent with the most recent National Multi-Model Ensemble climate model forecasts. These forecasts also call for an end to La Niña conditions by mid-spring. This could alter the seasonal outlook substantially. This transition might suggest a more pessimistic outlook for the early part of the rainy season. Such transitional conditions tend to translate into more certainty for farmers in marginal areas. In semi-arid crop growing regions of central-eastern Kenya, Southern Somalia and Belg-dependent regions of Ethiopia, typical growing seasons are already short, so poor rains during the first half of the rainy season can be very disruptive. A poor Somali Gu harvest outlook may be one of the impacts of these predicted dry conditions, since this growing season is so short. Unfortunately, many of the La Niña high risk regions correspond to regions that received very poor rainfall totals over the prior three seasons: October-December 2016, March-May 2017, and October-December 2017 (Figure 17). Some regions of eastern Kenya and southern Somalia also experienced poor March-May 2016 conditions, and may be looking at five poor rainy seasons in a row.
Funk C, J. Michaelsen and M. Marshall (2012) Mapping recent decadal climate variations in precipitation and temperature across Eastern Africa and the Sahel, Chapter 14 in “Remote Sensing of Drought: Innovative Monitoring Approaches”, edited by B. Wardlow, M. Anderson and J. Verdin, Taylor and Francis, 25 pages.
Liebmann, B., Bladé I., Kiladis G. N. , Carvalho L. M. V., Senay, G., Allured D., Leroux S., Funk C (2011) African Precipitation Seasonality Based on Daily Satellite Data from 1996-2009, J. of Climate, Journal of Climate 25, no. 12 (2012): 4304-4322.
Funk, C., (2012) Exceptional warming in the western Pacific-Indian Ocean Warm Pool has contributed to more frequent droughts in Eastern Africa, Bull. Amer. Met. Society,v7(93) p. 1049-1051. http://dx.doi.org/10.1175/BAMS-D-12-00021.1
Funk C., G. Husak, J. Michaelsen, S. Shukla, A. Hoell, B. Lyon, M. P. Hoerling, B. Liebmann, T. Zhang, J. Verdin, G. Galu, G. Eilerts, and J. Rowland, 2013: Attribution of 2012 and 2003-12 rainfall deficits in eastern Kenya and southern Somalia [in “Explaining Extreme Events of 2012 from a Climate Perspective”]. Bull. Amer. Meteor. Soc., 94, S45-S48.
Hoell A. and C. Funk (2013) Indo-Pacific Sea Surface Temperature Influences on Failed Consecutive Rainy Seasons over Eastern Africa, Climate Dynamics, DOI: 10.1007/s00382-013-1991-6. p1-16.
Hoell, A., Funk, C., & Barlow, M. (2013). The regional forcing of Northern hemisphere drought during recent warm tropical west Pacific Ocean La Niña events. Climate Dynamics, 1-23.
Liebmann, B., Hoerling M., Funk C., Dole, R. M., Allured A., Pegion, P., Blade I., Eischeid, J.K, (2014) Understanding Eastern Africa Rainfall Variability and Change, Journal of Climate.
Funk, C., Hoell, A., Shukla, S., Bladé, I., Liebmann, B., Roberts, J. B., and Husak, G. (2014). Predicting East African spring droughts using Pacific and Indian Ocean sea surface temperature indices. Hydrology and Earth System Sciences Discussions, 11(3), 3111-3136.
Shukla, S., McNally, A., Husak, G., & Funk, C. (2014). A seasonal agricultural drought forecast system for food-insecure regions of East Africa. Hydrology and Earth System Sciences Discussions, 11(3), 3049-3081.
Shukla S., Funk C. and Hoell A. (2014) Using constructed analogs to improve the skill of March-April-May precipitation forecasts in equatorial East Africa , Env. Res. Letters, Environmental Research Letters 9.9 (2014): 094009.
Funk, C., Hoell A., Husak G., Shukla S. and Michaelsen J. (2015) The East African monsoon system: seasonal climatologies and recent variations. Chapter for “The Monsoons and Climate Change”, Leila M. V. Carvalho and Charles Jones (Eds.) https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-21650-8_1.
Shukla S., Safeeq M., Aghakouchak A., Guan K. and Funk C. (2015) Role of Temperature in the Water Year 2014 Drought in California, Geophysical Research Letters, 42(11), 4384-4393. DOI: 10.1002/2015GL063666
Funk C., Nicholson S. E., Landsfeld M., Klotter D., Peterson P. and Harrison L. (2015) The Centennial Trends Greater Horn of Africa Precipitation Dataset, Scientific Data, 2, 150050. DOI: 10.1038/sdata.2015.50. doi:10.1038/sdata.2015.50.
Funk, C., Shukla S., Hoell A. and Livneh B. (2015) Assessing the contributions of East African and west Pacific warming to the 2014 boreal spring East African drought, BAMS Climate Attribution Issue. 96.12 (2015): S77-S82.
Shukla S., Roberts, J., Hoell A., Funk C., Robertson F. and Kirtmann, B. (2016) Assessing North American Multimodel Ensemble (NMME) Seasonal Forecasts, Climate Dynamics. 1-17.
Funk, C., Harrison L., Shukla S., Hoell A., Korecha D., Magadzire T., Husak G., and Galu G., 2016, Assessing the contributions of local and east Pacific warming to the 2015 droughts in Ethiopia and Southern Africa, Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, December 2016, S75-S77.
Funk, C and Hoell A. (2017) Recent Climate Extremes Associated with the West Pacific Warming Mode, AGU Monograph-Climate Extremes: Patterns and Mechanisms. Ed. by Simon Wang, Jin-Ho Yoon, Chris Funk and Robert Gillies, published by Wiley Press (2017): 165. ISBN: 978-1-119-06784-9.
Liebmann B., Bladé I., Funk C., Allured D., Hoerling, M., Hoell, A., Peterson, P., Thiaw, M.T. (2017) Climatology and Interannual Variability of Boreal Spring Wet Season Precipitation in the Eastern Horn of Africa and Implications for its Recent Decline, J. Climate, Journal of Climate 30.10 (2017): 3867-3886, https://doi.org/10.1175/JCLI-D-16-0452.1.
