Extreme heatwaves do not occur in Sub-Saharan Africa

By Sharon Tshipa

Though extreme heatwaves have ravaged the African continent, resulting in poor crop harvests, heat stress, and loss of lives; of both people and animals, a scientific study released on Monday by the University of Oxford suggests that heatwaves are not happening.

This is because the study’s findings show that just two heatwaves in sub-Saharan Africa have been listed in the past 120 years in the Emergency Events Database (EM-DAT) – 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.

Contrary to the findings, Luke Harrington, study author and a senior researcher at Oxford’s Environmental Change Institute said Sub-Saharan Africa is a ‘literal hotspot for heatwave activity’, despite the fact that for more than 100 years, official records show no significant heatwave impacts in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Because both real-world observations and climate modelling show sub-Saharan Africa as a hotspot for heatwave activity, Harrington emphasized the urgent need to address this discrepancy to help regional policymakers assess and plan for the future impacts of extreme heat.

Extreme heat events in sub-Saharan Africa are rapidly worsening because of climate change, hence 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.

Responding to the research findings presented, Mohamed Adow, the Director of Power Shift Africa, a Nairobi-based climate and energy think tank, said people in Africa are certainly aware of the growing number of heatwaves on the continent 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 said. Adding that, “to drive action both by African governments and also international leaders, it is vital that African heatwaves are recorded.”

Africa is the canary in the coalmine when it comes to climate change, said Adow. 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, he said.

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 therefore vital to reducing the risks of extreme weather and climate-related events.

 To correct reporting biases illuminated by the study, Friederike Otto, study author and acting director of the Environmental Change Institute saidresearchers, practitioners and funders need to come together. Their study, he noted, identifies a particular need for increased international efforts to analyse and record historic meteorological data, but he said they also know that local research collaborations – for example with hospitals and epidemiologists – are crucial to understanding complex heatwave impacts.

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.

Heatwaves in sub-Saharan Africa are different events 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 heatwaves usually do not last longer than a few weeks. In contrast, in sub-Saharan Africa in 1992, one heatwave lasted more than four months – compounding the impact of one of the worst droughts in recent history. Yet the EM-DAT contains no record of this extreme heat.

Going forward, Sub-Saharan Africa is going to continue being disproportionately affected by worsening heatwaves due to climate change. The current lack of data, if not redressed, will directly hurt the region’s ability to prepare.