Climate change impact hotspots in Africa: making sense of uncertainties

Scientists from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) have identified the likely places where climate change will really hurt.

Overlapping impacts of climate change, such as drought or flooding, declining crop yields or ecosystem damage, are creating hotspots of risk in certain parts of Africa. They are identified in a study by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK), Germany, published in May 2014. The uncertainties surrounding climate change impacts do not necessarily hamper development strategies but can actually inform them, according to the scientists. By weighing up the likelihood and potential severity of impacts we will be in a better position to decide on suitable adaptation measures.

The scientists found three regions to be amongst those most at risk in a couple of decades: parts of Sudan and Ethiopia, the countries surrounding lake Victoria in central Africa, and the very southeast of the continent, including most notably parts of South Africa, Mozambique and Zimbabwe.

They can expect to face severe dry seasons and reduced plant growth. Flooding is projected for the Lake Victoria region. By the end of the century, these hotspots in sub-Saharan Africa are highly likely to face significant and even severe climate change impacts – impacts that will hit territories with big populations and high poverty rates.

Large parts of Africa, including countries such as Nigeria and the tropical forests of the Congo region, are likely to be much less affected, according to the scientists. Climate change is certainly a global challenge, as greenhouse gases from fossil fuels increasingly disturb ecosystems worldwide, but its impacts vary widely over space and time. Most studies have only addressed singular aspects of climate change, but it is the multiple stresses that amplify vulnerability. Hence the importance of this analysis of impact hotspots – a composite approach that addresses not only severity but also the issues of uncertainty.

Likely impacts such as more intense drought periods across the Southern Sahel clearly demand the development of coping strategies for croppers and herders, even if we cannot be certain how intense this change will be. By contrast, there is only moderate risk of increased flooding in East Africa, but its impacts would then be severe – especially in countries like Tanzania that are already subject to serious floods. This illustrates how future probabilities and impacts must be evaluated case by case in order to judge the options for increasing resilience.

More information:

Müller, C., Waha, K., Bondeau, A., Heinke, J. (2014): Hotspots of climate change impacts in sub-Saharan Africa and implications for adaptation and development. Global Change Biology (online) [DOI:10.1111/gcb.12586]

Related article: Piontek, F., Müller, C., Pugh, T.A.M, et al. (2013): Multisectoral climate impacts in a warming world.

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (early online edition) [DOI:10.1073/pnas.1222471110]