Brown M.E., Funk, C., Pedreros, D., Korecha D., Lemma M., Rowland J., Williams E. and Verdin, J. (2017) Climate Trend Analysis of Ethiopia-Examining Subseasonal effects on Crops and Pasture Conditions, Climatic Change, DOI 10.1007/s10584-017-1948-6.
Funk C, Davenport F, Harrison L, Magadzire T, Galu G, Artan G, Shukla S, Korecha D, Indeje M, Pomposi C, Macharia D and Husak G (2017) Anthropogenic enhancement of moderate-to-strong El Niños likely contributed to drought and poor harvests in Southern Africa during 2016, Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, 37.S1-S3, DOI. 10.1175/BAMS-D-17-0112.2.
Philip S, Kew S.F., Jan van Oldenborgh G, Otto F, O’Keefe S, Haustein K, King A, Zegeye A, Eshetu Z, Hailemariam K, Singh R, Jjemba E, Funk C, Cullen H, Attribution analysis of the Ethiopian drought of 2015, J. Climate, https://doi.org/10.1175/JCLI-D-17-0274.1.
Funk C, McCormick S, Galu G, Massawa, E., McCormick S, Omondi P, Sebina E, Shitote S, White L (2017), Climate Change Vulnerability Impact Assessments and Adaptation in East Africa, Summary for Policy Makers, USAID PREPARED Project.
Nicholson, SE, Funk, C. and Fink A (2017) Rainfall over the African continent from the 19th through the 21st century, J Global and Planetary Change, In Press.
Funk C, Harrison L, Shukla S, Pomposi C, Galu G, Korecha D, Husak G, Magadzire T, Davenport F, Hillbruner C, Eilerts G, Zaitchik B and Verdin J (2017) Examining the role of unusually warm Indo-Pacific sea surface temperatures in recent African droughts, Q. J of the R. Meteorological Society. In Review, minor revisions.
Effective drought prediction can be enhanced by a clear understanding of the drivers of drought. How we conceptualize climate change influences our ability to identify the fingerprints of change. Together with Simon Wang, Jin-Ho Yoon, and Robert R. Gillies, I have helped edit a new AGU book on ‘Climate Extremes: Patterns and Mechanisms’, examining how climate change may be bringing more extreme events. Recognizing these influences, can improve our ability to anticipate climate extremes. In the chapter I wrote for this book, I discuss how increases in the intensity of both the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) and the West Pacific Warming Mode may be making both El Niño-like and La Niña-like extremes more severe. In 2015 and 2016, an anthropogenic enhancement of the 2014-16 El Niño event may have exacerbated the severe droughts that struck northern Ethiopia and Southern Africa. CHG scientists have a BAMS article examining this topic. In 2016 and 2017, extreme West Pacific warming likely contributed to the severe East African droughts that struck in October-November-December (2016) and March-April-May (2017), resulting in current near-famine conditions in Somalia (Figure 1) and eastern Ethiopia (Figure 2). Recent Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET) reporting finds that in Somalia 2016 and 2017 harvests were very poor (~25% and ~50% of normal, respectively). In many areas of Eastern Ethiopia and Central Somalia, the twelve month June 2016-May 2017 rainfall was the lowest on record (since 1981). Many Pastoralists have lost more than 60% of their herds – a huge loss in livelihood and accumulated wealth. Both Ethiopia and Somalia suffer from outbreaks of cholera, with Somalia experiencing more than 50,000 cases since January 2017.
“Improved humanitarian access in Somalia, and urgent, sustained assistance in Somalia and southeastern Ethiopia, is needed to mitigate very high levels of acute malnutrition and the threat of loss of life.” (FEWS NET Alert)
The situation is dire, but would likely have been worse without humanitarian assistance. In Somalia, US humanitarian assistance doubled between December and January (from assistance for 0.5 to 1 million people), and then doubled again between January and February, reaching 2.4 million in June. While the distribution and quantity of aid could be increased, humanitarian relief is providing life-saving assistance to millions of people; current UN estimates indicate that food aid is reaching about 2.5 million people out of a targeted 3.3 million. An important corollary of this assistance is the stabilization of cereal prices. Between October of 2010 and May of 2011, the prices of red sorghum in the Somali city of Baidoa climbed by 300%. These price increases made it extremely difficult for poor households to purchase food, contributing to ~205,000 drought-related deaths between January and June of 2011 (link). In 2017, by comparison, sorghum prices in Bay increased by 70%, and mortality rates have not increased by the large amounts seen in 2011. Ethiopia and Somalia continue to face very dangerous near-famine levels of insecurity. Water supplies and rangeland conditions are likely to deteriorate as we enter the dry season (July-September). Levels of international assistance remain below the required levels. Nonetheless, timely assistance in 2017, guided by effective early warning, has helped millions of people. The region, however, will almost certainly continue to face severe water and fodder shortages, since the next likely chance of rain will not come until October.
Effective predictions of the 2016 and 2017 East African Droughts
Here at the Climate Hazards Group, we believe that climate change is making sea surface temperatures more extreme, with hotter Eastern Pacific conditions during El Niños, and warmer Western Pacific conditions during La Niña-like time periods. We also believe that such extreme sea surface temperatures can provide opportunities for prediction. This approach led to our successful prediction of both the 2016 and 2017 East African droughts (Figure 3), as reported here on this blog. In our first posting, from October 9th, we noted that very warm Western Pacific and moderately cool Eastern Pacific sea surface temperatures would likely result in below normal October-November-December rains. This was expressed as a statistical forecast for dry (-1 standardized anomaly) conditions. We also noted that ‘we should be concerned about the possibility of two poor rainy seasons in the spring and fall of 2016’ in Eastern Kenya and Southern Somalia. In the next blog, on November 9th, we included October rainfall in our predictions, noting that Eastern Kenya and Southern Somalia October rains are very highly correlated (r=0.91) with October-November-December rainfall totals.
