Centered in the equatorial tropics, Africa is the world's hottest continent, and millions of people there are facing a growing threat from deadly heat waves. But no one knows how many people have died or been seriously affected in other ways by extreme heat because the impacts have been poorly tracked.
Coordinated reporting is lacking and, at the global level, research and tracking of the impacts of climate change are biased toward developed countries, scientists concluded in a new study published Monday in the journal Nature Climate Change.
Africa is warming faster than the global average, and the lack of data is a roadblock to effective disaster preparation, assessment of vulnerability and planning for climate resilience, said co-author Friederike Otto, acting director of the University of Oxford Environmental Change Institute. She said she noticed the information gap when she reviewed the international disasters database (EM-DAT), for another recent study on extreme weather events in lower income countries.
During the review, Otto said, she thought to herself, "This is strange. There are no heat waves in Africa. This can't be right. Parts of Africa are hotspots, why are they not in these databases? If there are no records of the extreme heat events, and when we completely ignore the impacts, it will be impossible to adapt adequately."
Co-author Luke Harrington, also with the Environmental Change Institute, said observations from weather stations and climate models show intensifying heat waves in Sub-Saharan Africa. "But these heat waves are not being recorded," he said. "It's as if they haven't happened, but we know they have."
The EM-DAT database includes information on all disasters going back to 1900 that killed 10 people or more and that triggered a state of emergency or a call for international assistance.
Temperatures in southern Africa, with a population of 1.1 billion, have increased steadily over the last 70 years. Since 1990, the continent's average temperature has increased at a rate of 0.65 degrees Fahrenheit per decade.
Because the region is so warm already, it doesn't take much for temperatures to reach life-threatening levels. Research shows that heat waves have been increasing since at least 2000. The study shows obstacles faced by the least developed countries in Sub-Saharan Africa as they try to detect heat waves and their impacts, said Izidine Pinto, a climate researcher at the University of Cape Town who was not involved in the study.
He said it's important to improve heat wave detection because "it could help with prevention and management of health hazards related to heatwaves." Better heat wave detection also means more scientific data for climate adaptation planning, he added.
"Heat waves are one of the most deadly impacts of human-caused global warming in terms of lives," Otto said. "It would be really important to highlight that in Africa."
She said the issue falls squarely into the realm of climate justice. One of the key obstacles to compiling useful heat wave data in southern Africa is weak governance in some countries, which can be traced back to a colonial legacy that destroyed and disempowered local cultures.
Developing countries in southern Africa contribute very little to human-caused warming in terms of emissions compared to the wealthy nations of North America, Europe and Asia, but they are among the hardest hit by its impacts. Per capita annual emissions in Sub-Saharan Africa are about 0.849 tons per person, according to the World Bank, compared to nine tons in Germany and 16 tons per capita annually in the United States.
The new study reinforces concerns about the lack of data and the lack of scientific studies in the developing world, said Adelle Thomas, a Bahamas-based climate researcher with Climate Analytics, an international climate impacts think tank.
The information gap has led to a "widening dichotomy between climate impacts that are experienced on the ground and climate impacts that are recorded and then ultimately make it into the scientific literature," she said.
Recent major reports, like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assessments, show "more information for impacts in developed countries than for less-developed countries," leading to "an alarmingly incomplete and inaccurate understanding of how climate impacts are affecting different places around the world," she said.
She added that looking at the impacts of deadly and devastating Hurricane Dorian, that were likely intensified by global warming, illustrated the problem.
"We lack that type of detailed information that is provided for hurricanes that hit the USA," Thomas said. "Notably, we lack the detailed and critical storm surge estimates that are provided in advance of a hurricane. While NOAA provides this information for the U.S., we lack the capacity to produce this information in a timely manner to inform people before a storm hits."
She said people in the Bahamas knew a strong storm was coming, but were left unprepared for the 20-foot storm surge that forced many families out of their homes. The same goes for follow-up reporting of damages. Because of a lack of funding, developing countries are often unable to do detailed post-disaster assessments, so the first hurried reports become the official figures used for the impacts of hurricanes.
"Comprehensive assessment of the total loss and damage that include the actual long-term costs of these storms, including intangible impacts such as loss of sense of place, psychosocial effects and loss of community are rarely, if ever, compiled and published," she said. "This means that we do not have an accurate understanding of the extent of destruction that these storms are causing."
Otto said that researchers need to change the way climate science is done and who is doing it.
"It's wrong that I am the one writing this study," she said. "We talk a lot about capacity building, but there are not that many scientists in the developing world and they often work at universities teaching, with no bandwidth for research," she said.
Another problem, Otto said, is that no climate model has been developed in Africa. The models, which are critical for projecting temperature increases and impacts, are "tuned so they perform best where they are built," she said, for example, the Japanese models do well for Japan. If those global models are running well, they do OK for Africa, but are not optimal."
Successful pilot projects are under way in Ghana and Gambia, where collaborations between local researchers, hospitals and epidemiologists are helping identify the direct health impacts of extreme heat, she said. That information can be combined with data on heat-related power outages and transport disruptions to further improve heatwave identification in sub-Saharan Africa.
In addition, more analysis of historical climate data from extreme heat periods is also needed, Otto wrote in a blog post for Carbon Brief accompanying the release of her new paper. That information combined with other data would help build effective early warning systems to save lives, Otto said.
"There is early warning on droughts, and other kinds of extremes, and they have improved a lot, but not really on heat wave warnings," she added.
People in Africa are certainly aware of the growing number of heatwaves on the continent, said Mohamed Adow, Director of Power Shift Africa, a Nairobi-based climate and energy think tank. "But if they are not being recorded by scientists it will be much harder for African voices to be heard in the climate debate."