Extreme heat events in sub-Saharan Africa are rapidly worsening because of climate change – but the records suggest they are not happening, according to new analysis published today by the University of Oxford, raising concerns over global efforts to combat climate change.
For more than 100 years, the official records show no significant heatwave impacts in sub-Saharan Africa, despite it being a ‘literal hotspot for heatwave activity’, explains Dr Luke Harrington, study author and a senior researcher at Oxford’s Environmental Change Institute.
The analysis identified a near-absence of reported heatwave events over sub-Saharan Africa in disaster databases. This means that the impacts of heatwaves – including heat-related deaths –are not reported, putting the population at further risk. Extreme heatwave events can lead to economic losses, serious health impacts, and deaths in vulnerable communities. Heatwave action plans and early warning systems are invaluable in mitigating the impacts of extreme temperatures. But, without accurate records, such work can be undermined.
‘Both real-world observations and climate modelling show sub-Saharan Africa hotspot for heatwave activity’, says Dr Harrington. ‘But these heatwaves are not being recorded in disaster databases. It’s as if they haven’t happened, but we know they have. There is an urgent need to address this discrepancy to help regional policymakers assess and plan for the future impacts of extreme heat.’
Dr Friederike Otto, study author and acting director of the Environmental Change Institute, says, ‘Sub-Saharan Africa is going to be disproportionately affected by worsening heatwaves due to climate change and the current lack of data is hurting the region’s ability to prepare. Researchers, practitioners and funders need to come together to correct these reporting biases.
‘Our study identifies a need for increased international efforts to analyse and record historic meteorological data, but we also know local research collaborations – for example with hospitals and epidemiologists – are crucial to understanding complex heatwave impacts. Data and information alone will not lead to more resilience, but the absence of data makes it very difficult to prepare for the impacts of extreme heat and this is especially true for one of the world’s most rapidly changing regions.’
Mohamed Adow, Director of Power Shift Africa, a Nairobi-based climate and energy think tank, who was not part of the study, comments, ‘There’s a philosophical saying, ‘If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?’ People in Africa are certainly aware of the growing number of heatwaves but, if they are not being recorded by scientists, it will be much harder for African voices to be heard in the climate debate.
‘Despite being the most impacted continent by the climate crisis, African voices are already marginalised,’ he continues. ‘The lack of scientific data on our suffering only underlines this. It’s vital that African heatwaves are recorded, to drive action both by African governments and also international leaders. Africa is the canary in the coalmine when it comes to climate change. But if we don’t fully know how much the canary is suffering, it’s not good for the canary or for the rest of the world either.’
Today’s study shows just two heatwaves in sub-Saharan Africa have been listed in the last 120 years in the Emergency Events Database (EM-DAT). This is the most comprehensive catalogue of the impacts of extreme weather events globally. By contrast, 83 European heatwaves have been listed in the last 40 years – events which resulted in more than 140,000 deaths and some $12 billion in damages.
Heatwaves in sub-Saharan Africa are different compared to those in Europe, where heat action plans are generally triggered when temperatures are predicted to be high for more than three days and they usually do not last longer than a few weeks. By contrast, in 1992, one heatwave in sub-Saharan Africa lasted more than four months – compounding the impact of one of the worst droughts in recent history. Yet the EM-DAT contains no record.
Multiple factors contribute to differences in heatwave reporting rates. Barriers faced by actors in sub-Saharan Africa include the sparsity of meteorological data, weaker governance frameworks and lack of institutional resources. Meanwhile, European governments have developed systems to report heatwaves in increasing detail – helping to reduce the impacts when such extreme events happen.
The value of identifying and reporting heatwaves and their impacts is clear, according to the report. When reliable data is combined with local expertise the impacts of heatwaves can be predictable, and this foresight can prevent unnecessary deaths. Improving this kind of data is vital to reducing the risks of extreme weather and climate-related events.