In December of 2016 we turned our attention to the 2017 March-April-May season. Our concern was that we might see yet another drought, driven by a combination of persistently warm Western/Northern Pacific sea surface temperatures and cool La Niña-like Eastern Pacific conditions. A statistical model based on observed sea surface conditions performed well, predicting six out of seven of the most recent droughts using that model. We predicted a substantial (-1 standardized anomaly) East African drought. In December of 2016, East Pacific sea surface temperatures were near neutral, while Western/Northern Pacific sea surface temperatures were exceptionally hot. These conditions were quite different than in 2010 (the last severe drought) when both the West Pacific and East Pacific were cooler. In January and February we updated our forecasts, while also engaging in many discussions with our fellow early warning counterparts in the US, Europe and Africa. In January FEWS NET issued an alert suggesting that severe drought, rising prices, limited access and dry forecasts might produce famine in Somalia in 2017. The drought monitoring and climate predictions produced by the East African IGAD Climate Prediction and Applications Centre (ICPAC) during this time period were excellent and accurate; rapidly identifying the severe October-November-December dryness while also predicting below normal 2017 spring rains based on statistically recalibrated global climate model forecasts. In February of 2017, a joint alert was issued by FEWS NET, the World Food Programme, the European Commission, and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization identifying the elevated risk of Somali drought (based in part on a CHG forecast) and calling for ‘urgent and substantial’ provision of food aid and ‘resource mobilization to address the impact of an extended post-2016 lean season’.
In late April of 2017 we analyzed empirical relationships between March-April rainfall and Somali ‘Gu’ sorghum harvests, suggesting that the data indicated that April was by far the most important month for grain filling, and predicting that 2017 ‘Gu’ harvests were going to be very poor (about 50% of normal) based on poor March-April 2017 rainfall. The 2016 and 2017 forecasts have verified. The 2016 and 2017 rainy seasons were poor. Vegetation/pasture were very heavily degraded, as predicted, and the 2017 Gu harvests were low, as we estimated using March-April rainfall observations.
Can we resolve the East African Climate Change paradox?
FEWS NET climate change research began in 2003 when in the course of routine analysis we came across severe declines in annual precipitation in agriculturally productive and heavily populated regions of eastern Ethiopia. Figure 4 shows an updated time series of March-June rainfall for this region, through 2017. We see a severe decline in rainfall in a densely populated food insecure area; in the 20 years since 1998; only 5 years have been above normal, based on a 1900-2017 baseline. Our recent papers have also documented increased crop water stress, reduced soil moisture and stream runoff, and declines in vegetation. This drying is part of a wide-spread drying tendency associated with a strong Walker Circulation (a, b, c, d, e), which we believe is related to anthropogenic warming in the Indo-Pacific. The Walker Circulation is the world’s largest atmospheric circulation feature, and is made up of contrasting cells of ascending air and heavy rainfall near Indonesia and dry descending air over the Eastern Pacific and East Africa/Western Indian Ocean. Steve Baragona’s Voice of America story on the current East Africa drought (here) provides a great animation showing how the Walker circulation contributes to drying over East Africa. Pete Peterson has also produced a nice animation showing how increased rainfall near Indonesia is associated with declining East Africa precipitation (here).
The relationship between climate change and the March-May East African ‘long’ rains has been a topic of considerable debate, largely because climate change models predict that East Africa should already be getting wetter, while observations show that it this region is drying, resulting in the ‘East African Climate Paradox’. This has engendered two basic explanations for the East African drought. According to the first explanation the climate models are wrong, and East African March-May drying is due to low frequency (anthropogenic) warming in the Western Pacific and Indian Ocean, probably exacerbated by natural La Niña-like climate tendencies. According to the second explanation, the models are right, and East African drying is primarily due to an extreme expression of natural decadal variability. Studies focused on observed rainfall (1, 2, 3, 4) and paleo-climate indicators (5, 6) tend to support hypothesis 1. These studies note that the CMIP climate change models fail to represent well the March-May rains (6) while also over-estimating El Niño-related sea surface temperature increases in the Eastern Pacific (7).
We think that climate models are great, but not perfect. They have trouble representing (‘parameterizing’) the exceptionally complex processes associated with tropical precipitation, cloud formation and coupled ocean-atmosphere phenomena like the El Niño-Southern Oscillation. The models tend to overemphasize ENSO-related warming in the Eastern Pacific, leading, we believe to a spurious weakening of the Walker Circulation and increased precipitation over Eastern Africa during March-April-May. Here, we present a data-driven analysis based from a paper (link) that we have just submitted to the Quarterly Journal of the Royal Meteorological Society for a special issue focusing on the research of the International Precipitation Working Group.
We start by simply plotting global standardized March-May sea surface temperature anomalies during the six driest (1981-2016) eastern East African rainy seasons: 2011, 1984, 2000, 2009, 1999 and 2004. When eastern East Africa is dry, this region of the Western North Pacific tends to be very warm, and these warm sea surface temperature conditions are associated with circulation patterns that intensify the Walker Circulation (Figure 5E,F in link), increasing the Pacific trade winds, increasing rainfall near Indonesia, and bringing dry air down over Eastern Africa.
In 2016 and 2017, we used the negative relationship between Western and Northern Pacific sea surface temperatures and East African rainfall to produce our successful forecasts. Figure 6 shows the relationship between standardized 1998-2017 East African March-May rainfall and rainfall estimates based on sea surface temperatures in the yellow box in Figure 5. While not a perfect predictor, this is a strong teleconnection that correctly predicts all the recent droughts. 2017 is shown with a red dot. Since Nino 3.4 sea surface temperature conditions were actually slightly positive (El Niño-like) in March-May of 2017 (usually associated with wetter than average conditions), the very warm Western North Pacific ocean conditions seem largely responsible for the 2017 East African drought. We refer to this region as a ‘longcycle’ crop growing area because it focuses on high cool areas of eastern Ethiopian highlands, where crop have a long growing cycle, but can produce much higher yields than quicker maturing ‘shortcycle’ varieties.
