As millions of people struggle to survive a famine in East Africa, it’s hard not to ask whether anyone saw this disaster coming. Chris Funk, one of the leading researchers of rainfall in the region, would answer yes.
As a climate scientist based at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Funk is part of a team of researchers who studies weather in East Africa, where the lack of rain this year has caused tens of thousands of people to die, most of them children.
He said he thinks of himself as a "drought detective," an analogy that captures the clue-gathering aspect of his work, if not the scale of the destruction he deals with. In more straightforward terms, he collects information about the climate from a variety of sources and uses it to try to identify the causes of droughts and make predictions about where and how droughts will strike in the future.
This current drought, which is said to be the worst in East Africa in 60 years, is actually the second of two droughts to hit the region in the past year, one right after the other. Most years, the region receives rainfall in the fall and the spring, but this year, both rains failed, causing crops to wither and livestock to die. By July 20, when the UN declared a famine in parts of southern Somalia, tens of thousands of people were dead.
Funk, as well as others in his field, saw the potential for trouble in Somalia long before everyone else did. And he has come to the conclusion that back-to-back droughts that have devastated Somalia in the past year are likely part of a larger trend connected to global warming.
As bad as these droughts have been, Funk said droughts in the region are only going to get more frequent and more intense. As the time between them decreases, Funk said, so will the ability of the population to recover, creating what essentially amount to an accelerating cycle of drought and starvation.
There is some debate within the scientific community about whether the frequency of droughts in East Africa is increasing. What is not disputed is that the world -- and the Indian and Pacific Oceans specifically -- is getting warmer. Although some climatologists predict that East Africa will actually get wetter in the long run, they, too, point to climate change as a factor.
All in all, Funk's view is gaining acceptance both in scientific and political circles. Valerie Amos, the coordinator of humanitarian affairs for the United Nations, implied as much during a recent tour of the Somali Regional State when she effectively paraphrased Funk.
“Everything I've heard has said that we used to have drought every 10 years," she said, according to the Telegraph. "Then it became every five years and now it's every two years. And if you don't have the rains at the beginning of the year or towards the end of one year, then you are going to have a problem into the next year."
Rajiv Shah, the administrator of the US Agency for International Development, echoed this concern, The Huffington Post reported. "Absolutely the change in climate has contributed to this problem, without question," Shah said.
The other day, Funk explained how he identified climate change as a culprit for the humanitarian disaster in Somalia. Funk and his team of researchers came to their conclusions about East African weather patterns after studying the weather in the region for about a decade.
"We've noticed some pretty large declines in the spring rain," he said. "That might not have been that important if they were in New Hampshire, but because they were in these incredibly insecure areas of Ethiopia and Kenya and Somalia, we really wanted to find the cause of them."
After gathering and comparing data from recent drought years and normal years, Funk found that the Indian Ocean and western Pacific tended to be warmer and rainier than usual during dry years in East Africa. He also found that the winds blowing over the Indian Ocean were weaker than normal during those years, meaning there was less moisture travelling from the sea to the skies over the Horn of Africa.
So were the warming of the ocean and the weakening of the westward winds related? He and his team hypothesized that the energy created by the increased rainfall over the ocean travelled westward and settled over East Africa, making the land both hotter and drier and increasing the air pressure in the region, essentially blocking the westward winds that would have otherwise carried moisture to the continent. Funk said that statistical analysis and computer simulations supports this model.
The next month, Funk and his team completed a paper investigating what would happen if this long-term warming tendency, as Funk calls it, combined with a La Niña event -- a natural fluctuation in the sea-surface temperatures of the Pacific Ocean that occurs every few years.
"It looked to us that the combination of La Niña and this trend was really bad news for the Horn," he said.
The following month, Funk was at an annual weather meeting in Boulder, Colo., when the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration, forecasted a moderate to strong La Niña for that fall.
Funk happened to be sitting next to Gideon Galu, a Kenyan meteorologist for the Famine Early Warning System Network, or FEWS Network, a coalition of government agencies and scientists (including Funk) that share information about famine predictions in order to best coordinate a response.
Galu had previously worked as a TV weatherman in Kenya, which, he said, was just like the equivalent job in America. "All the jokes on the weather people," he said.
Now he found himself at the forefront of an effort to forecast a weather disaster whose scope and impact few Americans would be able to comprehend. He and Funk began looking at data from past La Niña years, and eventually determined that that there was a 50 percent chance that two droughts would strike in a row -- one in the fall, and another in the spring.
This possibility of back-to-back droughts combined with a variety of other factors -- including the long-term warming trend that Funk and his colleagues had just identified, high food prices in the region and the lingering effects of the droughts that choked East Africa in 2007, 2008 and 2009 -- led them to realize that if back-to-back droughts occurred, it would be catastrophic.
Galu returned to Nairobi, where he worked with climate and food specialists in the FEWS Network to produce a report warning of the possibility of a food crisis.
John Sciccitano, the project manager at FEWS Network, said that initial reactions to the report were good. "The US made some significant allocations of food," he said. "And then, of course, throughout the year there were additional resources allocated."
The problem, he said, was that "the magnitude of the crisis just got so huge that it just outstripped the ability of the international community to respond."
Over the last six months, as the international community has struggled to mitigate the crisis, Funk and his colleagues have examined the role that the long-term warming trend might play in summer weather in East Africa and India. They've also been trying to help the region guard itself against future droughts by looking for ways to improve its overall agricultural production. "There are many areas in East Africa that always receive enough rain to grow crops," Funk said. "Improving yields in these areas could make the rest of the region more secure, even in dry years."
Of course, anyone hoping to resolve the problem of food crises in East African must contend with an elaborate web of interrelated problems, including social factors such as poverty, population growth and political instability, which there is no shortage of in Somalia.
"There may be plenty of grain on the shores of Lake Victoria, but you might not have the money to buy it," Funk said.
Despite all these local challenges, not to mention the warming of the oceans, Funk said he sees reason to be optimistic about the long-term prospects for East Africa. "There's been a lot of positive movement in the internal aid world over the last five or six years," he said. Governments and other organizations have been pouring money into the region, and just as importantly, they've been directing it toward attempts to make long-lasting, structural changes.
But with the global economy in peril, will they be able to continue to invest as they have in the past?
"I don't know," said Funk. "I just don't really know. There's kind of a psychology part of this, which is that when we see a picture of the starving child everybody's heart goes out and we try to respond. But the harder problem is, 'How do we attack the structural problems?' The situation is not getting any better in East Africa. And if we don't try to solve those long-term problems, I'm afraid this kind of thing is going to happen more frequently, not less."