Posted on | February 23, 2006 | 14 Comments
In keeping with Kevin Vranes’ dictum that “it’s up to the bloggers to highlight the papers that didn’t make Science, Nature, JAMA or NEJM” because those half-wits in the mainstream media won’t, here’s an interesting paper on climate variability and food in Africa.
Leif Christian Stige of the University of Oslo and colleagues used crop production records and satellite data to conclude that reduced food production during El Niño years in Africa is the equivalent of “the nutritional requirements of (approximately) 20 million people”. Yowza. Kinda puts our worries about the New Mexico ski season this year into perspective. The big loser is corn in southern Africa, something documented a dozen years ago by Mark Cane. So the broad story here is already well known. It’s the 20 million number that jumped out at me.
Stige et al. spin a global warming tale to go along with this:
Results suggest reduced African food production if the global climate changes toward more El Niño-like conditions, as most climate models predict.
As I’ve written before, I don’t think the science is there to head very far down the global warming->El Niño path. But regardless of those details, there’s something we clearly do know about drought variability in Africa and elsewhere. Regardless of the imprint left by anthropogenic climate change, we know there is drought variability – wet times and dry times and then wet again and then dry again.
The real damage (see here for a longer discussion of this) happens when people don’t pay attention during the wet times to the fact that it’ll get dry soon enough. I recently read a great book chapter by Mickey Glantz entitled “drought follows the plow” (apparently there’s a whole book) that discusses what happened in the Sahel beginning in the late 1960s. Glantz argues that people moved north into the southern edge of the Sahara during the unusually wet 1950s and ’60s. When the pendulum swung back to dry in 1968, they were screwed.
It’s not unlike people building growing cities in the paths of hurricanes, and then being surprised when the waves wash over them. Climate change may be one variable here, and is clearly worth paying attention to, but changing societal vulnerability dominates the risk.