Figure 7 shows a long time series of standardized March-May Western Pacific sea surface temperatures, along with the corresponding ensemble average standardized sea surface temperatures from a large (53 member) set of climate change simulations from the climate explorer. There is a strong relationship between climate change and sea surface temperatures that explains 40% of the season-to-season variance. The time series has a large (>+1 standardized anomaly) climate change influence, as well as a step-like increase after the 1997/98 El Niño, when East Africa transitioned to drier condi tions.
Interestingly, we can see the cooling influence of the Agung, El Chichon, and Mount Pinatubo volcanic eruptions in 1965, 1982 and 1991-92. These dips indicate that radiation plays an important role in determining Western North Pacific Ocean temperatures. There is also an interannual El Niño influence, with Western North Pacific sea surface temperatures being cooler and warmer during El Niño and La Niña years. We often see recent El Niño events followed La Niña-like climate conditions and increases in West Pacific sea surface temperatures. The 1997/98, 2002/03, 2009/10, 2006/07 and 2015/16 El Niño events have all been followed by warm West Pacific sea surface temperature conditions. We then experienced East African droughts in 1999, 2000, 2001, 2004, 2008, 2009, 2011 and 2017. While more research on this is needed, it seems that El Niño events release energy from the lower ocean that ends up warming the Western Pacific, creating opportunities for prediction.
The substantial post-1997 warming of the Western North Pacific (Figure 7) has been associated with a concomitant decline in East African March-May rainfall. Figure 8 shows 15-year averages of standardized eastern East African March-May rainfall (blue line) along the with regression estimates of eastern East African March-May rainfall based on 15-year averages of observed Western North Pacific sea surface temperatures (blue line) and Western North Pacific sea surface temperatures from a climate change ensemble (purple line) . Low frequency (15 year average) variations in March-May East African rainfall time series track closely (r=0.7) with estimates based on sea surface temperatures. As the Western North Pacific has warmed, the Walker Circulation has intensified and East African rainfall has declined substantially. Neither East African March-May rainfall nor Western North Pacific sea surface temperatures track closely with the Pacific Decadal Oscillation or smoothed El Niño (Eastern Pacific) sea surface temperatures (Fig. 4 in link). While natural decadal variability probably helped enhance East African precipitation in the 1980s and 1900s, the current substantial decline and low 2017 rainfall outcome appears largely due to anthropogenic warming of the Western North Pacific.
To resolve the East African Climate Paradox, I would suggest that we can explain most large scale sea surface temperature changes in the Pacific as arising from two patterns of climate variability – the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) pattern and the ‘West Pacific Warming Mode’ pattern (JCLIM paper; Chapter in AGU Extremes Book). Both modes of variability are associated with warming, but in different places. ENSO-related warming appears in equatorial Eastern Pacific, associated with strong El Niño events. We have recently argued that anthropogenic warming enhanced the extreme 2015/16 El Niño event, increasing the severity of the 2015 and 2015/16 Ethiopian and Southern African droughts (here). Following El Niño events, we then tend to see large increases in Western Pacific sea surface temperatures, contributing to the 1999, 2000, 2001, 2004, 2008, 2009, 2011 and 2017 East African droughts.
When we focus on how mean sea surface temperatures and precipitation averages are changing in the models, we find substantial discord. The models are predicting a shift towards an El Niño-like climate and increases in East African precipitation.
When we instead focus on how sea surface temperature extremes, and associated precipitation anomalies, are changing in the climate change models, we find substantial consilience. Ironically, ensemble averages of climate change simulations may actually be more prone to biases. Small problems, like the tendency to overestimate the strength of El Niños (cf. Figure 3b JCLIM paper), may strongly influence the ensemble average. Focusing how the models represent extreme events may be more informative, especially in the context of drought early warning.
The climate change models are predicting that we will experience both more extreme El Niño events and more extreme Western North Pacific events. We explore this in depth in our new paper. In this study, we examine a large (40 member) ensemble of climate change simulations from the Community Earth System Model, and explore the change in precipitation responses associated with very warm versus just warm Western North Pacific sea surface temperatures (Figure 9). The climate change models predict that we will experience more frequent very warm Western North Pacific sea surface temperature conditions (Figure 7), and that when these conditions arise we will see a stronger Walker circulation (more rainfall near Indonesia), and less rainfall over Eastern Africa and the southwestern Arabian peninsula (Figure 9).
In conclusion, it seems likely that the recent increased frequency of East African March-May droughts are related to warmer Western Pacific sea surface temperatures (Figures 5, 6, 8 and 9), which have warmed substantially due to a combination of anthropogenic climate change and ENSO influences (Figure 7). These droughts appear to be largely predictable, and associated with severe human impacts which can be partially mitigated though humanitarian assistance.
In Somalia in 2010/11, drought, political instability, violent conflict, and global food price volatility resulted in 258,000 deaths, with 133,000 of these deaths being children under five years old (link). In 2017, Somalia and eastern Ethiopia again face one of the most severe droughts on record (here).
In Eastern Ethiopia millions of people of people face severe hunger. Herd sizes have been dramatically reduced; “households have few, if any, livestock to sell and … milk availability will remain very low in 2017”. Some 1.7 million people are estimated to be facing severe food shortages, associated with 20-50% caloric deficiencies. Unless food aid allocations are increased, caloric deficits may exceed 50%, and “poor households in the worst-affected pastoral areas will begin to move into Catastrophe (IPC Phase 5) and acute malnutrition and mortality may rise further” (FEWS NET alert, July 19th). In Somalia, the most recent assessments by the Food Security and Nutrition Analysis Unit – Somalia (FSNAU report) identify more than 50,000 cases of Acute Watery Diarrhea/Cholera, and very high levels of physical wasting among children in camps holding internally displaced persons (IDPs). July 2017 FSNAU estimates indicate that some 3.24 million people face crisis or emergency levels of food insecurity. Since February, emergency food aid assistance has been scaled up from aid for 1 million people to aid for 2.4 million in June of 2017. This assistance has helped, but more aid is needed, and access to humanitarian assistance in many areas in central and southern Somalia remains a challenge.
While the food security crises in eastern Ethiopia and Somalia have been caused by many factors in addition to drought, the long term decline of the March-May East African long rains (Figure 10) has certainly contributed to food insecurity in this region. The 1900-2017 time series shown in Figure 10 has been produced by combining 1900-1980 Centennial Trends precipitation data with the 1981-2017 CHIRPS archive. Both of these data sets benefit from a high quality collection of rainfall gauge observations, and there is a high level of agreement between these observations during their period of overlap (1981-2014), with a correlation of 0.94. Figure 10 shows standardized March-May rainfall anomalies, with a value of -1 indicating a poor season. Of the nineteen years since 1999, eight seasons have been poor (1999, 2000, 2001, 2004, 2008, 2009, 2011 and 2017), and fourteen seasons have been below normal, based on a 1900-2017 baseline. These eight dry seasons have been associated with very warm Western North Pacific sea surface temperatures (Figure 6). Anthropogenic climate change has helped produce these warm sea surface temperature conditions (Figure 7). Estimating the influence of Western North Pacific warming on rainfall (Figure 9) indicates a strong negative (~-0.7 standardized anomalies) rainfall response, similar in magnitude to results from a previous experiment using the CAM5 atmospheric model (here). Anthropogenic climate change has likely contributed to the current March-May drought and the increased frequency of poor March-May rainfall outcomes. Many of these droughts, however, appear to be predictable.
Chris Funk, Pete Peterson, Peris Muchiri, Diego Pedreros, Greg Husak, Diriba Korecha, Gideon Galu, Laura Harrison, Will Turner, Marty Landsfeld and Shrad Shukla
This post examines conditions across East Africa at the close of April. As predicted by the CHG, ICPAC, and a joint assessment by FEWS NET, WFP, FAO and JRC, exceptional warming in the West Pacific appears to have continued to produce subsidence and drying over East Africa. At present (Figure 1), the FEWS NET food security outlook for Eastern Africa is very concerning, with a June-September outlook calling for IPC phase 3 (crisis) or 4 (emergency) across Kenya, South Sudan, southern Ethiopia and Somalia. The FEWS NET perspective seems largely congruent with the most recent seasonal assessment by the World Food Programme (here).
In Kenya, southern Ethiopia and Somalia June-September food security outcomes will be strongly influenced by rainfall in March and April, since most of the long rains tend to come in these months, and moist soils during this period support the establishment of healthy crops. As we will show below, poor March-April rainfall can be a good predictor of low crop production in Somalia.
We begin by looking at the observed March to late April rainfall performance using NOAA CPC ARC2 and CHIRPS rainfall fields enhanced with data provided by FAO SWALIM and the National Meteorological Agency of Ethiopia. All evidence indicates poor rainfall performance for much of the Greater Horn of Africa. We then examine the relationship between Somali Gu Sorghum crop production statistics and March-May rainfall. We find that March-April rains are by far the most important – and current March-April totals indicate very poor sorghum production totals for 2017. We conclude with a brief look at the current climate conditions and the performance of the NOAA GEFS weather forecasts.
March-April Rainfall Assessment
March-April 24th ARC2 anomalies (Figure 2) and March-April 20th ‘enhanced’ CHIRPS data, expressed as standardized precipitation index values (Figure 3) are in strong agreement that there has been wide-spread drought across almost all of Kenya, Somalia and Uganda as well as southern Ethiopia, eastern South Sudan, north-central Tanzania and western Yemen. Note that the units in these maps are different. It is useful to consider rainfall anomalies both in terms of absolute magnitude (Figure 2) and as standardized anomalies (Figure 3). In Figure 2 we note very large (100 mm) rainfall deficits across central Kenya, Uganda and in the SNNPR region of Ethiopia; these large deficits could be associated with large disruptions in key crop growing areas. In Figure 3 we see that the seasonal rainfall progress has been exceptionally dry, in a statistical sense (<-1 standard deviations) across most of the Horn.
In Somalia, where even normal rainfall totals are characteristically low, we find that our estimates indicate an exceptionally poor March-May season. While the results in Figure 2 do not indicate performance over the last dekad of April, CPC ARC2 totals for April 21, 22, 23 and 24 show almost no rainfall over Somalia.
For Somalia, it is important to realize that we have been able to incorporate a fairly dense network of gauge observations provided by FAO SWALIM. Figure 4 shows April 1st to April 20th enhanced CHIRPS rainfall totals. The numbers on this map show rainfall totals from either the SWALIM stations or WMO GTS observations. Across all of East Africa, very few regions appear to have received more than 60 mm of rain so far in April. From a crop perspective, this means that planting has been delayed across Kenya and Somalia, and crop growth is likely to be running substantially behind normal. For example, ARC2 data at Meru, in central Kenya, indicates a seasonal accumulation of ~120 mm, less than half of the normal 270 mm. Results in Baidoa (Bay Region Somalia), Dif in far eastern Kenya, and Kibre Mengist in south-central Ethiopia are similar.
Seasonal Rainfall Ensembles
To examine likely outcomes for the total March-May season we have combined March 1 to April 20 CHIRPS rainfall totals and then examined the possible combinations of future rainfall by sequentially inserting one of the past 36 years (1981-2016) and then examining the associated distribution of seasonal rainfall totals. We begin by showing these results for the Bay Province of Somalia (Figure 5), which is currently facing food security crisis (i.e. just short of famine) conditions (see Figure 1). We start at a low seasonal total of 42 mm for Bay on April 20th – this low value and large deficit is primarily due to the low April rainfall totals, as shown in the SWALIM station data (Figure 4). To explore the remainder of the season, we sample the CHIRPS data using all prior seasons. Advancing one dekad by this approach gives us a seasonal total for the end of April of 90 mm, only 60% of long term average. As we will see below, this large March-April deficit will very likely be associated with large crop production deficits. Proceeding through the rest of May in this same fashion we arrive at a spread of possible outcomes ranging from near normal to very low, with an average outcome of 174 mm, 74% of the long term average. In the context of the past 20 years, this would be a 1-in-5 year drought (i.e. 20th percentile); 2011, 2001, 2008, and 1999 were a little drier.
Repeating this process for each pixel, we can assess the probability of March-June rainfall being less than 85% of the long term average (Figure 6) and less than 50% of the long term average (Figure 7). Figure 6 indicates that the regional as a whole is very likely at this point to end with below normal rainfall. The certainty of this outcome is much less in northern East Africa, although some Belg growing regions in the eastern highlands of Ethiopia and the northernmost parts of Somalia and Yemen are shown to have an 80% chance of below normal rains. Across southern Somalia, southern Ethiopia, all of Kenya and much of Tanzania a below normal outcome seems almost certain, given historical rainfall distributions.
Looking at areas likely to see catastrophic (<50% of normal) March-June outcomes, we see that such an outcome is very likely (>50% probability) across much of Kenya and near the Mandera triangle area at the intersection of Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya. These are regions that have received low March-April 2017 rains (Figure 2 and 3) and have historically had short ‘long’ seasons – such that they now have low chances of anything but poor outcomes. We can see this in more detail by looking at cumulative rainfall totals for the Eastern (Figure 8) and Central (Figure 9) province of Kenya using the USGS Map Viewer. For Eastern province, seasonal rainfall totals have been extremely low (~140 mm), in line with 2010/11, and far below the typical seasonal total of ~310 mm. Historically, rainfall stops in this region at the end of April, hence we find a very high probability of very low rainfall (Figure 7).
For the densely populated, well observed Central Province of Kenya, we find that seasonal rainfall accumulations are the lowest in the 2001-2016 RFE2 period of record. The observed 257 mm is far below the average of 518 mm, and substantially lower than values in 2010-2011 at this time (330 mm).
In many of these arid land regions current assessments of water hole conditions indicate alert or near-dry conditions – at or near the end of the rainy seasons – it is very likely that conditions will soon get worse in these locations as evaporation takes its toll on surface water stores.
Assessing likely crop growing outcomes for Somalia’s Gu season
We next turn to Somalia’s Gu sorghum production outlook. This analysis is based on 1999-2016 Gu sorghum production for three key growing regions: Bay, Shabelle Dhexe and Shabelle Hoose. Our objective here is not to produce a precise crop production assessment for Somalia Gu production, but rather to highlight that the poor March-April rainfall totals, alone, are likely to produce serious reductions in crop production. Both the available production data and crop water requirement estimates from a simple crop model indicate that May rainfall will be unable to make up for the poor rainfall distribution in April. Both the crop production and CHIRPS rainfall data in Somalia are likely to be noisy. This analysis is intended to imply that a poor harvest is very likely – but not provide a precise quantitative Somali production forecast.
We began by totaling sorghum production from Bay, Shabelle Dhexe and Shabelle Hoose and related these totals to CHIRPS rainfall from March-May, March-April, and May. We found an okay level of correspondence between crop production and March-May and March-April rainfall, with corresponding R2 values of 0.22 and 0.34. The correlation between sorghum production and May rainfall was actually weakly negative (-0.25), which helps explain why using March-April totals, rather than March-May totals, improved our predictive skill. The corresponding correlation between April rainfall and Gu sorghum production was fairly high (0.51). April is the key month for crops, according to the empirical data.
To generate a prediction of Gu production in Southern Somalia we regressed (Figure 10) March-April rains in Bay, Shabelle Dhexe and Shabelle Hoose against observed production anomalies (based on a 1999-2016 baseline). We then extracted the average April 1-20 rainfall total from our enhanced CHIRPS data set (27 mm) and assumed 25 mm for the last dekad of April. This latter value was a compromise between the April 21-25 observed ARC2 outcome (~0 mm) and the optimistic weather forecasts (discussed further in the next section). These assumptions and our regression indicate very low March-April rainfall totals and corresponding very poor level of crop performance (-50%), similar to previous recent drought years.
To further corroborate these results we looked at the relationship between pixel-level Water Requirement Satisfaction Index (WRSI) end-of-season values and onset of rains dates for Bay (Figure 11). The WRSI is an index that shows crop water stress – a value of 100 means no water stress. Note that under normal conditions (with a start in the first or second dekad of April), Bay WRSI values are low (~50). This is a very marginal farming region. In the WRSI model the onset of rains triggers crop growth. It is calculated by identifying areas that receive at least 25 mm of rainfall in a dekad, followed by 20 more mm in the next 20 days. Since our enhanced CHIRPS data indicate average Bay rainfall totals of 12 and 15 mm for the first and second dekad of April, it seems unlikely that the region experienced onset conditions in those dekads. While this outcome was uncommon, we see a large decline in end-of-season WRSI. Our crop simulation results reinforce the critical nature of good early rains. Crops require weeks of decent rainfall to emerge, put on green vegetation and then divert resources to build up grains. Even if southern Somalia receives torrential rain in the next several weeks it seems unlikely that conditions will be conducive to rainfed agriculture.
GEFS Forecasts, Current Climate Conditions and What We Know Now
We next briefly explore the skill of NOAA’s Global Ensemble Forecast System (GEFS) weather forecasts and discuss their current forecasts for the Horn. The issue we focus on here is the likelihood that current optimistic forecasts (Figure 12) for rainfall over Somalia will verify. These forecasts call for more than 80 mm of rain during the upcoming week. Such relief could definitely improve rangeland conditions and prospects for irrigated agriculture. CHG assessments of GEFS forecast skill (Figure 13) show some promising areas of high correlation, but not for the first half of May or the end of April. Thus while these forecast could prove accurate, the should probably be treated cautiously, since historically they have had fairly low correlations with observations over Somalia, and we have yet to see any rainfall totals approaching this magnitude appear across the region. On the other hand, it is certainly plausible that Somalia could see a few weeks of healthy rain before the season comes to a close. Such rains could improve rangeland conditions and water availability, but may not provide much relief to crop areas in Somalia. Based on the data analyzed here, reliable maps of observed rainfall (Figs. 2-4) provide a solid basis for predicting Gu agricultural outcomes, which look bleak for 2017. Central and Eastern Kenya and the Mandera triangle region also appear very likely to large precipitation deficits.
For Kenya, field reports indicate that the area planted with crops is less than 50% of normal in the southeastern lowlands. Central, eastern and coast Kenya has experienced a late onset of rains, only episodic precipitation, and a shortened growing season. At present, maize crops are only just emerging or are very young. Forecasts from the Kenya Met Department are for a normal ending time for the March-May season, suggesting that these crops are unlikely to have time to complete germination and grain filling. The poor March-May trends appear to be part of an ongoing drying trend (Figure 14) associated with warming in the Western Pacific. This trend has helped produce repetitive shocks, reducing household food security and resilience.
As an example, consider a time series of NDVI anomalies for the Coastal Province of Kenya (Figure 15). Since 2009, typical vegetation conditions have been below normal, with large drought events in 2009, 2010/11, 2012, and 2016/17. The current 2016/17 appears to be the worst event.
Ethiopia experiences three climatic seasons, with high rainfall during two major rainy seasons. The country’s economy is largely agrarian, in which pure farming, mixed farming, and livestock herding (pastoralists) are common practice. Consistent increases in population, over-exploitation of natural resources such as natural forest and swampy lands for agriculture, and well as an alarming expansion of urbanization impose untenable burdens on Ethiopia’s social and economic strata. The agricultural sector in particular supports 85% of the population and thus is central to the livelihoods of the rural poor in Ethiopia (Conway et al. 2007; Deressa 2006). Current agricultural and herding practices in the country mainly rely on seasonal rainfall and water available in perennial rivers and dams; only a small fraction of Ethiopian agriculture is irrigated. A significant decline in annual agricultural production has been observed during drought years (Lemi 2005).
It has been documented that food shortage and scarcity of water have led to local and nationwide famines, mainly due to complete or partial failures of short (Belg, February-May) and long (Kiremt, June-Sep) rainy seasons over various parts of Ethiopia (NMSA, 1996). The failure of seasonal rainfall is often caused by either misplacement or weakening of large-scale seasonal rain-producing systems. Stephanie et al. (2016) documented that droughts and famines, such as the socio-economic catastrophe of 2011, call attention to the need for reliable seasonal forecasts for rainfall in Ethiopia to allow for agricultural planning and drought preparations.
Drought-related famine is the result of several factors, where lack of rainfall is only the first (Webb et al. 1992). Famine, in itself, cannot be taken as evidence of drought, while it is also not possible to assess the role of societal conditions without knowledge of the extremeness of rainfall deficits (Viste et al, 2013). To address this quandary, some scholars (Funk et al. 2008; Williams and Funk 2011) have documented rainfall declines in southern and eastern Ethiopia, especially in the spring season.
Dry Belg seasons affect all of Ethiopia, causing the largest relative precipitation deficits in the south, where it is the main rainy season. The southern and southeastern lowlands have been drier than normal in every year from 1998 through 2010, with 2009 having the worst drought incidences. This description considers normal as being the average if rainfall over the years 1981-2010. For instance, Viste et al. (2013) noted that even though both the Belg and Kiremt seasons were dry in both 1984 and 2009, the large-scale patterns reflect the fact that in 1984 the Kiremt was one of the driest seasons, whereas the Belg was particularly dry in 2009. The core of the 2009 drought was located farther south, covering the Horn of Africa and the northern part of East Africa, where the February–May season is the main rainy season.
Belg as the main rainy season over south and southeast Ethiopia
While Kiremt is the main rainy season in many parts of Ethiopia, and Belg rains contribute about two-thirds of the annual rainfall for the southern and southeastern Ethiopia (Figure 1). For the Belg season, precipitation shows strong variability and is less reliable both from a temporal and spatial viewpoint, especially over the northern half of Ethiopia.
The Belg rains start falling over southern Ethiopian in February. During a wet year, rain usually starts around mid-January and continues without prolonged dry spells through February over Belg growing regions as well as Belg rain-benefiting regions of Ethiopia (Figure 2).
In March (Figure 3), Belg rains start to expand north and eastwards and cover the southwest to northeast regions of the Rift Valley. The western and eastern escarpment of the Rift Valley regions also receive rains. Much of the Southern Nations, Nationalities and People’s Region (SNNPR), the central and eastern half of Oromia, and the eastern Amhara regions usually receive more rainfall than other parts of the country.
Belg rains reach their peak in April (Figure 4), particularly over the regions where Belg is the main rainy season as well as secondary rainy season (over south-southeast, central, east and northeast Ethiopia). Aside from those regions, Belg rains extend eastward and covers the Somali region, where Belg is the main rainy season. In many cases, severe droughts happen when April rains fall short of their predicted climatological values.
May is the last month of Belg season (Figure 5), when rain starts to retreat/decline, slowing from eastern and southern sectors of Ethiopia. In contrast, Kiremt seasonal rains further expand west and northwards. Sometimes, Belg and Kiremt seasons merge during a fast transition from El Nino (Belg) to La Nina (Kiremt) or El Nino (Belg) to neutral (Kiremt) episodes.
Homogeneous regimes of Belg season
In Ethiopia, onset and cessation of seasonal rainfall vary considerably within a few kilometers distance due to altitudinal variations as well as orientation of mountain chains and their physical influence on atmospheric flow. In particular, diverse topography and strong seasonal variation over the country indicate the potential physical justifications to delineate rainfall patterns on various spatial scales. Based on existing evidence, rainfall seasonality, and above all by considering localized social and economic practices, we delineated the country into four homogeneous regimes. The characteristic of each homogeneous regime is mainly a reflection of their typical seasonal agro-climatic practices as well as the contribution and benefit of seasonal rainfall that prevails in each regime (Figure 6).
Social and economic description of homogeneous regimes
Purple area (Regime I): This regime receives 40-70% of the total annual rainfall during February, March, April, and May, with rainfall maxima occurring from late March to mid-May), a variety of grain crops (maize, sorghum, teff, barley), root crops (potatoes), pasture, and water storage are commonly practiced over various portions of the region. Most parts of this region are identified as pastoralist.
Green area (Regime II): Belg is the second rainy season and contributes 30-50% to annual rainfall totals. These regions usually receive less rainfall compared to southern Ethiopia despite the fact that they rely on Belg rains to produce short-cycled crops, root crops, land preparation for long-cycle crops, pasture, and water storage.
Blue area (Regime III): This regime receives up to 30% of their annual rainfall totals from Belg rainfall. Belg rains usually fall from March and continue without prolonged dry spells up to October/mid-November. Belg rains especially contribute to land preparation, planting/sowing of long-cycle (18 dekads) crops (e.g., maize, sorghum), and to contribute for extension of long rainy season that usually spans from March to November.
White area (Regime IV): Most parts of these regions receive less than 20% of annual rainfall totals from Belg rainfall because Kiremt is the major rainy season here, although it rains from mid-April/May to September/October.
The 2017 Belg Season up to the 2nd dekad of April
Up to the second dekad of April 2017 (to April 20th), the south eastern part of Ethiopia has received a low percentage of the expected rainfall. See Figure 7.
On a regional level, we examined Regime 1 as shown on Figure 6. At the end of dekad 2 of April 2017, this region overall had received below average rainfall. Figure 8 shows the seasonal rainfall accumulation for the entire Regime 1 region. The black line shows how the overall rainfall for the region for the 2017 season deviates from the long term mean (thick red line). This season has received exceptionally low rainfall. The current total (~80 mm) is only 57% of the long term average (~140 mm). Only 3 out the 36 prior had lower seasonal totals, making this season a 10th percentile event – a one-in-ten-year drought if current conditions persist.
WRSI for grasslands
The low rainfall during the season in Regime 1 translates into low soil moisture availability for plants. Figure 9 shows the WRSI for grasslands at the 2nd dekad of April. By this dekad only a few areas have received enough rainfall for the WRSI model to start. We have been monitoring polygon 1 in southern Ethiopia as shown in Figure 9. This polygon showed signs of stress, based on WRSI values, since the last dekad of March and exhibited no signs of recovery by the 2nd dekad of April.
Looking in more detail into Polygon 1, Figure 10 shows the seasonal cumulative rainfall for every year since 1981 using CHIRPS data. The black line represents the 2017 season, the thick red line shows the long term average, and the two black squares on the axis represent the 33rd and 67th percentiles. The plot shows that the season started as normal, but by the 1st dekad of March rainfall values started to decrease and have not recovered since. The current total (~120 mm) is only 60% of the long term average (~200 mm), and we see that this season’s total to date is also associated with a one-in-ten-year drought, if the current dryness continues.
Figure 11 shows the ensemble of potential outcomes for Polygon 1 based on the observed cumulative rainfall to the 2nd dekad of April, completing the season with historical CHIRPS data for each year. The red line shows the long term average, the black squares show the 33rd and 67th percentiles of the historical data while the red dot is the average of the ensemble. The green triangles represent 1 standard deviation (+) or (-) from the ensemble’s average. The outlook table on Figure 11 shows the probability at the end of the season. This results indicates that there is a 94% probability that the seasonal accumulation for polygon1 is below normal. Looking at the ±1 standard deviation range shown in Figure 11, the likely outcomes range from near normal to extremely dry. The most likely outcome, described by the mean of the ensemble, is a total of about 270 mm, or 77% of the long term average.
Low rainfall during the Belg 2017 season has been observed since the beginning of March. These low values in rainfall have been affecting the availability of water for crops and grasslands primarily in southern and southeastern Ethiopia. This analysis focuses on a specific area in southern Ethiopia where the conditions are getting worse as the season progresses. Even though there is more than a month to the end of the season, there is a 94% probability that the season ends below normal for this region. Substantial (75% of normal) rainfall deficits seem likely, and given the ensemble of historical outcomes, very low seasonal rainfall totals are quite possible.
Conway, D., L. Schipper, M. Yesuf, M. Kassie, A. Persechino, A., B. Kebede (2007). Reducing vulnerability in Ethiopia: addressing the issues of climate change: Integration of results from Phase I. Norwich: Overseas Development Group, University of East Anglia.
Deressa, T. T. (2006). Measuring the economic impact of climate change on Ethiopian agriculture: Ricardian approach. CEEPA Discussion Paper No. 21. Pretoria: University of Pretoria (http://econ.worldbank.org).
Lemi, A. (2005). Rainfall probability and agricultural yield in Ethiopia. Eastern Africa Social Science Research Review, 21(1): 57-96.
NMSA (1996), Climatic and agroclimatic resources of Ethiopia, Natl. Meteorol. Serv. Agency of Ethiopia, Meteorol. Res. Rep. Ser., 1(1), 1–137.
Webb P, Braun Jv, Yohannes Y (1992). Famine in Ethiopia: policy implications of coping failure at national and household levels. Research Reports, vol 92. International Food Policy Research Institute, Washington, D.C.
Funk C, Dettinger MD, Michaelsen JC, Verdin JP, Brown ME, Barlow M, Hoell A (2008). Warming of the Indian Ocean threatens eastern and southern African food security but could be mitigated by agricultural development. PNAS 105:11081–11087
Stephanie Gleixner, Noel Keenlyside, Ellen Viste, Diriba Korecha (2016): The El Niño effect on Ethiopian summer rainfall. Clim Dyn, DOI 10.1007/s00382-016-3421
Viste, E, Korecha, D. and Sorteberg, A. (2013): Recent drought and precipitation tendencies in Ethiopia. Theoretical & Applied Climatology. V. 112, p535-551
A blog about climate science and making a difference.